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Dissenting review by Gregg Easterbrook 
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Post Dissenting review by Gregg Easterbrook
There Goes the Neighborhood
By GREGG EASTERBROOK
Published: January 30, 2005, Sunday


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COLLAPSE
How Societies Choose
to Fail or Succeed.
By Jared Diamond.
Illustrated. 575 pp. Viking. $29.95.

EIGHT years ago Jared Diamond realized what is, for authors, increasingly a fantasy -- he published a serious, challenging and complex book that became a huge commercial success. ''Guns, Germs, and Steel'' won a Pulitzer Prize, then sold a million copies, astonishing for a 480-page volume of archeological speculation on how the world reached its present ordering of nations. Now he has written a sequel, ''Collapse,'' which asks whether present nations can last. Taken together, ''Guns, Germs, and Steel'' and ''Collapse'' represent one of the most significant projects embarked upon by any intellectual of our generation. They are magnificent books: extraordinary in erudition and originality, compelling in their ability to relate the digitized pandemonium of the present to the hushed agrarian sunrises of the far past. I read both thinking what literature might be like if every author knew so much, wrote so clearly and formed arguments with such care. All of which makes the two books exasperating, because both come to conclusions that are probably wrong.

''Guns'' asked why the West is atop the food chain of nations. Its conclusion, that Western success was a coincidence driven by good luck, has proven extremely influential in academia, as the view is quintessentially postmodern. Now ''Collapse'' posits that the Western way of life is flirting with the sudden ruin that caused past societies like the Anasazi and the Mayans to vanish. Because this view, too, is exactly what postmodernism longs to hear, ''Collapse'' may prove influential as well.

Born in Boston in 1937, Diamond is a professor of geography at the University of California, Los Angeles. Initially he specialized in conservation biology, studying bird diversity in New Guinea; in 1985 he won one of the early MacArthur ''genius grants.'' Gradually he began to wonder why societies of the western Pacific islands never developed the metallurgy, farming techniques or industrial production of Eurasia. Diamond also studied the application of natural-selection theory to physiology, and in 1999 received a National Medal of Science for that work, which is partly reflected in his book ''Why Is Sex Fun?'' (Sex is fun; the book is serious.) Today Diamond often returns to the Pacific rim, especially Australia, where in the outback one may still hear the rustle of distant animal cries just as our forebears heard them in the far past.

''Collapse'' may be read alone, but begins where ''Guns, Germs, and Steel'' ended: essentially the two form a single 1,000-page book. The thesis of the first part is that environmental coincidences are the principal factor in human history. Diamond contends it was chance, not culture or brainpower, that brought industrial power first to Europe; Western civilization has nothing to boast about.

Many arguments in ''Guns'' were dazzling. Diamond showed, for example, that as the last ice age ended, by chance Eurasia held many plants that could be bred for controlled farming. The Americas had few edible plants suitable for cross-breeding, while Africa had poor soil owing to the millions of years since it had been glaciated. Thus large-scale food production began first in the Fertile Crescent, China and Europe. Population in those places rose, and that meant lots of people living close together, which accelerated invention; in other locations the low-population hunter-gatherer lifestyle of antiquity remained in place. ''Guns'' contends the fundamental reason Europe of the middle period could send sailing ships to explore the Americas and Africa, rather than these areas sending sailing ships to explore Europe, is that ancient happenstance involving plants gave Europe a food edge that translated into a head start on technology. Then, the moment European societies forged steel and fashioned guns, they acquired a runaway advantage no hunter-gatherer society could possibly counter.

Also, as the ice age ended, Eurasia was home to large mammals that could be domesticated, while most parts of the globe were not. In early history, animals were power: huge advantages were granted by having cattle for meat and milk, horses and elephants for war. Horses -- snarling devil-monsters to the Inca -- were a reason 169 Spaniards could kill thousands of Incas at the battle of Cajamarca in 1532, for example. ''Rhino-mounted Bantu shock troops could have overthrown the Roman Empire,'' Diamond speculates, but the rhino and other large mammals of Africa defied domestication, leaving that continent at a competitive disadvantage.

Large populations and the fact that Eurasians lived among domesticated animals meant Europe was rife with sicknesses to which the survivors acquired immunity. When Europeans began to explore other lands, their microbes wiped out indigenous populations, easing conquest. Almost all variations in societies, Diamond concludes, are caused not by societies themselves but by ''differences in their environments''; the last 500 years of rising power for the West ''has its ultimate roots in developments between about 11,000 B.C. and A.D. 1,'' the deck always stacked in Europe's favor.

In this respect, ''Guns, Germs, and Steel'' is pure political correctness, and its P.C. quotient was a reason the book won praise. But the book must not be dismissed because it is P.C.: sometimes politically correct is, after all, correct. The flaws of the work are more subtle, and they set the stage for ''Collapse.'' One flaw was that Diamond argued mainly from the archaeological record -- a record that is a haphazard artifact of items that just happened to survive. We know precious little about what was going on in 11,000 B.C., and much of what we think we know is inferential. It may be decades or centuries until we understand human prehistory, if we ever do.

Diamond's analysis discounts culture and human thought as forces in history; culture, especially, is seen as a side effect of environment. The big problem with this view is explaining why China -- which around the year 1000 was significantly ahead of Europe in development, and possessed similar advantages in animals and plants -- fell behind. This happened, Diamond says, because China adopted a single-ruler society that banned change. True, but how did environment or animal husbandry dic-tate this? China's embrace of a change-resistant society was a cultural phenomenon. During the same period China was adopting centrally regimented life, Europe was roiled by the idea of individualism. Individualism proved a potent force, a source of power, invention and motivation. Yet Diamond considers ideas to be nearly irrelevant, compared with microbes and prevailing winds. Supply the right environmental conditions, and inevitably there will be a factory manufacturing jet engines.

Many thinkers have attempted single-explanation theories for history. Such attempts hold innate appeal -- wouldn't it be great if there were a single explanation! -- but have a poor track record. My guess is that despite its conspicuous brilliance, ''Guns, Germs, and Steel'' will eventually be viewed as a drastic oversimplification. Its arguments come perilously close to determinism, and it is hard to believe that the world is as it is because it had to be that way.

Diamond ended his 1997 book by supposing, ''The challenge now is to develop human history as a science.'' That is what ''Collapse'' attempts -- to use history as a science to forecast whether the current world order will fail. To research his new book, Diamond traveled to the scenes of vanished societies like Easter Island, Norse Greenland, the Anasazi, the Mayans. He must have put enormous effort into ''Collapse,'' and his willingness to do so after achieving wealth and literary celebrity -- surely publishers would have taken anything he dashed off -- speaks well of his dedication.

''Collapse'' spends considerable pages contemplating past life on Easter Island, as well as on Pitcairn and Henderson islands, and on Greenland, an island. Deforestation, the book shows, was a greater factor in the breakdown of societies in these places than commonly understood. Because trees take so long to regrow, deforestation has more severe consequences than crop failure, and can trigger disastrous erosion. Centuries ago, the deforestation of Easter Island allowed wind to blow off the island's thin topsoil: ''starvation, a population crash and a descent into cannibalism'' followed, leaving those haunting statues for Europeans to find. Climate change and deforestation that set off soil loss, Diamond shows, were leading causes of the Anasazi and Mayan declines. ''Collapse'' reminds us that like fossil fuels, soil is a resource that took millions of years to accumulate and that humanity now races through: Diamond estimates current global soil loss at 10 to 40 times the rate of soil formation. Deforestation ''was a or the major factor'' in all the collapsed societies he describes, while climate change was a recurring menace.

How much do Diamond's case studies bear on current events? He writes mainly about isolated islands and pretechnology populations. Imagine the conditions when Erik the Red founded his colony on frigid Greenland in 984 -- if something went wrong, the jig was up. As isolated systems, islands are more vulnerable than continents. Most dire warnings about species extinction, for example, are estimates drawn from studies of island ecologies, where a stressed species may have no place to retreat to. ''Collapse'' declares that ''a large fraction'' of the world's species may fall extinct in the next 50 years, which is the kind of conclusion favored by biologists who base their research on islands. But most species don't live on islands. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the leading authority on biodiversity, estimates that about 9 percent of the world's vertebrate species are imperiled. That's plenty bad enough, but does not support the idea that a ''large fraction'' of species are poised to vanish. Like most species, most people do not live on islands, yet ''Collapse'' tries to generalize from environmental failures on isolated islands to environmental threats to society as a whole.

Diamond rightly warns of alarming trends in biodiversity, soil loss, freshwater limits (China is depleting its aquifers at a breakneck rate), overfishing (much of the developing world relies on the oceans for protein) and climate change (there is a strong scientific consensus that future warming could be dangerous). These and other trends may lead to a global crash: ''Our world society is presently on a nonsustainable course.'' The West, especially, is in peril: ''The prosperity that the First World enjoys at present is based on spending down its environmental capital.'' Calamity could come quickly: ''A society's steep decline may begin only a decade or two after the society reaches its peak numbers, wealth and power.''

Because population pressure played a prominent role in the collapses of some past societies, Diamond especially fears population growth. Owing to sheer numbers it is an ''impossibility'' that the developing world will ever reach Western living standards. Some projections suggest the globe's population, now about 6 billion, may peak at about 8.5 billion. To Diamond, this is a nightmare scenario: defenders of population growth ''nonchalantly'' mention ''adding 'only' 2.5 billion more people . . . as if that were acceptable.'' Population growth has made Los Angeles ''less appealing,'' especially owing to traffic: ''I have never met an Angeleno (and very few people anywhere in the world) who personally expressed a desire for increased population.'' About the only nonaboriginal society Diamond has kind words for is pre-Meiji Japan, where population control was strictly enforced. But wait -- pre-Meiji Japan collapsed!

If 2.5 billion more people are not ''acceptable,'' how, exactly, would Diamond prevent their births? He does not say. Nuclear war, plague, a comet strike or coerced mass sterilizations seem the only forces that might stop the human population from rising to its predicted peak. Everyone dislikes traffic jams and other aspects of population density, but people are here and cannot be wished away; the challenge is to manage social pressure and create enough jobs until the population peak arrives. And is it really an ''impossibility'' for developing-world living standards to reach the Western level? A century ago, rationalists would have called global consumption of 78 million barrels per day of petroleum an impossibility, and that's the latest figure.

If trends remain unchanged, the global economy is unsustainable. But the Fallacy of Uninterrupted Trends tells us patterns won't remain unchanged. For instance, deforestation of the United States, rampant in the 19th century, has stopped: forested acreage of the country began rising during the 20th century, and is still rising. Why? Wood is no longer a primary fuel, while high-yield agriculture allowed millions of acres to be retired from farming and returned to trees. Today wood is a primary fuel in the developing world, so deforestation is acute; but if developing nations move on to other energy sources, forest cover will regrow. If the West changes from fossil fuel to green power, its worst resource trend will not continue uninterrupted.

Though Diamond endorses ''cautious optimism,'' ''Collapse'' comes to a wary view of the human prospect. Diamond fears our fate was set in motion in antiquity -- we're living off the soil and petroleum bequeathed by the far past, and unless there are profound changes in behavior, all may crash when legacy commodities run out. Oddly, for someone with a background in evolutionary theory, he seems not to consider society's evolutionary arc. He thinks backward 13,000 years, forward only a decade or two. What might human society be like 13,000 years from now? Above us in the Milky Way are essentially infinite resources and living space. If the phase of fossil-driven technology leads to discoveries that allow Homo sapiens to move into the galaxy, then resources, population pressure and other issues that worry Diamond will be forgotten. Most of the earth may even be returned to primordial stillness, and the whole thing would have happened in the blink of an eye by nature's standards.


Gregg Easterbrook is an editor of The New Republic, a fellow of the Brookings Institution and the author, most recently, of ''The Progress Paradox.''

Published: 01 - 30 - 2005 , Late Edition - Final , Section 7 , Column 2 , Page 10

The one thing of which I am positive is that there is much of which to be negative - Mr. P.

The pain in hell has two sides. The kind you can touch with your hand; the kind you can feel in your heart...Scorsese's "Mean Streets"

I came to kick ass and chew Bubble Gum...and I am all out of Bubble Gum - They Live, Roddy Piper




Thu Jun 16, 2005 8:56 pm
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Post Re: Dissenting review by Gregg Easterbrook
Hey, great review. He summarized several of the issues I have been thinking about while reading and arguing Collapse.

He would be a great person to have a chat with, since we can't get hold of JD.

He is obviously correct in stating that GGS and Collapse will be seen as over-simplified in the future. How could it be otherwise??

On the other hand, The Origin of Species is also seen as vastly over simplified by todays understanding, but that does not detract from its basic truth, nor its importance as the first major publication explaining evolution so that most people could understand it.

I think that GGS has a chance to be a similar, pivotal book on a fundamentally important subject matter.

Quote:
Its arguments come perilously close to determinism, and it is hard to believe that the world is as it is because it had to be that way.


Obviously a disturbing point that appears throughout JD's thesis, but what if it turns out to be true?? The reviewer offers no better explanation, just the fact that he doesn't like this one!

WW




Fri Jun 17, 2005 9:52 am
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Post Re: Dissenting review by Gregg Easterbrook
Quote:
Obviously a disturbing point that appears throughout JD's thesis, but what if it turns out to be true?? The reviewer offers no better explanation, just the fact that he doesn't like this one!


I dont know that I see Diamond's argument as determinism...but unfortunately, by very nature of the thesis and examples used, collapse happened. I see much optimism in Diamond's words. Humans seem to have a propensity to repeat historical mistakes...if this is determinism, then it is self inflicted.

Mr. P.

The one thing of which I am positive is that there is much of which to be negative - Mr. P.

The pain in hell has two sides. The kind you can touch with your hand; the kind you can feel in your heart...Scorsese's "Mean Streets"

I came to kick ass and chew Bubble Gum...and I am all out of Bubble Gum - They Live, Roddy Piper




Fri Jun 17, 2005 9:56 am
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Post Re: Dissenting review by Gregg Easterbrook
More background on Gregg Easterbrook:

Deep-Fried Baloney, Greg Easterbrook Style

www.alternet.org/story/17030/

WW




Fri Jun 17, 2005 9:59 am
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Post Re: Dissenting review by Gregg Easterbrook
Thoughts on the review:

Quote:
Diamond contends it was chance, not culture or brainpower, that brought industrial power first to Europe; Western civilization has nothing to boast about.


Nothing to boast about? Come on guy...put your sensitivity away and take a look at things with a rational eye.

Having not read GGS, I ask those who have...does Diamond say that the ONLY reason Western Civ has prospered is because of chance? It would seem uncharacteristic of him. This may be one of the pieces of the puzzle, but I doubt Diamond would assert this as THE cause.

Luck of COURSE plays a role in anything. And I add that I do not think luck is any kind of real, supernatural force. A certain beneficial confluence of events will certainly help in any given situation.

It was hard work and dedication that helped Team USA win the gold in 1980...but that fluke goal on the best goaltender in the world at the time (Tretiak) was a stroke of luck that built already existing momentum! (What a great moment in history!).

Quote:
In this respect, ''Guns, Germs, and Steel'' is pure political correctness,


Why is it that any words that do not kowtow to Western brilliance and/or might are PC? Come now. Why is an honest and rational look at events and circumstances taken so personally by some people? It is what it is.

Quote:
Diamond's analysis discounts culture and human thought as forces in history; culture, especially, is seen as a side effect of environment.


No, I dont think so. Easterbrook is as guilty of over-simplification as he accuses Diamond of being! And anyway, for a review of Collapse, he sure spends alot of time on GGS. Defending his hurt feelings that poor Western Civ. may not be the Mecca he likes to imagine it is?

Quote:
Most dire warnings about species extinction, for example, are estimates drawn from studies of island ecologies, where a stressed species may have no place to retreat to.



All a continent is, is a large island. With increasing population, pushing species into a corner is not that unfathomable on the continental level. We have the power to destroy vast amounts of land in far quicker amounts of time than smaller, isolated societies did in the past. It is all about scale. Continents and first world societies may be bigger now, but so is our ability to impact on our environment.

I will read more and comment later...but I feel this guy sets up a few strawmen and makes too many over-simplifications of Diamond's works.


Mr. P.

The one thing of which I am positive is that there is much of which to be negative - Mr. P.

The pain in hell has two sides. The kind you can touch with your hand; the kind you can feel in your heart...Scorsese's "Mean Streets"

I came to kick ass and chew Bubble Gum...and I am all out of Bubble Gum - They Live, Roddy Piper




Fri Jun 17, 2005 10:21 am
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Post Re: Dissenting review by Gregg Easterbrook
Mr. P:

Excellent comments, and pretty much right on, IMO.

No, Diamond does NOT say that Eurasia got the big jump on other continents purely by chance. He carefully reasons why and how agriculture flourished their first, and he goes to some lengths to distinguish his theory from environmental determinism. He is quite conscious that the primary criticism of GGS has been by those claiming that his thesis is just a cover for environmental determinism, and he goes to some lengths to try and distinguish his argument from environmental determinism.

At the same time he also clearly documents the good fortune of Eurasia having a significantly larger inventory of native plants and animals that have been the stars of agricultural development, plus the good fortune of having two conjoined continents which are oriented east-west, whereas the rest of us are stuck with north-south, and also the good fortune of having major areas with a very steady, temperate climate that can be relied upon to have few major variations.

Diamond does not see these factors as being "chance", he sees them as the logical, physical explanation of why humans concentrated on those locations, and why they were able to support much greater population density and therefore have the luxury of faster development of technology and of complex cultural practices.

Calling all that "pure chance" is just a cheap shot by a verbal flasher who needed to attract attention to his review, IMO.

YMMV

WW




Fri Jun 17, 2005 2:08 pm


Post Re: Dissenting review by Gregg Easterbrook
Thanks for posting Easterbrook's review. He brings up some interesting points and criticism. But then, it's always easier to criticize than to create something new, isn't it.

No theory will be without flaw. Perhaps part of any criticism of Diamond stems from his readability. Like Desmond Morris, The Naked Ape guy, authors are often not considered serious thinkers if their writing is accessible to the general reading public, the idea being obtuse is profound. Morris, too, was attacked at the time for being too populist, too PC and therefore couldn't possibly be taken very seriously. PC wasn't the terminology back then, but that was the idea.

It's not surprising that Diamond's books sell in the big numbes. He has something important and personal to say, and he says it in an interesting way. So that means Joe Mechanic and Marti Homemaker can read it and understand his theory, and can discuss it with Betsy Beauty Shop Owner and Sam Stockbroker. It isn't just academics and think tank brains mulling this over. It's Everyman.

Esterbrook himself is a good writer. I loved his capsulizations of Diamond's two books. Wish I could do that.

Marti in Mexico




Fri Jun 17, 2005 6:06 pm
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Post Re: Dissenting review by Gregg Easterbrook
Yes, Easterbrook writes well, but I do not agree much with his analysis.

It is true what you say about Diamond's readability. He is a master at relaying difficult topics to the 'lay' person. It is his readability that kept me pluggin along. This is one book where you do not have to find sources to figure out what the heck is going on!

I think more books should be written in simple, everyday language, but I think that those who are strongin technical analysis may not be able to relay info in non-jargon prose, wheras someone like Diamond not only does it, but does it exceptionally well.

Mr. P.

The one thing of which I am positive is that there is much of which to be negative - Mr. P.

The pain in hell has two sides. The kind you can touch with your hand; the kind you can feel in your heart...Scorsese's "Mean Streets"

I came to kick ass and chew Bubble Gum...and I am all out of Bubble Gum - They Live, Roddy Piper




Fri Jun 17, 2005 6:19 pm
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Post Re: Dissenting review by Gregg Easterbrook
misterp:"Why is it that any words that do not kowtow to Western brilliance and/or might are PC?"

--And why is PC on the Right not CALLED PC?




Thu Jun 23, 2005 9:08 pm
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Post Re: Dissenting review by Gregg Easterbrook
You are correct Michael, PC is a two way street. But I accept the 'liberal' PC over the alternative, as it is meant to promote equality and fairness. The right-wing PC is meant to promote greed, fear, anger and division.

I am one who feels that saying what is on your mind is the best course. Couching one's words just breeds misunderstanding.

Mr. P.

The one thing of which I am positive is that there is much of which to be negative - Mr. P.

The pain in hell has two sides. The kind you can touch with your hand; the kind you can feel in your heart...Scorsese's "Mean Streets"

I came to kick ass and chew Bubble Gum...and I am all out of Bubble Gum - They Live, Roddy Piper




Fri Jun 24, 2005 7:40 am
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DennettA Peace to End All Peace by David FromkinThe Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey NiffeneggerThe End of Faith by Sam HarrisEnder's Game by Orson Scott CardThe Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark HaddonValue and Virtue in a Godless Universe by Erik J. WielenbergThe March by E. L DoctorowThe Ethical Brain by Michael GazzanigaFreethinkers: A History of American Secularism by Susan JacobyCollapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared DiamondThe Battle for God by Karen ArmstrongThe Future of Life by Edward O. WilsonWhat is Good? by A. C. GraylingCivilization and Its Enemies by Lee HarrisPale Blue Dot by Carl SaganHow We Believe: Science, Skepticism, and the Search for God by Michael ShermerLooking for Spinoza by Antonio DamasioLies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them by Al FrankenThe Red Queen by Matt RidleyThe Blank Slate by Stephen PinkerUnweaving the Rainbow by Richard DawkinsAtheism: A Reader edited by S.T. JoshiGlobal Brain by Howard BloomThe Lucifer Principle by Howard BloomGuns, Germs and Steel by Jared DiamondThe Demon-Haunted World by Carl SaganBury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee BrownFuture Shock by Alvin Toffler

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