by Jared Diamond (Viking Penguin 2005; ISBN 0-670-03337-5)
If you follow this blog, you know that over the past year or so I have read several of Diamond’s books (Guns, Germs, and Steel; Why Is Sex Fun? and now this one. Next up: The Third Chimpanzee). His books are extremely interesting, clearly written, well-documented and in my view, very objective. I would definitely call him an environmentalist, but at the same time, he never demonizes those individuals, industries, or societies) that harm the environment. He explains their behavior as sometimes a result of self-interest, other times a result of ignorance, but always with understanding and humility.
In this book about how environmental disaster leads to societal breakdown, Diamond first examines several cases where ancient societies failed: Easter Island; Mangareva, Pitcairn, and Henderson islands (like Easter Island, all are located in Southeast Polynesia; the Anasazi in the American Southwest; the Maya in Central America; and the Norse settlements in Greenland and in North America. In each case, he considers five sets of factors of societal collapse: (1) damage to the environment, (2) climate change, (3) hostile neighbors, (4) decreased support from friendly neighbors, and (5) societal responses to their situations.
In contrast to the illustrations of failed societies, Diamond also gives examples of societies that succeeded in evading environmental disaster, such as Tokugawa Japan; the highlands of New Guinea; Tikopia (another Pacific Island) and Iceland. He shows how these societies’ responses to potentially devastating scenarios brought them back from the brink of disaster.
In the third part of the book, Diamond turns his attention to modern societies, from very small to very large, which have already collapsed or are in danger of collapse: Rwanda, Haiti (contrasted with its neighbor the Dominican Republic) China, and Australia. He explains how burgeoning populations that the land cannot support end by stripping the land of its available resources to the point that it can no longer sustain them; in their desperation and hunger, they may then react violently, as happened in Rwanda in 1994.
In Part Four, he first explains how people get themselves into these messes (by not anticipating environmental problems before they happen; by failing to perceive the problems that are there; by acting in their own self-interest to the detriment of the interest of the whole society (aka the “tragedy of the commons”); by holding on to traditional values that are inappropriate in new circumstances; and by trying but failing to rectify perceived problems.
In Chapter 15, Diamond discusses several industries with terrible reputations for environmental damage: oil companies, coal mining companies, hardrock mining companies, logging companies, and the seafood industry. He shows how some companies, like Chevron, have done their homework and been successful in minimizing the negative impact of their industry on the environment, whereas other companies have failed to do so. He points out that we can best influence companies from whose products we are separated by a long supply chain (like logging–you have no idea where the wood in your house or furniture comes from) by making our opinions clear to the companies we buy those products from (like Home Depot). This is practical advice for someone who wishes to make things better but does not know where to start.
Finally, Diamond uses his home city of Los Angeles to illustrate the concepts he has introduced earlier.
Much of the book is really depressing. Reading it, you think that surely there is no hope for saving the Earth 9annd humanity with it). As I was reading it, I observed that almost every day, (mostly negative) headlines in my local newspaper (The Washington Post) echoed Diamond’s arguments. For example, headlines over the past week included “Earth’s Groundwater Reserves Dwindling”, June 17; “Refugee Crisis Hits Tipping Point”, June 18; “Dominican Republic Is Poised to Round Up Haitians for Deportation”, June 18, followed by “Dominican Immigration Rules Spur Painful Exodus for Haitians” on June 25; “Pope’s Encyclical on Environment Poses a Dilemma for 2016 GOP Hopefuls, June 19; “A Greener Nation Puts Recyclers, Cities in the Red” (how recycling is becoming a financial burden on both recycling companies and cities that offer it, June 21; and “Rains Finally Give Pakistan Relief from Deadly Heat”, June 25. At the same time, California continues to battle a historic drought which is threatening the Central Valley’s agriculture. Every day, I was reminded of Diamond’s thesis in so many ways.
Somehow, however, Diamond manages to maintain some optimism based on examples where societies’ responses to their situations have succeeded in avoiding catastrophe. He uses the metaphor of “an exponentially accelerating horse race”; we don’t know yet which horse is going to win. He has written this book in an effort to spread the word that we should not lose hope, because we can still turn the situation around. At over 500 pages, it represents a significant investment of time, but it is well worth the time it takes to read.