Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Be A Bookworm: Collapse by Jared Diamond

I picked up Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive last Monday, intending to read a few chapters to get a general flavor of the book before my seminar Thursday. Instead, I found myself completely sucked in, unable to do anything but read, read, and read some more. This has to be said: Jared Diamond is a brilliant man (he speaks 12 languages!) and a damn good writer. And Collapse is a genuinely interesting book. Diamond recreates ancient civilizations with verve, and gives readers a crash course into everything from anthropology to sustainable development to agronomy. Even if you disagree with him, you'll learn a lot from this book.

And boy do I disagree with him. The whole book is built on the premise that environmental degradation and a whole host of other things including climate change, hostile neighbors, and decreasing trading partners can cause societies to collapse. So far, seems ... reasonable. But unfortunately, Diamond seems to get sucked into the vortex that is overpopulation debates.

Early on in the book he declares:

One camp, usually referred to as "environmentalist" or "pro-environment," holds that our current environmental problems are serious and in urgent need of addressing, and that current rates of economic and population growth cannot be sustained. The other camp holds that environmentalists' concerns are exaggerated and unwarranted, and that continued economic and population growth is both possible and desirable. (15)

Whoa there! Did Diamond literally just dispose of all and any pro-growth environmentalists?I mean, really. Did he SERIOUSLY suggest that if you don't think population growth is a problem, you cannot be an environmentalist? Oh, I think he did. If you're not with us, you're against us, indeed.

Diamond continues to drop exciting tidbits of population catastropha within the book. Consider this Diamond gem:

Many centuries ago, immigrants came to a fertile land blessed with apparently inexhaustible natural resources. While the land lacked a few raw materials useful for industry, those materials were readily obtained by overseas trade with poorer lands that happened to have deposits of them. For a time, all the lands prospered, and their populations multiplied.

But the population of the rich land eventually multiplied beyond the numbers that even its abundant resources could support. As its forests were felled and its soiled eroded, its agricultural productivity was no longer sufficient to generate export surpluses, build ships, or even to nourish its own population. Civil war spread, as established political institutions were overthrown by a kaleidoscopically changing succession of local military leaders. The starving populace of the rich land survived by turning to cannibalism. (120)

Diamond then asks if this beautiful fable (based on his telling of the collapse of the Pitcairn, Mangareva, and Henderson Island societies) perhaps portends the future of the United States. Okay, I'm sorry but that's redonculous. Population numbers in the United States are nowhere approaching unsustainability. In fact, when countries are ranked by population density, the US ranks number 180. And given that population growth is at .894%, I don't see population as being a big problem in the United States. And to suggest that the US problem is one of over-population completely detracts from the more important environmental message here: which is that the US has a problem of lifestyle. We don't need fewer PEOPLE, we need fewer SUVs.

When Diamond starts talking about populations who survived because they supported zero-population growth strategies, the book turns creepy. He approvingly talks about how the Tikopians practiced such strategies as infanticide and suicide to avoid population growth.

But the lowest moment of the book certainly has to be when Diamond uses the example of mass-genocide in Rwanda. Diamond argues that extremely high population density was one of the major factors leading to genocide in Rwanda. In order to make this argument, Diamond has to give lesser weight to all the other factors that lead to genocide in Rwanda: namely, ethnic tensions fomented by power-hungry politicians, declines in prices of Rwanda's key cash crops, increasing disparities between the rich and the poor, etc. Diamond of course, has to admit that all these factors played apart, but he insists that population growth played a MAJOR part. But extremely high ethnic tension can lead to mass genocide on its own; whereas Diamond's thesis of high population densities requires many, many other exacerbating factors to lead to mass genocide.

It's unfortunate that Diamond latches so tightly to his theory of Malthusian collapse, because he does have useful ideas to share. In fact, the best and most instructive part of the book (in my opinion) doesn't involve societies collapsing at all, but involves the collaboration of Chevron with the World Wildlife Fund to develop an incredibly ecologically sensitive oil field (yes, oil field) in Papua New Guinea. Give me more of that, Diamond! Let's hear more about how we can create win-win situations like that!

Look, I'm going to be upfront in my biases here. I am, as you can tell if you've read my blog, a pro-growth enviro. Furthermore, I personally think the population growth arguments of environmentalism are bogus for a whole host of reasons that I won't go into in detail here. But many people much smarter than me have reached a general consensus that the world population will stabalize to about nine or ten billion people by 2050. As women are given opportunities and education, they generally produce fewer children. So to me, this discussion of collapsing societies and scary tales of over-population is all a red herring (though I'm sure it does sell a lot of books.)Instead of portending the collapse of the world, I wish Diamond would have used his enormous intelligence to something more useful ... perhaps some more real ideas for where we go from here. But that book probably wouldn't have been a number one bestseller.

Star Rating: 3 out of 5 stars (I totally disagree with the book, but there's still some interesting stuff here.)
Recommended for anyone who wants to read over 500 pages about The End of The World As We Know It.


Joyce said...

Ruchi, this is another great post (I feel like I say that every day!).
In a way, I'm surprised anyone is still adamantly Malthusian. That theory has not stood the test of time very well, and how could Malthus possibly have anticipated the advances in medicine, agriculture, and technology that have made it possible to support the population we now have? Obviously, there are limits to what the planet can carry, but, as you say, it depends so much on how we use resources, and what we do about justice issues, that help determine those limits. One of the justice issues is growth- allowing developing countries to raise their standard of living to something a little closer to ours, with a more sustainlable approach. I recently talked to a man who works with agricultural development in Republic of Congo. That's the approach he is taking with the farmers he works with there: skipping forward from very primative methods to the most sustaianable and well researched methods, to improve the diet of the local people, as well as the income for the farmers. It's possible to do it, and it has to be done.
Sorry to always be the first to comment; it must have something to do with the schedules we keep.

EJ said...

I read Collapse and agreed with most of it. While you say We don't need fewer PEOPLE, we need fewer SUVs, I ask how are you going to get to fewer suvs in NA without fewer people? And is there time to get there before ecological/agricultural collapse? If not, it becomes a moot point.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting book indeed, at least as I remember it to be. Read it years ago. Now perhaps I should read it again.

When it comes to population, I am not a Malthusian, but I do think over-population is a big issue that people have a hard time talking about. There are many cultural issues that prevent us from discussing over-population rationally, e.g., affluent nations criticizing developing countries, family planning, birth control, etc.

It seems that reproduction is a fundamental right for any species. As in nature, a given species always tries to maximize it offspring to lend the chance of its survival. For the most part, it does not get out of control because there are environmental constraints to unlimited growth, i.e. resources, natural preys, etc.

As humans, we don't have natural preys (unless you consider various bacteria and virus). Our growth is only limited by resources. Sure, we can still increase the efficiency of natural resource usage. But at the end there is a limit to efficiency.

I haven't studied enough (or smart enough) to predict whether a natural population stability will be reached without war or famine aiding the process. More often than not, affluent societies tend to produce fewer children. But it is not always the case. "3 is the new 2" is all the rage in the affluent bay area.

Anyway I am rambling. I guess my point is that while citing over-population as a primary cause for environmental destruction does not provide a complete picture, it also should not be cast aside because of our cultural difficulty in discussing this important issue.

ruchi said...

Joyce, I agree with you. It's a little strange how often Malthus is still quoted given that the enormous technological advances made since Malthus. Yes, there are limits in some senses to what the planet can carry, but human beings have an enormous capacity to adapt given the right circumstances.

EJ, well I was being a little flip about the SUVs, but clearly the per capita energy impact of the US is quite high. There's no real reason it needs to be this high. We already have the potential to adapt, ie with electric cars, solar energy, wind energy, etc. Those technologies are already available and developed. So we have a large, what I would call, adaptive capacity. If the price of oil goes up, as most people believe it will, the US will be fine. We will simply shift to other forms of energy.

And I think that's the key point. What Malthusians do not really take into account is our capacity to adapt, and that our capacity adapt differs from society to society given a number of external factors. So in regards to the US, no. I don't believe there is a population problem at all. Why? Because we're not growing at a very fast rate, and the growth that we have we can easily adapt to. That we're choosing not to adapt is a whole another story, but the point is, we can. And eventually we will. I don't believe we're fast approaching any kind of ecological/agricultural collapse in the US that is going to cause a population crash.

Cindy, you bring up some interesting points. Maybe I should do an entire post about population, as I have been reading a lot about it for a presentation I'm giving in class this week!

You're right that population is a political issue, particularly in the United States, where federal foreign aid programs are often forced to talk about abstinence instead of contraception.

In terms of demography, the larger picture is that, yes, the more affluent nations have lower birth rates. Maybe 3 is the new 2 in the Bay Area, but most of my Bay Area friends don't have children at all. The point is, if you look at the society as a whole, the US does not have a burgeoning birth rate. In the EU and Japan, the numbers are similar.

I'm not saying that it's not valid to look at population, of course it's valid. But various case studies have also shown examples of population increase that resulted in qualitatively better use of resources. Increase in population doesn't have to necessitate an increase in resources. I mean isn't that our whole point, those of us doing the personal sustainability thing? We're not saying, okay half the population of America has to die to decrease carbon emissions. What we're saying is, we can all make small changes to achieve a decrease in carbon emissions, ie adaptation. We've been talking a lot about Malthus, so let's move on to Darwin. Human beings have the capacity to adapt or evolve. That's how we managed to go from barely one billion people in 1900 to six and half billion today. And I think even the UN projection of ten billion people will not be a problem as long as we adapt.

Joyce said...

A friend of mine, Scottish, actually, said that many people in Britain and Europe thought the key to population control was not to dictate how many children a couple could have, but to simply have them a bit later in life, thus spreading the generations further apart. So, instead of generations being 20 yrs. apart, they might be 25 years apart. That way, even with advancing longevity, you were less likely to have four generations all alive at the same time. I've thought about that, and it makes some sense to me. If young people, especially women, spend more time in school and starting careers, they start their families later somewhat naturally. We see that here in the U.S.
Have you ever heard this theory?

Anonymous said...

I found this post and the comments interesting.
Ruchi&Joyce- "Malthus regarded ideals of future improvement in the lot of humanity with scepticism, considering that throughout history a segment of every human population seemed relegated to poverty. He explained this phenomenon by pointing out that population growth generally preceded expansion of the population's resources, in particular the primary resource of food." (-From Wikipedia)

There are still people living in poverty.

Malthus published six editions of his treatise from 1798-1834. By 1850, Britain was industrializing using coal (a fossil fuel). Most of the advances in medicine, agriculture and technology since were driven by the use of fossil fuels (coal then oil) and with the decline of fossil fuels{'Peak Oil"}, many of those advances will also eventually disappear (ie: plastic tubing for catheters, etc.{medicine}, chemical fertilizers & pesticides`{agriculture} and computers {technology}).
Here is a link to the wikipedia page on Malthus-

"Peak oil has never been about it 'running out'. But society has become accustomed to growth. The embodied energy in fossil fuels generates this growth (aided and leveraged by human labor and ingenuity, but the vast majority due to the energy capacity of oil to do work). Remember one barrel of oil has the amount of BTUs it would take an average man 12.5 years of 40 hours a week of labor to produce."

And Joyce- Yes, stretching out the generations as well as having 2 or fewer children are ways to limit population growth.

Best - Colleen

ruchi said...

Joyce, I haven't heard the theory but it's an interesting one. And I think it seems to occur fairly naturally here in the US and Western Europe because women go to school, get jobs, and want to start a career before having children. Of a group of my friends 20 people big, only one has a kid, and we're all closing in on thirty (or are already thirty.)

Colleen, you are right that there are people still living in poverty and without access to food, but as Amartya Sen pointed out, famine isn't caused by food shortages. In fact, right now we can't blame low resources of food on poverty. We actually do produce enough food in the world for everyone to be fed. So in fact, the poverty we're seeing today is not really Malthusian.

Malthus was a controversial figure in his day because many saw his population arguments as a means to deny the poor. After all, what can the rich do? This is just how "nature" works. We have limited resources, and when there is a food shortage, some people die.

I'll try and do a broader overview on population arguments and Malthus in the next week or so.

In terms of advances disappearing, I think this is a more salient point. Human beings have adapted to use these natural resources. Do we believe that we will adapt to new resources or do we believe that as these resources are expended, that the population will collapse? The crux then is, what is the adaptive capacity of human beings?

EJ said...

"the US will be fine. We will simply shift to other forms of energy."
Wow thats a strong statement! What forms of energy do you think these will be? I would love to see your numbers/facts on this.

As far as I understand there is no energy as cheap and easily available as oil and we've wasted it. All energy use is fraught with high costs (not just $). Think coal:costs to water and land and air quality, nuclear power: costs for mining and storage, solar:costs for transmission, ethanol:costs in lost food, wood: costs to forests and air quality. There is no free lunch.

Even if a cheap, abundant source of energy was found the scarcity would only move to a new resource. Say clean water, timber, agricultural land, or functioning oceans and wilderness.

ruchi said...

EJ, you're right! It is a strong statement. I will try and give a longer and more detailed answer later. But here's my basic belief, and I believe this very wholeheartedly: the US and Western Europe have the adaptive capacity to deal with the coming crises. The lesser developed countries largely do not. If we see Malthusian crises emerging, they will be in the third world, or to use the more PC term, the South, not in the North. That's why, in my opinion, it's important for us to look at things with balance. If we believe Malthusian type crises are possible *anywhere* the general response is to take care of home. If you look at the economic crisis, that's exactly what's happening. People are looking out for their own well being. Which makes sense, and I don't fault people for doing so.

But as environmentalists, I think it is our duty to give this a balanced view. To say, hang on, is the US really likely to experience a Malthusian drop in population? Or is the US likely to be fine, but that Bangladesh is going to be the one that really suffers, and we're going to need to take steps to ensure that the people of Bangladesh are okay?

Is this making sense?

But yes, I will try to do a piece on energy soon, and give you more facts and figures. Then we can debate those. :)