Book review: Diamond's Collapse
I suppose I’m forcing myself to write a review of Jarad Diamond’s Collapse. Frankly, I was underwhelmed by this book. I read
, make that listened
, to the book on my commute to and from work so it could be that the importance of his work was left unexposed in the audio version. I doubt it.
As an aside, I highly recommend listening to audiobooks. I stay away from philosophy or more technical stuff, but enjoy most non-fiction. Fiction is a breeze in audio format… you could almost listen to books like Harry Potter in fast forward.
Anyway, the thrust of the book Collapse is that societies end due to environmental collapse. The beginning of the book consists of whirlwind tour of some of the world’s past societies that no longer exist. He goes on to discuss modern societies including Rwanda, the island of Hispaniola (Domincan Republic and Haiti) and Australia. Then he takes the ‘lessons’ from all these cases and applies them to our present circumstance.
I enjoyed the history lesson and the extinct culture vignettes. He gives a great tour of the extinct cultures in the South Pacific, Central and South America and New Guinea. He goes in depth on the society of Norse colonizers of Greenland. In this section you pick up some neat facts like the reasons island cultures failed (island size, proximity to trading partners and latitude). This is, without a doubt, the most fun and enlightening parts of the book. If you must read the book do so for this third of it.
Diamond makes some economic claims that are suspect while acknowledging there is a role for the market (both business’ and consumers) in protecting the environment. He says that oil customers are just as liable as the oil companies for the environmental destruction the oil industry causes. He’s right when he says that the businesses do what they do because we demand that they do it. We vote with our pocket books.
Diamond gets this causality backwards though for most of the book. My biggest beef is with his Malthusian prognostications in regards to population sizes and economic growth. I suppose he thinks he’s being tough and clear headed, speaking truth to power, when he claims that undeveloped countries can’t develop to first world standards without destroying the environment, precipitating a collapse of the global society. Technology, he claims, can never keep up with growing populations (i.e. more mouths to feed with a fixed set of resources) nor with growing consumer demands in the developing world (e.g. China). He would condemn most of humanity to low standards of living simply because giving them hope for something better would, to his mind, be unsustainable. Nonsense.
The principle claim of Malthusians is that resource consumption and farm productivity grow at different rates. Consumption is seen to grow exponentially because of the geometric growth (i.e. 2 then 4 then 8 then 16 and so on) of population and/or demand. At the same time, the methods in which to meet those demands are seen to grow linearly. This limitation is usually seen as a result of the scarcity of resources (i.e. there’s only so many acres to plant crops on). Thus, sometime in the future (usually guessed to be 20 years out) demand will outstrip supply and we’ll all go to hell in a hand basket.
By the way, in 1798 Thomas Malthus
, for whom these sorts of theories are named, wrote Essay on the Principle of Population
in which he advises policies that would encourage contraception and abortion especially for poor people.
The principle problem with Malthusian claims is it’s not clear why demand wouldn’t be constrained in the same way supply is. More to the point, linear growth of supply has never materialized in the over 200 years since Malthus. All increasing demand represents is the need for economic growth. Economic growth can happen through more intensive ‘mining’ of the environment or by finding new resources. Given human society has reached to most places in the globe; I don’t think we’re going to find new resources anytime soon. To the Malthusian, then, there is only more intensive mining and exploitation of the resources we already have. Growth happens through ever more exploitation of old resources, but much more growth is the result of making more productive uses out of existing resources. The key to economic growth is productivity and this is what Malthusians like Diamond fail to see.
A Malthusian sees an economic pie that is fixed in size. In reality, by inventing new technologies or coming up with better methods, economic growth results in an ever growing pie.
Of course, Diamond announces that his argument is not Malthusian. Why? Well, he never really tells us. I guess we’re just supposed to take his word for it. He tells us that the Rwanda genocide is Malthus in action. The growth in the number of mouths outstripped the growth in the capacity of the land to produce. My gut says that the situation is much more complex. Specifically, there was a history of ethnic tension and other social factors at play that prevented the Rwandan people from creating the economic growth necessary to meet their own demands. Maybe they were so distracted by hate that they never were able to concentrate on building a sustainable economy.
One of the ‘ah-ha’ moments I had listening to the book was that sustainability is just another aspect of productivity. The more sustainable your economy the more productive you make it. Alas, if I were paying attention, I could have taken that lesson from reading the Environmental Economics blog.
In the end, I will concede that Diamond’s message about the importance of sustainability is vital to the near future of mankind. He got that one right. He’s wrong that high standards of living are a zero-sum or negative-sum game. I believe we can get sustainability not by keeping the developing world down (or worse, reducing the standard of living in the developed world), but by growing the world’s economic pie. The question is not can
we achieve sustainability while improving the lives of all humans. The question is how
we do so.