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Cutting down the last tree

Jared Diamond offers hindsight on past environmental disaster, but he may underestimate the extent to which technology can save us from our own folly

By Oliver Morton   February 2005

Collapse by Jared Diamond.
Allen Lane, £20


In “Guns, Germs and Steel” (1997) Jared Diamond offered a magisterial account of some of the conditions that allowed Europe and Asia to emerge as cradles of earth-spanning civilisations, while Africa, Australasia and the Americas did not. Deploying expertise in many fields, especially biogeography, Diamond argued that civilisation was most easily developed in places—notably the fertile crescent—that happened to be well endowed with domesticable plants and animals. The reader, even if not convinced by all the arguments, came away convinced that the environment had done a great deal more to shape the broad outlines of human history than is generally appreciated—and had certainly mattered a lot more than any racial or moral superiority that modernity’s conquerors of the world might have imagined they possessed. It was conceived and received as a welcome and powerful argument against the uncomfortable, unspoken racist suspicions that can lurk in the back of a liberal mind surveying the current global disposition of power and wealth.

In Collapse, Diamond tackles an inverse problem: instead of asking why some societies have prospered, he asks why some have disappeared. Starting with a series of case studies—the Easter Islanders, the Greenland Norse, the southern Maya and various others—he again builds up a case that is largely environmental. The statue-building Polynesian civilisation of Easter Island, which collapsed shortly before contact with Europeans, was more prone to deforestation—the proximate cause of the collapse—than almost all other Polynesian islands, thanks to a lack of nutrients and rainfall. The Norse colonies in Greenland were hit by a climatic downturn in the 14th and 15th centuries, which played a distinct role in their Mary-Celestial endings.

Diamond is keen to avoid being seen as an environmental determinist. Hostile neighbours and changed behaviour by trading partners can and do often play a role in collapses, as do internal features of the societies at risk. Still, the environment is at the heart of his argument. Diamond is again taking aim at an unspoken thought at the back of our minds: this time, the belief that environmental damage, while a bad thing and all that, is not of central importance. On the contrary, he says again and again, it is. Our children’s environment should be as big a concern to us as their education.

Guns, Germs and Steel gave people good reasons to believe something they wanted to believe anyway, and Collapse is in some ways a similar project, in that most will read it sympathetically. But Diamond has set himself a harder goal this time. For a start, the evidence provided is less strikingly new than that in the previous book. The strongest message, the thing that you would most want to go back and say to the Mayans, the Easter Islanders and all the others is: “Don’t cut down all the trees”—a sentiment with which most readers will already agree. At a deeper level, readers liked Guns, Germs and Steel because they wanted their lurking doubts dismissed, and Diamond obliged. Collapse addresses a subject on which we want our lurking doubts confirmed. We want to think things aren’t too bad. But Diamond wants to eradicate that comforting doubt, which is a harder sell. Environmental degradation and climate change (which are now, on a global scale, easily seen as one and the same thing) have played a key role in the collapse of whole societies, and could do so again. Diamond is not saying that the crises of deforestation, freshwater shortages, soil salinity, fisheries depletion and so on are hopeless; just that the problems we face look as serious as those faced by past societies which went on to collapse.

One obvious criticism is that Diamond’s most striking examples come mostly from small and isolated societies, while his readers live in a very large and interconnected one. This doesn’t offer much consolation, however. The fact that his best examples are seen in isolated societies is surely in part down to the fact that less isolated societies following similar trajectories will often be invaded before they have a chance to reach the end of the curve, a process that will mask or even avert the worst. But our global society is not under threat of invasion—and nor are most of its components. In this respect, the world as a whole is as isolated as Easter Island was. And Easter Island also provides a telling, if not overwhelming, rebuttal to the argument that the interconnectedness of today’s world is a protection. Easter Island appears to have been a much more peaceable and co-operative place than most Polynesian settlements, a happy dispensation that allowed its inhabitants to get on with chopping down trees undistracted by overt strife.

Isolation was part of the problem in most of the collapses, but connectedness has its pathologies too. The physically isolated Greenlanders were so intent on maintaining their cultural connections to the rest of the Norse that they persisted in following Norse practices, such as dairy farming, that are unsuited to Greenland. I write as a non-farmer, but it is clearly a bad sign if your cows reach the end of their winter in the cowshed so close to death that you have to pick them up and carry them to the spring pasture. In fact, it is probably quite a bad sign when you can lift your cows up in the first place (as Diamond notes, by the end, the Greenland herds consisted of the scrawniest domestic cattle ever recorded).

Part of the Norse identity that the Greenlanders prized so highly was their membership of the universal church—another connection that cost them dear. Greenlanders paid tithes to Rome in the form of walrus tusks and polar bear hides, which meant that they had to spend a lot of time on non-nutritional hunting. They devoted a great deal of effort to building churches and cathedrals, the large roofs of which used up scarce timber. They imported bronze bells and stained glass for the churches with exports that could have paid for more practical necessities, such as iron.

Diamond admonishes us against using the gift of hindsight in order to say that all this cattle farming and churchiness was silly. The Greenlanders, who carried on this way for centuries, clearly did not think so—or rather, any who did think so had little chance of doing anything about it. But to develop the environmental foresight that Diamond wants to instil in us, a touch of judgemental hindsight is necessary: we will only come to see our attitudes to the environment as wrong-headed in the way Diamond wants if we are able to see past attitudes as similarly silly. Hindsight is a way of acknowledging the value of foresight; it is a way of saying that had the Greenlanders had the sort of foresight we want to develop in ourselves, then they would have suggested that the bishop of Trondheim hunt his own walruses. Censuring their sincere, if self-destructive, superstitions is only wrong if we ignore the beams in our own lives while mocking the beams holding up their extravagant cathedral roofs.

Members of all the collapsing societies in this book appear to have had beliefs that exacerbated their plight; the most upsetting is the most recent. Diamond devotes a chapter to a Malthusian analysis of the Rwandan genocide as a collapse precipitated in large part by environmental degradation. Much of the evidence comes from studies of the country’s northwest, where all the land that could be cultivated was cultivated, erosion was damaging the soil and the size of individual farms was shrinking under population pressure. Under these forces, some of the population came to believe that mass killings provided a solution, of sorts. As the Belgian economists Jean-Philippe Platteau and Catherine André, whose fieldwork in the area provides the basis for Diamond’s account, put it: “The 1994 events provided a unique opportunity to settle scores, or to reshuffle land properties, even among Hutu villagers… It is not rare, even today, to hear Rwandans argue that a war is necessary to wipe out an excess of population and to bring numbers into line with the available land resources.”

Even before taking on the implications for the future (the chapter on the environmental implications of China’s staggeringly speedy development almost breaks down under the weight of disturbing statistics), there is much in Collapse to sadden the heart. Failing societies do not bring out the best in humanity. There is one aspect of human nature, though, to which the book serves as a well deserved and often delightful paean of praise: ingenious curiosity. The painstaking lengths to which scholars will go to find out how people lived, how they died, what tools they used and so on, provide the reader with constant cause for celebration. Diamond provides us with a context in which we can see, say, the obsessive capacity to work through and classify 6,433 bones from an Easter Island midden—as the zooarchaeologist David Steadman has, in order to discover what sort of birds Easter Island boasted before they all got eaten—for what it is: an enobling part of what it is to be a person. When reading about the member of a gang who, during the collapse of the Chaco Canyon society in the American southwest, broke into a homestead, cooked at least some of the inhabitants in their own pots, ate their flesh and then took a desecrating crap in their hearth, we naturally feel disgust; at the same time, we feel impressed and, at least in my case, comforted by the dedication of the scholars who, centuries later, teased apart the amino acid sequences in the resultant coprolith in order to show that the muscle fibre the desecrator had been dining on was indeed human flesh.

Such ingenuity is not just heartening; it also marks a qualitative difference between the situation today and the collapses Diamond uses for purposes of comparison. We know about them; they did not know about each other. Technical ingenuity has given us the material for both hindsight and foresight. We have a much clearer conception of the environmental problems around us than would have been possible 50 years ago, let alone 500. And our ingenuity also gives us more options, in the form of technological responses. To bring about large-scale changes in our impact on the environment will require significant changes in policy and perhaps in personal attitudes, but technology can help. Farming can be intensified, in various ways, to reduce pressure on forests. Carbon can, at a price, be sequestered and stored. As Diamond points out, drip irrigation can stop the spread of salinisation. The sheep that so damage Australia’s soils could be replaced with kangaroos genetically modified to display a rancher-friendly herd instinct.

Taking a neutral stance, Diamond writes, “Advances in technology just increase our ability to do things, which may be either for better or for worse,” and points out, quite reasonably, that technological solutions beget new technological problems. The two examples of unintended consequences he gives, though, are not fully convincing. In the case of one—the car—he makes no serious attempt to argue that the technology’s obvious downsides outdo its good, or that the environmental impact of the car could not be substantially reduced in short order. In the case of the other—CFCs as coolants—the problem of damage to the ozone layer was identified quite rapidly, has caused, to date, relatively little documented harm, and now appears under control due to the massive reduction in CFC use brought about by the Montreal protocol. If one were to believe that the unintended consequences of technological innovation produced problems significantly less tractable than the problems the technology solved, that would be scary, but there is no evidence that Diamond does believe this. He seems just to want to make sure that we do not expect technology to solve all our problems without our having to think, and to make efforts and sacrifices. He does not want technology to strengthen the little voice in the back of our minds that says we do not have to worry.

But an optimistic reading of his view is that the extent to which we will need to alter our underlying beliefs in order to drive a change in our impact on the environment may decrease. Setting the diminution of environmental impact as a major objective of research and development would require much effort—but compared to getting us to give up our equivalents of the Greenlanders’ cattle and Catholicism, it would be easy.

Diamond wonders what the man who cut down the last tree on Easter Island thought as he did it. My own suspicion is: “If I don’t do this, some other bastard will,” or possibly: “Pity—there’s a good few years’ use in this axe.” But a better question is whether, decades before, some islander looked at the forests and thought: “If this goes on, we won’t have any trees left in my daughters’ time.” And if such a thought was thought, then what? After all, the point is not to think after the deed. It is to think first, and then to act. We are better placed than Diamond acknowledges on the doing side of this process, but his book undoubtedly enriches the thinking side.

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