Jared Diamond offers hindsight on past environmental disaster, but he may underestimate the extent to which technology can save us from our own follyby Oliver Morton / February 20, 2005 / Leave a comment
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,…