January 05, 2005
Jared Diamond Wrong To Worry About Environmental Collapse

Jared Diamond has a new book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, about past societies that failed due to damage they inflicted on their environments through deforestation, overfarming, and other bad things that humans have done to the environment. He also argues that today we are at risk of a similar fate. Oh humans, you terrible people. Look at how you get your just desserts if you don't do right by the environment. Picture me rolling my eyes. Yet Diamond will be taken seriously in some quarters.

Steve Sailer points out that most societies that have fallen (and there have been many) did not do so as a result of damage they inflicted upon their environment.

Contra Diamond, in reality, most societies down through history died because they were conquered. Generally speaking, not suicide, but homicide was the fate of most extinct societies.

Diamond cites the Maya, but I cite the Aztecs and the Incas. He cites the Anasazi, but I cite the Cherokee, the Sioux, and countless others. He cites the Easter Islanders, but I cite the Maoris, the Tasmanians, the Australian Aborigines, the Chatham Islanders (exterminated by the Maori), and so forth. He cites the Vikings in Greenland, but I cite the Saxons in Britain and the Arabs in Sicily, both conquered by the descendents of the Vikings. We can go on like this all day.

Diamond used to be a terrific independent thinker, as shown in his 1993 book The Third Chimpanzee (indeed, many of my examples come from this book). But he sold out to political correctness, most profitably, in his bestseller Guns, Germs, and Steel.

How many people will pick up on the absurdity of Diamond's latest argument? It is so politically correct that it deserves parody Onion-style. But some suckers will buy it. I predict he'll make a fair amount of money off of a left-leaning segment of our society prone to being excited by uncontextualized trivia about environmental disaster. This sort of thing reinforce their prejudices and so will be welcome. P.T. Barnum was right after all. Those who treat environmentalism as a sort of secular religion will see Diamond's book as a bunch of clever new arguments (and they are in need of such arguments) to use to make new conversions to the faith and to buck up their own belief in their faith. Bjorn Lomborg and other rationalists (notably Julian Simon before him) have been bringing up disquieting rational arguments against some of the nuttier environmentalist claims. The faithful need something like this book.

Speaking of parody, how about WWII? The Germans, by attacking 3 major powers including one that had a few times greater industrial base (albeit one that was terribly polluting at the time), brought on a counter-attack that devastated the environment of Germany. Allied bombings caused an ecological disaster which wrecked the quality of German water and food supplies and left many Germans without adequate shelter. This directly led to the fall of the Third Reich. The Germans should have had more fighter interceptors to protect their environment. The Luftwaffe should have been rebranded as the Aerial Environmental Protection Agency.

Or hey, how about the Carthaginians? By challenging the supremacy of Rome the Carthaginians provoked counter-attacks on the environment around Carthage. How irresponsible. The Carthaginians did not put enough resources into environmental protection (probably because their capitalists were funnelling money off to invest in Egypt or Syria) and eventually the Romes were able to defeat the Carthaginians on the field of battle. This left Carthaginian farm fields completely unprotected from Roman efforts to salt the earth. The result? Carthaginian fields became an unfarmable ecological disaster that the Carthaginians (at least those few still left alive) failed to repair.

There was an alternative for the Carthaginians. They could have pursued a policy of appeasement and let themselves become servants of Rome. Appeasement might have protected their fields. Though the Romans might have forced them to overfarm in order to ship more grain to Rome. That might have allowed the Roman Empire to go on longer before ecological collapse caused by the damage from all those Visigoth horse hooves. In any case, not only did the Carthaginians fail at their responsibility of environmental protection but they also failed to set up (let alone adequately fund) something like the EPA Superfund program to repair their damaged environment. Looked at this way by righteous environmentalists the Carthaginians clearly deserved their fate.

Tyler Cowen makes the correct argument that we have far too many technological and human resources to be unable to deal with any environmental problems.

The key to the "meta-book" is Diamond's claim that part one -- the history of deforestation -- means we should worry more about part two, namely current environmental problems. The meta-book fails.

Yes we should worry about the environment today, but largely because of current data and analysis, not because of past history. If you look at the past, the single overwhelming fact is that all previous environmental problems, at the highest macro level, were overcome. We moved from the squalor of year 1000 to the mixed but impressive successes of 2005, a huge step forward. Environmental problems, however severe, did not prevent this progress. We may not arrive in 3005 with equal ease, but if you are a pessimist you should be concerned with the uniqueness of the contemporary world, not its similarities to the past.

Tyler's argument is ultimately why I am not deeply concerned about the possibility of global warming. Humanity's base of technological capabilities is only going to grow more advanced in the future. What global scale environmental problems we have now are ultimately solvable. For example, should we ever need to stop using fossil fuels then as I've previously argued, nuclear power plants could provide all the power we need for transportation and for a cost that would still allow modern lifestyles. Huge amounts of capital are available to build new coal-fired electric power plants. As CO2 extraction and sequestration technologies advance the costs of adding on CO2 emissions control systems will fall to the point where stopping CO2 emissions will become much cheaper than it would be to do today. Energy shortages are not going to stop us.

How can environmental pollution bring down modern civilization? I just do not see it. Take the apocalyptic warnings of future water shortages as an example. In the industrialized countries we have too many ways to deal with potential future water shortages. We can desalinate. Desalination is more expensive but still affordable. We can stop subsidizing agricultural uses of water. Farmers can adopt practices that use water more efficiently. We can put on more efficient fixtures in showers. We currently mix all waste water together even though some types are much harder to process. So we could gradually build our plumbing and waste water street pipes to separate them out. There are just too many options for handling water more efficiently for more efficient use and reuse that are doable for affordable prices. In the face of warnings about water shortages starting in the year 2003 for the first time in history more than half of the human race now has piped water. As China, and some other Asian countries industrialize hundreds of millions more will get piped water. Nanotech advances in materials and biological engineering will make water filtration cheaper. So water isn't going be what brings us low.

So what should we worry about with regard to the future? I think Tyler hits the right note when he speaks of the uniqueness of modern problems. Future dangers I worry about are nuclear proliferation, germ warfare pathogens, robots some day taking over, self-replicating nanotech that gets out of control, and genetically engineered ruthless semi-humans who lack the necessary empathy and feelings of fairness and altruism to make a workable society. You can read some of those items as ecological. But they would not be the result of overusing resources or emitting pollutants (unless someone wants to take seriously my strategic bombing pollution parody or perhaps categorize robots as pollutants).

Steve Sailer says once upon a time before Diamond made his run for fame and fortune pitching appealing arguments to the politically correct Diamond had much more interesting and insightful things to say about the human condition.

Jared Diamond didn't used to be so boring: Jared Diamond has a new book out called Collapse about societies that have collapsed due to environmental disasters such as deforestation. It's a useful topic, but in the large scheme of things, a minor one, which is why Diamond spends so much time on famously trivial edge-of-the-world cultures like the Vikings in Greenland and the Polynesians on Easter Island. But Diamond is so good at getting publicity that the fact that ecology has little to do with the reason most societies collapse will likely be overlooked. The main reason you don't see many Carthaginians or Aztecs or members of other collapsed civilizations around these days is they got beat in war, as Edmund Creasy's famous 1851 book "Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World" makes clear.

Steve is not the only one to make that argument. As Godless Capitalist has found, a younger and less politically correct Jared Diamond once said provocative things about selective pressures in human populations. But those days are long past.

In a way Diamond has flipped from the position he took in Guns, Germs, & Steel when he now focuses on the worries that come from noticing that humans can alter the environment. One of my favorite historians, William Hardy McNeill wrote a great review of Diamond's GG&S for the NY Times Book Review. McNeill's review costs 4 dollars. It prompted Diamond to write a letter to the New York Review of Books and you can read Diamond's response and McNeill's reply and here is a bit of what McNeill said: (my bold emphasis added).

Secondly, Diamond accuses historians of failing "to explain history's broadest patterns." I answer that some few historians are trying to do so, among them myself, and with more respect for natural history than Diamond has for the conscious level of human history. He wants simple answers to processes far more complex than he has patience to investigate. Brushing aside the autonomous capability of human culture to alter environments profoundly—and also irreversibly—is simply absurd.

So now Diamond is overemphasising the importance of human damage to the environment. Before he was overemphasising the importance of environment as restraints on human achievements and development while simultaneously sidestepping the importance of local environments as selective pressures. But Diamond is responding to his own left-liberal academic environment and allowing himself to be far too constrained in what causes of history he will consider and what conclusions he will allow himself to draw.

Update: back40 examined some essays by Diamond that he wrote as shorter versions of the arguments in his book.

As stated earlier, Diamond isn't convinced by his own analysis and is still perplexed. I am perplexed why we should pay much attention to the prescriptions of someone who is bewildered by the problem he seeks to cure.

Why were Easter Islanders so foolish as to cut down all their trees, when the consequences would have been so obvious to them? This is a key question that nags everyone who wonders about self-inflicted environmental damage. I have often asked myself, "What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it?" Like modern loggers, did he shout "Jobs, not trees!"? Or: "Technology will solve our problems, never fear, we'll find a substitute for wood"? Or: "We need more research, your proposed ban on logging is premature"?

No, they didn't want to abandon their projects in which they had invested so much already and they didn't want to disrupt their group consciousness. They couldn't bear that double loss even though in the end it meant that they would lose everything. It is the self justification noted by Brockner: "when the group is faced with a negative feedback, members will not suggest abandoning the earlier course of action, because this might disrupt the existing unanimity." The individual human susceptibility to the "Concorde fallacy" is amplified by group consciousness.

It isn't the "globalization, international trade, jet planes, and the Internet" that Diamond worries about that are the problem, it is the “Concorde fallacy”, big projects entered into for flimsy reasons and maintained even when it is crystal clear that they are nothing but resource sinks. It's important to grasp this because Diamond's solution is to engage in even "greater integration of parts" so that he can enforce his proposed bans on logging or whatever. Group behaviors are less intelligent than individual behaviors for such problems and the larger the group the more this is true.

As long as we have enough energy we can clean up any industrial or agricultural processes that cause environmental problems. With sufficient wealth and energy any environmental disaster can be avoided. In Western industrialized societies overall environments are getting better, not worse. We already have enough wealth and technology to get plenty of energy from non-fossil fuel sources. So I do not see some coming future collapse of society due to lack of energy. Resource depletion and pollution are poor choices for speculations about disasters in the future. If you want to worry about the future worry about natural dangers such as an asteroid collision or a repeat of the Yellowstone area eruption of 600,000 years ago that spewed out 240 cubic miles of debris. Or if you want to worry about human dangers worry about run-away nanotech lifeforms or a robot take-over. Common forms of pollution or depletion of trees or fish or minerals just aren't going to bring down our civilization.

Update II: Regards my comment about complaining about CBS and the NY Times: Someone emailed me to complain about this comment. In case anyone else didn't get it I was joking! If we can't criticise left-liberal major media without bringing on a civil war then we are doomed anyway. In that case we obviously might as well coordinate our criticisms and make them reach a coordinated peak as a way to choose when the civil war will start. This will give the critics of the Grey Lady a decisive advantage in the outcome of the war. Though of course such an advantage would not be needed since the conservatives dominate the military away.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2005 January 05 11:37 PM  Trends Future Issues


Comments
back40 said at January 6, 2005 12:50 AM:

He has had some essays out for quite a while that contained the core ides of Collapse. Last March I took a whack at them. There have been many scholars - I think better scholars - that have dealt with the issue. For example, Overexploitation of Renewable Resources by Ancient Societies and the Role of Sunk-Cost Effects - Janssen, M. A. and M. Scheffer. 2004 was useful.

Factory said at January 6, 2005 7:43 AM:

"about past societies that failed due to damage they inflicted on their environments through deforestation, overfarming, and other bad things that humans have done to the environment. He also argues that today we are at risk of a similar fate."
"Steve Sailer points out that most societies that have fallen (and there have been many) did not do so as a result of damage they inflicted upon their environment."
The second statement does not refute the first.

"How many people will pick up on the absurdity of Diamond's latest argument?"
Hmm but you are assuming that his argument is absurd.

"But some suckers will buy it. I predict he'll make a fair amount of money off of a left-leaning segment of our society prone to being excited by uncontextualized trivia that reinforce their prejudices. P.T. Barnum was right after all."
Ah, you should rewrite that as 'If you disagree with me you are a predjudiced leftist idiot (and a sucker)'.

"Speaking of parody, ..."
Which example that Diamond made are these parodying? Page numbers would be nice.

"It's a useful topic, but in the large scheme of things, a minor one, which is why Diamond spends so much time on famously trivial edge-of-the-world cultures"
Yes, because we all know that if you study boring and trivial things like say, fruit flies and white mice because they are easy to study, then you can only ever be studying trivial effects.


"In a way Diamond has flipped from the position he took in Guns, Germs, & Steel when he now focuses on the that humans can alter the environment."
The GGS thesis does not contradict the thesis in Conflict*.
Firstly because GGS deals in terms of things that generally stay around regardless of what society happens to be around (Ie rice did not suddenly stop being farmed when the Mongols took China).
Secondly, he specifically cites that humans did improve plants and livestock that the did acquire (and thus change their enviroment), but he also points out that not all plants and livestock are equally amenable to human adoption, and those humans that did have access to these amenable species were alot more successful.

"But Diamond is responding to his own left-liberal academic environment and allowing himself to be far too constrained in what causes of history he will consider and what conclusions he will allow himself to draw."
Oh great, an ad-hom, that goes nicely with all the references to political correctness.

* I haven't, as yet read Conflict

Engineer-Poet said at January 6, 2005 10:36 AM:

Randall, I'm disappointed with you.  I can't see why you are quoting (and implicitly agreeing with) this:

But he sold out to political correctness, most profitably, in his bestseller Guns, Germs, and Steel.
I read GGS cover to cover and I found nothing to support Sailer's accusation (and I'm pretty sensitive to P.C.B.S. and have no patience with it).  I have not read Conflict (I have no intention of doing so, as I'm quite busy enough) but if Diamond's conspicuous omission (in GGS) of intelligence among the factors responsible for the conquest of much of the rest of the world by Europeans (the "intelligence" thesis is badly flawed; doesn't explain China, f'rex) is enough to get Sailer to reflexively condemn him as "politically correct" and you to follow along, I'm forced to discount your opinions henceforth.  It's almost as if he said something contrary to church teaching and you've decided to excommunicate him.  I will have no part of it.

That Randall Parker
"Diamond ignored One True Fact!"
Calls him heretic.

I concur with Factory's argument.  Further, both you and Sailer ignore the likelihood of combination influences:  societies which are weakened by ecological degradation (which reduces their return on investment in agriculture, among other things) are more likely to lose military confrontations,  For a biological model of this, look at the death of evergreen trees from beetle attacks which they cannot fight off due to drought stress.  How does this relate to the current situation?  Example:  saving a few hundred million dollars for mercury controls from coal-fired plants means greater blood-mercury levels in children, small but collectively significant IQ deficits across large populations, a reduced return on investment in education and rippling damage to both military and economic (which supports the military) strength.  That's just one argument for ecology.

michael vassar said at January 6, 2005 10:58 AM:

Engineer-Poet
Aren't you doing to Randall exactly what you accuse him of doing? Discounting an argument because the author displays a single flaw in rationality.

Randall
Self-replicating nanotech that gets out of control is no longer taken seriously by it's initial proponent, Eric Drexler, or by most others whom have considered it. Too complicated. Might happen some day. I see nanotech-enhanced biological organisms as far more likely, but neither risk is among the major dangers of nanotech, most of which are social or relate to robots taking over. With respect to robots taking over, this is in fact a pollution and resource depletion problem. Robots will not have any hostility to us, but may out-compete us for resources, possibly including those we are made of, or kill us with pollution, possibly waste-heat. Even if they don't go out of control, they might out-compete Many humans, as per Marshall Brain's concerns, and Robin Hanson's more sophisticated concerns.

Randall Parker said at January 6, 2005 12:32 PM:

E-P,

Go read William H. McNeill's own criticism of GG&S. I provided a link to it. McNeill has forgotten more history than Diamond will ever know and McNeill saw GG&S as a gross simplification for what causes history. McNeill's Plagues & Peoples provides insights into how diseases caused rises and falls. I loved the book - he didn't try to assign too much importance to disease since he knows so much other kinds of history. His Rise Of The West is a great classic on many factors that led the West to dominance. I loved all the McNeill books I read. Great historian.

Combination influences: But he is making the argument that we who are living in industrialized countries face a similar threat. How ridiculous. He claims, for example, that Australia can sustainably support less than half its current population. Well, why? One has to guess Water? The cost of desal would be a small fraction of Australia's current yearly GDP.

You are missing the thrust of my argument. If he wants to write a curious tour of those rare past civilizations that failed due to environmental damage and present it as a tour of those exceptions then I'd say, okay, historical curiosity. But he is trying to present this book as proving a much larger point than it actually does. Western civilization is obviously not going to collapse due to pollution or due to farm fields that lose too much top soil. Bjorn Lomborg is right. The dangers to the environment are greatly exaggerated.

Just as with GG&S there is what Tyler Cowen calls a "meta-book" in this book. Just as with GG&S the meta-book is predictable politically correct leftist nonsense that is obviously wrong.

I refuse to grant him more respect than he deserves. He's competent at his own speciality. But when he tries for larger politically correct points then I think he deserves all the derision I heap at him.

Randall Parker said at January 6, 2005 1:01 PM:

Michael,

E-P is not just dismissing a single argument due to one claimed flaw. He's saying he is going to discount what I say in the future period.

E-P,

Regards IQ: Imagine that physicists decided they were going to make models of atoms that ignored the strong nuclear force. Suppose they just said they were going to pay attention to electro-magnetism, gravity, and the weak nuclear force. Wouldn't you think they were being quacks? Shouldn't such physicsts deserve to be called on it and heavily criticised for it? IQ is an incredibly powerful variable for explaining social science phenomena. Correlation calculations between it and other phenomena produce large positive and negative correlation numbers. Social scientists who ignore it are acting like quacks.

As for China and IQ: Look, IQ creates potential. It does not guarantee the potential will be reached in the form of industrialized civilization and advancing technology. China, finally freed from a lot of bad ideological software, is now rapidly developing toward its population's IQ potential. China has passed India by and continues to develop more rapidly. That is not going to happen in Africa. That is not going to happen in Latin America. China has an IQ advantage just like Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong.

IQ is predictive. It is so powerfully predictive that IQ correlated with per capita GDP in purchasing power parity terms produced an r of .73 for 81 nations with IQ data available. That is a powerful result for social science. To ignore it is like ignoring some force or phenomenon in physics.

As for ignoring one true fact: The fact that Western Civilization isn't at risk of collapse from pollution is a rather important fact, don't you think? Doesn't it undermine the whole thrust of what Tyler refers to as Diamond's "meta-book"? Or do you dispute this fact? Do you think the sky is falling and, gosh, Paul Ehrlich might turn out to be right after having been glaringly wrong for decades running? Having read your thoughts on many subjects I'm not expecting you E-P to take the position that environmental decay is a major threat that has any real probability of causing the collapse of industrial societies in the West.

Randall Parker said at January 6, 2005 1:38 PM:

Factory,

You missed the point of my parodies: If human-caused environmental problems are such a large factor in human history they'd be expected to explain a lot more of history than they actually do explain. I was showing that lots of other things bring down civilizations. In fact, environmental problems caused by human action are the exceptions. Climate trends have certainly caused many civilization collapses. But those were trends were not the result of human action.

Human interaction with other humans, whether in war or palace intrigue or in promotion of religious beliefs or concepts of organizing societies, was and remains is the biggest cause of the rise and fall of civilizations.

Factory said at January 6, 2005 4:28 PM:

"You missed the point of my parodies: If human-caused environmental problems are such a large factor in human history they'd be expected to explain a lot more of history than they actually do explain."
Erm, and where does Diamond make this claim? All I have seen is that Diamond is claiming that it can be the main factor that leads to the destruction of a society, not that it is _always_ the main cause.

Randall Parker said at January 6, 2005 4:46 PM:

Factory,

Says Diamond:

The Easter Islanders' isolation probably also explains why their collapse, more, perhaps, than the collapse of any other pre-industrial society, haunts readers and visitors today. The parallels between Easter Island and the modern world are chillingly obvious. Thanks to globalization, international trade, jet planes, and the Internet, all countries on Earth today share resources and affect each other, just as did Easter's eleven clans. Polynesian Easter Island was as isolated in the Pacific Ocean as the Earth is today in space. When the Easter Islanders got into difficulties, there was nowhere to which they could flee, or to which they could turn for help; nor shall we modern Earthlings have recourse elsewhere if our troubles increase. Those are the reasons why people see the collapse of Easter Island society as a metaphor, a worst-case scenario, for what may lie ahead of us in our own future.

Chillingly obvious? What may lie ahead for us in our own future? What, are we supposed to believe that there is a snowball's chance in hell that modern industrial societies are going to collapse ala Easter Island due to resource overuse? I say poppycock. Nonsense. Not going to happen.

Energy is the only resource that constrains what we can do. We can afford to shift from fossil fuels entirely over to nuclear without that big an impact on our living standards. So I do not see energy as a limiting factor.

The fact is that our damage to the environment mostly hurts other species and not so much our own species. In industrialized societies that is especially the case and a larger fraction of the world is becoming industrialized. Industrialized societies can not be brought down by environmental pollution or resource exhaustion. We have too much technology and capital for that to happen. Diamond is wrong and obviously so.

p said at January 6, 2005 8:38 PM:

Rhetoric aside, Randall is RIGHT on the money with his criticisms. Diamond's limited and I must say trivial examples between environmental decay and civilization are serious short-comings to his assertions. The civilizations selected can at best be an excellent example of cherry-picking. Cherry-picking is not considered one of the preferred sampling techniques employed by scientists (I do believe that it is one of the preferred tools of ideologues). The relationship Diamond is alleging should thus be considered secondary or maybe even a special case facto in explaining the decline of civilizations.

Jesse M. said at January 6, 2005 11:29 PM:

As long as we have enough energy we can clean up any industrial or agricultural processes that cause environmental problems. With sufficient wealth and energy any environmental disaster can be avoided. In Western industrialized societies overall environments are getting better, not worse. We already have enough wealth and technology to get plenty of energy from non-fossil fuel sources. So I do not see some coming future collapse of society due to lack of energy. Resource depletion and pollution are poor choices for speculations about disasters in the future. If you want to worry about the future worry about natural dangers such as an asteroid collision or a repeat of the Yellowstone area eruption of 600,000 years ago that spewed out 240 cubic miles of debris. Or if you want to worry about human dangers worry about run-away nanotech lifeforms or a robot take-over. Common forms of pollution or depletion of trees or fish or minerals just aren't going to bring down our civilization.

I agree that a collapse of civilization due to environmental problems is very unlikely, but just because human civilization will survive doesn't mean we should be sanguine about what we are doing to the environment--the fact remains that human activities have greatly increased the extinction rate, and this study suggests global warming could drive 18-35% of species to extinction by 2050 (the methodology of the study is explained by Carl Zimmer here and here), which would represent a huge loss to science and our understanding of the evolutionary past, as well as creating an environmentally impoverished world for countless future generations. That's an awful lot of responsibility on our hands. I certainly don't believe we should roll back technology, but we should aggressively pursue alternatives to fossil fuel, the most practical one for the near-term future being nuclear power.

Rob Sperry said at January 6, 2005 11:43 PM:

"Energy is the only resource"

Sorry going to have to go with Julian Simon on this one, "Intelegence" not energy is the limitied resource. Energy is actualy pretty cheap.

Steve Sailer said at January 7, 2005 3:36 AM:

Jared Diamond says: "The Easter Islanders' isolation probably also explains why their collapse, more, perhaps, than the collapse of any other pre-industrial society, haunts readers and visitors today."

That may be true, but think about what it says about the triviality of contemporary preoccupations! Previous generations were haunted by the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, while we are obsessed with the single most isolated land mass on Earth. That's intellectually pathetic.

TangoMan said at January 7, 2005 8:57 AM:

Jesse,

I wish you had picked some other study to highlight for the one you cited is suffers from methodological and logical problems (despite Carl's analysis.)

The study, published last January in Nature,is entitled Extinction risk from climate change by Thomas et al. The article is chock full of conditionals and the authors reference a range of climate scenarios in their models. Further the model that they use for this study is built upon a compositional fallacy. They state:

The approach has been validated by successfully predicting distributions of invading species when they arrive in new continents and by predicting distributional changes in response to glacial climate changes; (emphasis added)

I think that the model falls apart logically when it is extended beyond what is known. The model was validated so that we knew that parts of the whole X have characteristics A, B, C and then extended to the conclusion that therefore the whole X must have characteristics A, B, C.

Quite frankly, that study is an embarassment.

DigitalDjigit said at January 8, 2005 7:42 AM:

But the reason he cherry picks societies is that they were in conditions where environment was the limiting factor with their current technology. The Roman Empire being on a huge landmass with a pretty low population density could not have affected environmental collapse quickly enough compared to the pace at which other factors operated. Thus it was conquered.

Now that all frontiers of Earth have been settled there is nowhere to go for cheap resources. With the population densities and resource use through industrialization growing the environment might become such a limiting factor.

I am not convinced by the argument that industrialization betters the environment. You are just saying that because you live in America which lost most of its manufacturing base to China. So while your environment improved, China is suffering that brown cloud, cancer-causing water pollution and so on.

It is foolish to completely discount the environment, you wouldn't throw out trash in your living room and leave it there, so why wouldn't the same principle apply to our planet?

The whole "intelligence is the limiting factor" is a lie. At the limit what you have is producing an infinite amount of stuff out of zero resources. Intelligence and capital are important, but not the whole story, just something we made up due to our easy access to resources.

p said at January 8, 2005 8:35 AM:

DigitalDjigit:

The reason he cheery picks is that he can only make his point by doing so. It's just that simple. The logical and scientific method to reason is to include all relevant cells. In this case, Civ Decline/Env OK, Civ Decline/Env Bad Civ Grow / Env Ok, Civ Grow/Env Bad. Any thing less is not logical or scientific and should be presented as an attempt to reason.

Your second point about limiting factors is interesting. One must be careful in not insisting that at the limit (ie., Infinite demand and finite resources) is the end state for all systems. It is not. It is a real state for some systems and a theoretical limit for all states.

Therefore, we must go back to the 2 x 2 to understand to understand the dynamics of what drives civilizations to collapse of growth. Diamond's logic blinds us from understanding the natural phenomena we have before us.

Randall Parker said at January 8, 2005 10:56 AM:

DigitalDjigit,

First off, China's worsening environmental pollution is not preventing its continued economic growth.

Second, as China becomes more affluent it will dedicate more resources toward pollution emissions reductions. It will follow the same path that the more industrialized countries have followed. As people get more basic needs satisfied they will change their priorities and demand cleaner environments. It is this inevitable shift in priorities that makes nightmare civilizational collapse scenarios due to pollution to be extremely unlikely.

Third, "discount the environment"? The logic of some of Diamond's defenders appears to be that since pollution is bad we must embrace any argument against pollution no matter how specious. But the more rational arguments for environmental clean-up are not strengthened by embrace of absurd "chicken little" arguments.

Fly said at January 8, 2005 10:58 AM:

“You are just saying that because you live in America which lost most of its manufacturing base to China. So while your environment improved, China is suffering that brown cloud, cancer-causing water pollution and so on.”

Even as some manufacturing has moved overseas, total US manufacturing continues to grow. The US environment has improved because manufacturing today is much cleaner than in prior decades and the US has the wealth to clean up problems as they occur.

The worst pollution problems occur in nations that are too poor to build modern manufacturing plants and lack the wealth to fix environmental problems.

My guess is that the Chinese pollution problem is improving as inefficient, polluting state industries are closing down and more modern manufacturing plants are being built. Modern power plants (even those burning coal) should be more efficient and less polluting. China would do better if it were more free and less corrupt.

Randall Parker said at January 8, 2005 11:00 AM:

Rob,

I'm aware of Julian Simon's line. But I think the point about energy is more edifying. There is no single element in the periodic chart which is going to run out and stop us. We can substitute. Food? We can use energy to shine light on crops, purify irrigation water, or chemically synthesize nutrients. Structures? We can mine with energy. We can create synthetic hydrocarbons for plastics and eventually for nanotubes. If we run out of iron or aluminum we can build with many other types of materials.

Also, energy can be used for environmental clean-up. Pump polluted water through filters or run a high temperature kiln to break down toxic organic compounds. The planet getting too hot? Use energy to launch materials that create reflective shielding around part of the planet. Or use energy to launch factories into space to build up there instead. Or use energy to grab asteroids and create structures in L5.

Bob said at January 8, 2005 6:43 PM:

I agree that McNeill has over 100X the credibility that Diamond has on historical matters. Diamond seems to be playing to the converted on this one, which may lead to much less widespread acceptance of his ideas. Diamond seems to be doing a fine job of marginalizing himself.

A rather dull witted leftist acquaintance recently tried to suggest an analogy between the Easter Island collapse and a potential collapse of western civilization. He clearly had no historical concept of Easter Island or its people, so it was difficult to take any of his points seriously. I wondered why he'd pulled this example out of his @ss, but now it seems this idea has been making the rounds of the fringe left.

Bob Badour said at January 8, 2005 9:01 PM:

(A different Bob.)

The "The world is isolated" argument bears much closer scrutiny by thinking people. The world does not have a single isolated micro-climate and modern civilization has the means to take resources from any part of the world and deliver them to any other part.

If one wants to look at the dire peril of resource depleted environments today, one need only look at Japan with its high population, almost no natural resources, and a somewhat different outcome than Easter Island.

Mr. Econotarian said at January 9, 2005 9:53 AM:

At the end of the day, if large CO2 and methane amounts in the atmosphere will lead to tremendous life-threatening climate change, we might end up extinct. I don't see how one can refute that statement (the key being "might"). Climate change may come along and be life-threatening faster than we can develop or deploy technologies to ameliorate its effects.

At this point, I'd bet on humanity surviving, mostly becuase I don't think climate change will actually be as bad as models show now, but will be more in line with our experience this century. Even then, not everone on the planet will be equally at risk, some people may benefit. But ignoring the risk is ill-advised.

Regarding Guns, Germs, and Steel, I think the book dramatically underestimates the power of Government Anti-Diversionary Policies (GADP) in the evolution of Western culture from a strong local power to a global power. (GADP includes things like property rights, rule of law, low corruption, etc.) It is possible that environmental pre-destination caused Europe to discover GADP first (and there is plenty of evidence to link deployment of GADPs with lattitude, for instance). But once it was discovered, global domination followed rapidly.

About IQ, evidence is that developed countries experience IQ rises. Since 1938, US IQ scores have increased by about 6 points a decade. I don't think this is a genetic effect. There is genetic variation in IQ, but once you achieve developed status, IQ will rise in your society, probably due to nutrition, health care, and intellectual stimulation. Studies that correlate IQ with GDP miss out on the fact that high GDP raises IQ. I think it helps to be smart, but even "dumb people" can do incredible things in a functioning free-market with property rights assured.

p said at January 9, 2005 10:08 AM:

Mr. Econotarian:

"Might" is the primary rhetorical device of the science fiction novelist. They create entire new and often fun to imagine worlds. Scientists on the other hand must looks at buidling theories that connect variables from the real world into relationships that can be tested.

The reason that the Global Warming debate rages is that most see a upward trend in some of the data (earth-based temperatures. The debate starts when people place it into conext (read begin to formulate a theory). Is the trend outside of historical levels? What is causing the trend? Is the trend caused by humans? Can the trend be altered by humanity?

The theory level is where we have a problem. We really do not have a comprehensive theory of global warming. We just have a bunch of facts that people connect together in rhetorical exercises. The global warming models are the best theories (really simulations) we have but they only capture just some of the facts and cannot be backward tested.

Randall Parker said at January 9, 2005 12:51 PM:

Mr. Econotarian,

I agree with what P said. "Might" can be said about extremely improbable outcomes. Meanwhile there are far more probable potential problems to worry about. If people want to worry about catastrophic outcomes then my advice is to worry about things that might really kill some of us. For example, the odds of a bioengineered plague strike me as much higher than the odds of civilization collapsing due to global warming. Or worry about asteroids. One could show up tomorrow undetected and kill a large portion of the human race. Even thought the odds of that are low I still think the odds of that are higher than a civilizational collapse due to global warming. Why? Because we have too many things we can do in response. Read on:

Suppose global warming is real. First of all, climate changes naturally and has varied a great deal during recorded human history. A few centuries ago the Thames River was freezing over in winter for example. Hard to imagine now. Yet human societies have grown and our technology has grown. Humans are intelligent and hence more adaptable.

Next, because of continuing technological advances we are far better able today to protect ourselves from environmental changes than we were in the past. Our technologies for protecting ourselves from the environment will only become more numerous and sophisticated. We will have better building insulation, more efficient air conditioners, cheap wearable environmental protection suits, and many other wonders.

Furthermore, our ability to produce energy while generating less emissions will advance. We are and will continue to develop better and cheaper ways to capture and sequester CO2 from smokestacks. Pebble Bed Modular Reactors may make nuclear power cheaper. Cheaper solar photovoltaic cells will surely be developed using thin films and nanotubes.

Finally, we will develop powerful means to reverse warming should it start to look like a real problem. We will develop the means with which to take CO2 out of the atmosphere. We will develop the capability to put massive shield satellites in orbit to deflect as much sunlight as we would need to deflect to cool the Earth a bit.

DigitalDjigit said at January 9, 2005 5:02 PM:

The thing I do not understand is why we have to create these problems in the first place, just to end up solving them later. Your logic strikes me as the "we live in the best of possible worlds" line that was made fun of in Voltaire's "Candide". "Just leave it alone and it will take care of itself eventually".

Randall Parker said at January 9, 2005 5:13 PM:

DigitalDjigit,

These problems that we created came with benefits. If we had never allowed factories during the industrial revolution to belch smoke then the industrial revolution would have been delayed for decades, perhaps even centuries. Rising affluence that the polluting industrial processes made possible enabled more people to become scientists and engineers who then could develop solutions to the problems created by industries.

I am arguing that we should not invest more in solving a problem than the costs caused by a problem. Plus, I am arguing against solving an unproven problem. Also, I am arguing if the costs of a problem come later then we are best off waiting till technological advances make it cheaper to solve a problem.

Randall Parker said at January 9, 2005 5:26 PM:

DigitalDjigit,

And in fact the benefits we have gained from industry are so huge that average life expectancy has lengthened by decades, quality of life is higher, and the costs have been very small in comparison.

I'm arguing that we should spend more on research to solve potential long-term problems and delay implementing solutions until either the solutions are much cheaper or it becomes too costly to delay implementation of solutions.

Bob Badour said at January 10, 2005 9:40 PM:

And then there is always the question of whether we have actually done anything to warm the earth. For all we really know, the earth might have been just as warm or even warmer without the industrial revolution.

Upstate New York is hotter in the summertime today than it was 100 years ago because agricultural efficiency has improved to the point where much of the previously worked land has reverted to forest. This is just a return to the even earlier time before european settlement converted the tree canopy to farmed fields.

The truth of the matter is: We just do not have enough facts yet to make an informed decision regarding global-scale climatic interventions. Since the people calling for these interventions are largely the same people who called for the disastrous large-scale social experiments of the last century, I distrust them.

I suggest the situation warrants caution.

back40 said at January 10, 2005 9:47 PM:

This post was stolen by the same fellow as the last one we talked about though at a different blog.

http://b-books.blogspot.com/2005/01/collapse-by-jared-diamond.html

He may well be stealing all your posts since he has a dozen blogs. I only see the ones where you link CT.

Robin Gaskell said at February 25, 2005 6:51 PM:

Weird! destruction of the environment is nothing to do with a writer's assumed political leanings. Diamond is not being Politically Correct: he is simply being correct.
When I studied agriculture years ago,in Australia, the appearance of salt in the water table was just beginning to be noticed; now we have large parts of the West Australian wheat belt under a thin skim of yellow water, which is saltier than the ocean. No significant action has yet been taken to tackle the problem caused by salt in the rock stata beneath Australia: so much for technology solving the problem. Australia, one of the most recent continents to be settled in the European tradition, is alredy suffering badly through the introduction of modern agriculture: there is no decision on a national Water Management policy; we continue to cut down trees regardless of long-term consequences; and there is no calculation of whether farming is sustainable, or not. When a farmer cannot earn enough from the soil to repay his loan, he bankrupted, sent away, and a new sucker found to try to drag more out of the land.
Our continent is flat and old, and the surface soils, apart from those produced by the line of mountains down the east coast, have lower nutrient content than the soils of all other developed nations. The honeymoon period of exploitation for Australian agriculture is over: the initial soil fertility found by the early settlers a hundred and fifty years ago - when they ventured inland from the coast - is no longer there, and heavy fertiliser applications are needed to maintain crop growth. This application of chemicals does not include all of the trace elements and micro-nutrients that are removed in the produce: what is being put back does not cover what is being taken out; the crops are losing their flavour, and the people who eat them are suffering from severe mineral deficiencies.
And, in their ignorance people like Tyler Cowan and the 'Future Pundit' can ridicule Jared Diamond with cheap put-offs, like , "But some suckers will buy it."
Where is the next frontier? There isn't one; people have spread all over the planet's surface. One obvious solution is to cut down more trees in Africa and South America. I take it that Tyler and the 'Pundit' are ignorant of oxygen, and of the reason for humans having lungs.
Robin Gaskell

Alex Berenyi said at March 1, 2005 8:27 PM:

"We will develop the capability to put massive shield satellites in orbit to deflect as much sunlight as we would need to deflect to cool the Earth a bit." "Pebble Bed Modular Reactors may make nuclear power cheaper. Cheaper solar photovoltaic cells will surely be developed using thin films and nanotubes."

Sounds so much like kids in a candy store who don't know or even think to ask where the candy came from, think it will last forever, think they can live on it to the exclusion of other food... in other words, naive.

The biosphere took 4.2 billion years to get to where it is, including containing us (and we are wonderful, but not omnicient or omnipotent). We look around at the candy (stuff to mine, trees to cut down, places to dump the waste) and don't think where it came from. We can't live without ants, earthworms and bees, to name a few species. We can't live without the hydrological cycle, the carbon cycle. We may be able to live without the polar ice caps but coast dwellers cannot. We may be able to live without the Gulf Stream, but how happy would the british and Irish be without it?

The biosphere is a very subtle (infinitly subtle) system, and our industry knows nothing of the subtlety, and our science not much more. We're beginners, kids in the candy store. The crude kinds of after-the-fact fixes quoted above will be pathetically inadequate to correct the complex system of the biosphere knocked out of equilibrium into an unpredictable and uncontrollable instability. It *will* regain stability without our help anyway, but we don't have the luxury of 10 million years to wait; the biosphere does.

The sniping against Diamond sounds like so many 14-year-old boys, and the Buck Rogers-style fixes for any environmental damage we may do sounds like Popular Mechanics visions of the future.

Finally, what about the majority of humanity that today has barely enough food, not enough clean water, barely enough shelter: what to offer them when their land is flooded with a rising sea -- hey, how about a high tech jet-ski to have fun in all that water? what to offer them when their crops are burnt by drought -- ahh, but they don't matter anyway, they don't have any money.

Boys, boys, boys, tsk tsk.

Mike A. said at March 3, 2005 2:57 PM:

My main problem with Diamond is that he is a reductionist--i.e., one who makes sweeping generalizations about somplex systems from descriptions of component subsystems/elements. Worse, he often does a poor job of describing the component elements. For example, in his book Collapse he claims that the use of rafts and absence of canoes on Mangareva first documented in 1797 is somehow indicative of deforestation on the island. Here is a much more accurate and realistic description of why the Mangarevans preferred canoes, abstracted from the definitive work on Mangarevan history by the noted ethnologist Sir Peter Buck, a Maori, from his 1938 book Vikings of the Pacific:

"When Captain Beechey visited Mangareva in 1824, he saw rafts only, and the lack of canoes has led to various theories about the degradation of Mangarevan culture. Many European writers have assumed that the Mangarevans made their long sea voyages on rafts, although the native history and Laval's manuscript show clearly that the Mangarevans made voyages outside the group on double canoes, like other Polynesians. Within the group itself, however, they used rafts both for transport and for fishing. They were quite convenient and were easier to make. The double canoes were owned only by the chiefs who could command the timber from their estates and could employ skilled craftsmen. In the early wars between the local islands, the warriors were transported on double canoes. The pregnant daughters of chiefs also went on double canoes to the different islands to undergo the ceremony of having a lock of hair cut on each of the temples of the god Tu. The last double canoes were destroyed early in the nineteenth century in war between Mataira and Te Ma-teoa, the grandfather of the last king, Te Ma-puteoa. Te Ma-teoa acquired supreme power and, as the construction of a double canoe was looked upon as a preliminary to war, he forbade the building of any new canoe. Hence the use of canoes for war or voyages ceased, and inter-island transport and fishing were conducted on rafts. The building of rafts is probably responsible for the large number of stone axes found on Mangareva. The cutting edges of the axes are evenly bevelled from both sides in contrast to the adzes bevelled from one side only, and they form a unique local feature. Years afterwards, the influx of people from Tahiti and the Tuamotu led to the building of fishing canoes on the Tahitian model and to the abandonment of rafts."
see
http://leahi.kcc.hawaii.edu/org/pvs/rapanui/mangareva2.html

So his thesis that deforestation on Mangareva prevented the Mangarevans from building canoes and conducting long-distance trading is apparently wrong, according to Buck. As Buck describes, canoes, owned only by chiefs, were destroyed by war in the early 1800's, and the king forbade any new construction after that since it was seen as a prelude to war. It is also interesting to note that the historic record indicates that when Father Laval arrived in Mangareva in 1834 there was a healthy population of about 9,000 on the island (which is only 1/3 the size of Easter Island). Ten years later after his attempt to completely remake the traditional culture to conform to a Western, Christian model there were only a few hundred left. That is the true story of population implosion on Mangareva, completely unrelated to environmental destruction by the native islanders.

Sir Peter Buck, who lived in the South Pacific all his life, was a careful and meticulous documentalist of Polynesian oral histories, compiled in the 1920's and 30's, given to him freely by fellow Polynesians since he gained their trust. He documents no evidence of historic cannibalism on Mangareva (if there was, if was likely due to traditional Polynesian cultural reasons such as remembering the dead and intimidating and/or stealing the strength of enemies, not starvation. How could Mangareva support 9,000 people when Father Laval arrived if they were all starving?). His writings on Mangareva are also based on records compiles Father Laval compiled in the 19th century. This is in contrast with Diamond's suppositions based on stories told by "modern islanders." For more on Sir Peter Buck's life see:
http://www.nzedge.com/heroes/buck.html

I also take issue with the fact that Diamond uses the Polynesians to make sweeping comparisons with and conclusions about contemporary environmental issues. They were a traditional, fairly primitive culture that were noted for having respect for nature and living within their means, making the most out of scarce resources on small islands. The population of all of Polynesia was remarkably stable for hundreds of years and did not start to significantly grow until the 1950's due to urbanization and influx of foreigners. The conclusions he makes about their ancient history are almost entirely speculative and conjectural, based on scant hard evidence.

The only definitive conclusions that one can make from Diamond's book with regard to Easter, Henderson and Pitcairn islands are as follows:

--For Easter Island, the lesson learned is that when living on a small island with scarce resources, you should not devote an inordinate amount of those resources to excessive religiosity.
--For Henderson and Pitcairn islands, the lesson learned is that some small island have resources that are too meager and environments that are too inhospitable to sustain human populations, even for Polynesians.

Uris said at March 26, 2005 1:41 PM:

Joseph Tainter's book explains that societies collapse due the economic problem of diminishing returns. I see that argument working for the fall of the Soviet Union as well as many ancient societies. Most societies (i.e. Native American population, Tsamania, Papal New Guinea) are destroyed by larger, more powerful societies conquering them. Human beings have a history of genocide where the conquering population eliminating and/or assimilates the native population. The environment is a small factor in this.

For example, the natives of Hispanol were taller, healthier than the Europeans that decimated them. They lived long healthy lives until Colombus's men worked them to death in search of non-existing gold. The story is repeated with many cultures being destroyed by European conquerors. In GGS, Diamond admits this is the way language and culture is spread.

Randall Parker said at March 27, 2005 9:52 AM:

Uris,

The vast bulk of the natives died because they lacked resistance to the Eurasian and African diseases. The Spanish explorers came from a society that had absorbed many diseases over centuries and their population, like the populations of much of Europe, Asia, and Africa, had been selected for to have resistance to many diseases that the New Worlders had never been exposed to. So the New Worlders dropped like flies.

Read William H. McNeill's Plagues & Peoples for an introduction to the role of disease in world history. He covers the New World experience. The Spaniards were able to conquer in large part because the epidemics were triggered by their arrival.

Greg M said at May 3, 2005 8:12 AM:

Diamond was recently on ABC radio in Australia discussing his views, the transcript and audio are here: http://www.abc.net.au/pm/content/2005/s1314531.htm

Daniel Harris said at July 13, 2005 10:28 PM:

While your comments are right, I think you are a bit quick to reject Jared's hypothesis (I think you're both right). While any number of civilisations have been destroyed in warfare, it's also true that the landscape in much of the ancient world is now significantly different to what it used to be.

Much of North Africa used to be lush cropping land and forest, with 600 ports supplying grain to the Roman Empire. Those same areas are now desert (think WW2 desert campaign through Libya). Not just any old desert, but barren areas of wasteland, possibly irreversibly changed. Similarly, much of Central and Western Asia at one time was forest or fertile land, areas that are now barren expanses of bare rock, clay and gravel. These areas could probably be measured in the millions of hectares.

I think Jared Diamond selected these three particular civilisations because they were remote and so their demise occurred without outside interference. Being a "conservative", (not really, probably more of a freemarket libertarian), who is interested in green issues, I think you're being a little harsh on Jared,

anyhoo

Randall Parker said at July 13, 2005 11:54 PM:

Daniel Harris,

Yes, the cedars in Lebanon were cut down. But some civilizations fell in the Middle East when weather patterns changed and rains stopped falling. Just because some area is barren that does not mean that humans caused it. Some areas were barren before humans came along. Some became barren due to shifting weather.

But this is all besides the point. Western Civilization is not going to fall due to environmental devastation. Farmlands in many parts of the United States are returning to forest because less farm land is needed to grow crops. Biotechnological advances will push this trend even further along.

Diamond is trying to use scare tactics to get people interested in taking better care of the environment. But the industrialized countries are not the big threats to the environment. It is the countries with much larger and more rapidly growing and poorer populations where the biggest environmental damage takes place today.

I remember back in the 1970s when environmental groups argued for population growth restriction. But then along came all that politically correct leftist nonsense about how population growth restriction measures were racist because such measures would fall hardest on non-whites since non-whites were reproducing more rapidly. Since then most environmental groups have become more than worthless on population control. Tropical rain forests fall and humans encroach further into natural areas in India and other countries and the reason is more people.

I want more environmental protection. I want cleaner air. But I don't think Diamond is helping any by his misrepresentations.

M Lyons said at July 26, 2005 8:06 AM:

Unfortunately Randall, your point about the Middle east actually destroys your arguement;

"Yes, the cedars in Lebanon were cut down. But some civilizations fell in the Middle East when weather patterns changed and rains stopped falling. Just because some area is barren that does not mean that humans caused it. Some areas were barren before humans came along. Some became barren due to shifting weather."

Yes Lebanon did cut all their cedars down. And did their negligence lead to greater economic prosperity down the road? I would say not. IT would have been more prudent to use their forest in a sustainable way. Furthermore, with regards to the Sahara(which sits beside the Middle East), much of the devastation occurs because there is NO HUMAN economic policy to the management of the land, that would lead to greater economic prosperity. Those who live in Niger and Chad use their meagre land for agriculture, which in 5 years becomes desert. Why? because they do not create a sustainable policy for long term use. Yes you are correct to atribute most NEW environmetal problems to poorer countries, but it is an even poorer response to say that Rich countries need not interfere.
Indeed our(Rich nations) strength lies in education. It would be a logical course of action to help create long term policies for these nations under severe environmental(the two noted above) problems, so that in all due honesty, they don't remain poor and DIE poor.
For all those who attack Diamnd on his use of easter island; it's a starting point to look at the environmental factors of other nations. He is using Easter Island as an informational starting point, whcih we can use as set of guidelines for other nations.

Michael Balter said at July 26, 2005 9:01 AM:

I thought you might be interested in seeing my review of the PBS program in July 8 Science. You can access a text version on my Web site at:

http://www.michaelbalter.com/NeolithicNews/07_25_2005|Review_of_Guns_Germs_and_Steel.php


all best, Michael Balter, Science


www.michaelbalter.com

Randall Parker said at July 26, 2005 9:46 AM:

M Lyons,

The United States has more trees standing than it had 100 years ago because less land is in farm production and forests are managed to maximize long term yield.

There is snowball's chance in hell that our civilization will collapse due to environmental reasons.

Yes, what is happening in some Third World countries is tragic. Yes, they are damaging their local environments. This is nothing new.

Diamond's scaremongering is like chicken little. The sky is not falling. His exaggeration does not help rally people to the cause of preventing environmental damage in poorer countries with large populations.

Wim said at October 13, 2005 2:48 AM:

Mr Parker,

The world consists of more than just the US, the more serious environmental problems are global. What the heck if you have more trees than 100 yrs ago? (And how bio-diverse are these forests anyway) The tropical forests in Asia, Africa and Latin America are being devastated and the global warming is not limited to the US. Wake up!!

The lesson to be learned is collapse is not inevitable provided we do something serious about these problems, and do now. That's all. So why be so agressively against Diamond's ideas? Maybe you are afraid you may have to make some sacrifices in order to save the world?

Randall Parker said at October 13, 2005 8:38 AM:

Wim,

He exaggerates in order to build up support for measures to protect the environment. Yes, there are big environmental problems in Africa, Indonesia, India, Brazil and other poor regions near the equator. Yes, it is very unfortunate. Yes, more measures should be taken in these places to protect the environment (e.g. like having fewer babies). But the Western countries are not going to collapse and world civilization is not going to collapse due to environmental damage.

molitor said at November 3, 2005 9:56 AM:


To quote your 1/9/2005 post: "We will develop the capability to put massive shield satellites in orbit to deflect as much sunlight as we would need to deflect to cool the Earth a bit."

Right. And it will only cost ten trillion dollars. Sounds like a very expensive solution!

walt said at December 16, 2005 5:42 AM:

so...this goes back to initial review...p.s. i am no scholar so forgive me for informality and/or syntax...

even though we are destroying our resources and overpopulating at rates many times higher than that of previous generations, we can just keep going and technology will solve our problems?? while technology solves problems and does help, almost all technology also causes problems that are usually unforeseen...so we should just hope that none of these problems are prolific?...and furthermore, if we have the resources to solve big problems that face the world today, why don't we solve them...because, like the Norse, we are resistent to change...as estimates have it, if we populated two or more central U.S. states, (those affected by high winds) with a relatively substantial number of windmills, we could switch entirely to green power with no change in energy consumption...but yet, we dont do it...why not? because coal is easier, we dont have to set up the windmills, were spending too much money on irrelevant war...i think your vision is too singular and too trusting of our current power...

nuclear power?? where do you propose we store all these nuclear fuel rods that remain dangerously radioactive for long periods after they're useful to us...

and robots taking over? I-Robot? Sci-Fi? this feels a little childish i believe...

anyways...im definitely no scholar and this was written in a rush...just stating my opinion...to conclude, i essentially believe that humankind is too bias, proud, and irreversibly wasteful to change before something happens that is horribly wrong...although i do disagree with a world collapse relevant to extinction, i can definitely see a collapse that would dramatically reduce mortality and the standard of living for large people groups of the world...

:D said at December 28, 2005 1:13 AM:

Something interesting to note this that Diamond already tries to refute your suggestions starting on page 515. But what surprised me when reading the book was that at the start, he proposed a "five-point" framework of which only one point is human-inflicted environmental damage and one other was natural environmental change (which we can do nothing about). The others were related to your (Randall's) conquest by external societies idea. In the first few chapters, Diamond mentions all of these factors but starting somewhere in the middle, he begins to ignore them and focuses only on the environment, so that by the end, I had a nagging feeling as though the book had deviated from its supposed aims and premises. If not for this article, I would not have noticed or pinpointed this subtle change.

Jim_G said at March 11, 2006 12:55 AM:

I'm under the impression that a lot of folks commenting in this discussions are largely unfamiliar with the actual research and arguements presented in Collapse. Take this one example:

> . . . the industrialized countries are not the big threats to the environment. It is the countries with much
>larger and more rapidly growing and poorer populations where the biggest environmental damage takes place
>today. . . I don't think Diamond is helping any by his misrepresentations.

One of Diamond's major points is that third-world countries attempting to live up to first-world standards is a tremendous cause for concern, and are doing a lot of damage. He agrees with you.

Or take this statement:

>If one wants to look at the dire peril of resource depleted environments today, one need only look at
>Japan with its high population, almost no natural resources, and a somewhat different outcome than Easter
>Island.

Which is exactly what Diamond does. He has a lengthy examination of Japan's history of enviromental policies, and considers Japan a reason to be "cautiously optomistic" about our future. Again, he agrees with your point, and fleshed it out in great detail.

My overall impression that that many folks are arguing not with Diamond at all, but rather their set of assumptions about what he might have said. Collapse is meticulously researched and reasoned. I don't expect people to be able to respond to a 500+ page book with an equally developed set of arguements, but his work deserves careful consideration.

I find it particularly interesting that some of his most significant arguements haven't been brought up. Two good ones are:

1) The list of countries which are experiencing the most environmental stress (Rwanda, Haiti, Bangladesh, etc) is almost identical to the list of counties that are experiencing the most political distress and unrest. He isn't saying that environmental problems always cause upheaval and strife, but that we have a tendency to make cultural interpretations of political events that might be heavily influenced by environmental factors.
2) Many of the civilizations he examines had extremely large populations and on the surface appeared to be doing very well shortly before they fell apart.

Randall Parker said at March 11, 2006 10:48 AM:

Jim_G,

Meticulously researched? Well, a new paper undermines the argument about why Easter Island collapsed. Turns out the first settlers on Easter Island didn't show up until 1200 and their civilization collapsed due a combination of European diseases and rats.

The researchers also dispute the claim that Easter Island's human inhabitants were responsible for their own demise. Instead, they think the culprits may have been Europeans, who brought disease and took islanders away as slaves, and rats, which quickly multiplied after arriving with the first Polynesian settlers.

"The collapse was really a function of European disease being introduced," Lipo said. "The story that's been told about these populations going crazy and creating their own demise may just be simply an artifact of [Christian] missionaries telling stories."

At a scientific meeting last year, Hunt presented evidence that the island's rat population spiked to 20 million from the years 1200 to 1300. Rats had no predators on the island other than humans and they would have made quick work of the island's palm seeds. After the trees were gone, the island's rat population dropped off to a mere one million.

Lipo thinks the story of Easter Island's civilization being responsible for its own demise might better reflect the psychological baggage of our own society than the archeological evidence.

Writers like Diamond are more a reflection of the psychological baggage of modern intellectuals than of the scale of the real problems we face.

Yeago said at May 7, 2007 10:50 AM:

"The Germans should have had more fighter interceptors to protect their environment. The Luftwaffe should have been rebranded as the Aerial Environmental Protection Agency."

This quote, and the other about the Carthaginians, shows a very minimal grasp of Diamond's text. Very early in the book he sets out a framework by which he categorizes collapsed societies. His categories include--among others--being destroyed by hostile enemies and keeping a bad environmental policy. He specifically says that his interest in focus and writing this book is those that fall into the latter. Nowhere does he imply that this is the only means by which societies collapse.

Certainly there is much in the book to be debated without using sensationalist arguments. I believe much of what you seem to have missed was covered in the introduction.

David said at November 18, 2009 1:36 AM:

Dear Randall

Your logic is impeccable; your main assumptions flawed. You state that we do not need to worry about environmental degradation, because as long as we have enough money and energy we can fix it. Can. Why aren't we?

Where is our increasing energy and wealth coming from? From the use of natural resources. In the case of energy, largely non-renewable resources. Yes, energy production is higher than it's ever been. Sounds rather like the people who laughed at Hubbert predicting that US oil production would peak in the early 70's. They laughed at him, said, "Remember that old guy who said we'd run out in 1970? Look, US oil production has never been higher". That was the year they peaked.
Where is our "wealth" coming from? From the destruction of natural resources. Is it a good swap? No. You can get money from chopping a tree down, but you can't use money to get a tree back - not if there aren't any left, or if the growing conditions aren't there any more. You are making the same mistake as a person who draws increasing amounts of principal from their investments and says "Hey, I'm rich. No need to worry about the money running out". Draw enough principal, and you don't have interest.

The economic system is built on the ecological system. Destroy the ecological system, and the economy follows.

P.S. The Easter Island rats? Proves Diamond right. The hazards of introduced species and all that...

Your arguments regarding societies that collapsed by war: most of those were within the last 200 hundred years, at the hands of a single culture. A relatively young culture (we are most definitely not the same as our Dark Ages forebears). Why haven't we collapsed yet? We're too big and strong. Can we collapse? Yes. Will we collapse. Yes. Will it be bad? It'll be catastrophic. Those who are highest have the furthest to fall, and we all know what happens to someone who falls from a great height.

markogts said at January 12, 2011 10:24 AM:

After the recent floodings in Queensland, anybody here who still wants to question Diamond's book?

kumarasami said at August 7, 2012 6:39 PM:

If a scholar presents a simple idea that could 'explain everything' in a lucid language it will definitely make great impact on people, especially on young ones. That is what Prof Jared Diamond is exactly doing. I stumped upon a blog written by a student in Bangalore. Definitely he has intuition and imagination and good reading. But he is carried too far by the ideas of Prof Jared Diamond.

See http://www.ajithanmotherearth.blogspot.in/2012/07/what-would-make-gandhis-salad-bowl.html

I can see students who have these kind of excitements in these days. This is his effect, positively and negatively. It makes them apolitical and ignorant to human issues. They just explain everything in geological terms and feel contented that they are more scientific.

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