Bill Totten's Weblog

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Meditations on Collapse

A review of Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (Viking Books, 2004)

by Richard Heinberg

MuseLetter #154 (February 2005)

Civilizations collapse. That is the rule that we learn from history, and it is a rule whose implications deserve careful thought given the fact that our own civilization - despite its global extent and unsurpassed technological prowess - is busily severing its own ecological underpinnings. Thus we should pay close attention when Jared Diamond, one of the world's most celebrated and honored science writers, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel, devotes his newest and already best-selling book to the subject of how and why whole societies sometimes lose their way and descend into chaos.

Diamond uses his considerable popular nonfiction prose-writing skills - carefully honed in the crafting of scores of articles for Natural History, Discover, Nature, and Geo - to trace the process of collapse in several ancient societies (including the Easter Islanders, the Maya, the Anasazi, and the Greenland Norse colony) and show parallels with trends in several modern nations (Rwanda, Haiti, and Australia).

One theme quickly emerges: the environment plays a crucial role in each instance. Resource depletion, habitat destruction, and population pressure combine in different ways in different circumstances; but when their mutually reinforcing impacts become critical, societies are sometimes challenged beyond their ability to respond and consequently disintegrate.

The ancient Maya practiced intensive slash-and-burn horticulture, growing mostly corn. Their population increased dramatically, peaking in the eighth century CE, but this resulted in the over-cutting of forests; meanwhile their fragile soils were becoming depleted. A series of droughts turned problem to crisis. Yet kings and nobles, rather than comprehending and responding to the crisis, evidently remained fixated on the short-term priorities of enriching themselves, building monuments, waging wars, and extracting sufficient food from the peasants to support their ostentatious lifestyles. The population of Mayan cities quickly began a decline that would continue for several centuries, culminating in levels ninety percent lower than at the civilization's height in 700.

The Easter Islanders, whose competing clan leaders built giant stone statues in order to display their prestige and to symbolize their connection with the gods, cut every last tree in their delicate environment to use in erecting these eerie monuments. Hence the people lost their source of raw materials for building canoes, which were essential for fishing. Meanwhile bird species were driven into extinction, crop yields fell, and the human population declined, so that by the time Captain Cook arrived in 1774 the remaining Easter Islanders, who had long since resorted to cannibalism, were, in Cook's words, "small, lean, timid, and miserable".

Regarding the Anasazi of the American Southwest, who left behind stone ceremonial centers that had been integrated into a far-flung empire, I can do no better than to quote Diamond's own summary:

Despite these varying proximate causes of abandonments, all were ultimately due to the same fundamental challenge: people living in fragile and difficult environments, adopting solutions that were brilliantly successful and understandable in the short run, but that failed or else created fatal problems in the long run, when people became confronted with external environmental changes or human-caused environmental changes that cities without written histories and without archaeologists could not have anticipated.

A second important theme in the book is that human choice can make the difference between prosperity and ruin. Diamond is quick to point out that he is not an "environmental determinist": while the leaders of the Maya and Easter Islanders made disastrous decisions that plunged their societies into collapse, others did better. He describes how the Inuit in the Arctic and Polynesians on Tikopia managed to create ways of life that were indefinitely sustainable, and why the Dominican Republic has had a more peaceful and economically stable history than its neighbor, Haiti.

Diamond argues that our modern global industrial society is creating some of the very same sorts of environmental problems that caused ancient societies to fail, plus four new ones: "human-caused climate change, buildup of toxic chemicals in the environment, energy shortages and full human utilization of the earth's photosynthetic capacity". Echoing the conclusions of the Limits to Growth study of 1972, Diamond notes that many of these problems are likely to "become globally critical within the next few decades".

There is much to admire in this book. Diamond's essential message - that our very persistence as a civilized society may depend upon well-led efforts to reduce the negative impact of our economic processes upon nature - is one that more people desperately need to hear. The author artfully skewers classic one-liner objections such as, "The environment has to be balanced against the economy", "Technology will solve our problems", and "If we exhaust one resource, we can always switch to some other resource meeting the same need". Collapse draws the reader into rich and fascinating discussions of specific modern instances in which collapse in some form already has occurred, is occurring, or is likely to occur - Rwanda, Haiti, and Montana - showing in each instance how political and economic events, emerging from underlying environmental crises and constraints, can lead to economic reversal, social disintegration, or even genocide.

Yet while this is a helpful discussion of the subject for readers who have never before contemplated the possibility that modern fossil-fuel-based industrialism may be unsustainable in the starkest meaning of the term, for readers who have been contemplating that fact for some time - and especially for those who have already made some efforts to draw parallels between the exuberance of modern industrial society and the similar qualities of ancient empires in their florescent stage immediately before their demise - Diamond's efforts fall short.

While the book is rigorous in detail, it is haphazard with regard to theory. Diamond's methodological prowess shines, for example, as he investigates the reasons for the failure of the Viking colony in Greenland: he uses the most recent archaeological data to build a careful, persuasive case that the Norse farmers simply failed to adjust their cultural attitudes to take advantage of the most abundant local protein source - fish - and hence starved. In the process, we learn a great deal about how these people lived, and about how archaeologists gather and piece together evidence in order to arrive at conclusions about the human past. Details matter, and Diamond is very good at moving beyond superficial similes ("America is like Rome prior to its fall") to look at particular places with care and nuance.

However, when presented with such a sweeping title and subject, readers need breadth of overview as much as depth of specificity. Why did the author select the examples he did? Why did he not choose to discuss Imperial China or Rome, or the ancient Mesopotamians or Egyptians? Why not, in addition to a thorough discussion of a few emblematic societies, also offer a comprehensive and systematic survey of all previous civilizations? This is not as daunting a prospect as it might seem: there have only been about 24 civilizations in all of human history (if we define civilization as a society with cities, writing, full-time division of labor, and relatively high levels of technological complexity). The wealth of data available would permit a fascinating comparative overview using a range of selected criteria.

Diamond refers on only three occasions (and then briefly) to Joseph Tainter's classic The Collapse of Complex Societies (Cambridge University Press, 1988), which is widely considered the standard work on the subject. He rightly criticizes Tainter for underemphasizing the role of environmental factors - especially resource depletion - in previous instances of collapse. However, Diamond does not take the time to explain Tainter's valuable contributions to the discussion. It is difficult for the reader to have the sense of building on a previous theory without an understanding of what the previous theory is.

Theory was in fact one of the great strengths of Tainter's book: he surveyed all known complex societies, and systematically assessed dozens of prior serious discussions of collapse (including the ideas of Arnold Toynbee, Elman Service, Pitirim Sorokin, and Alfred Kroeber), so that when he got around to introducing his own hypothesis (which can be summarized as the inevitability of the diminishing of returns on societal investments in complexity) the reader felt a sense of participation in the refinement of our collective understanding of the problem. This doesn't happen to nearly the same degree in Collapse. Why? Perhaps Diamond was trying to avoid sounding academic and wanted to write in such a way that the maximum number of readers would commit themselves to the task of wading through a long book on a dreary subject. But something was sacrificed in the process.

Important contributions to the discussion about collapse have been made since the publication of Tainter's magnum opus; one that comes readily to mind is John Michael Greer's paper "How Civilizations Fall: A Theory of Catabolic Collapse", with its distinction between maintenance collapse, in which a society recovers and again achieves imperial status, and depletion collapse, in which disintegration is complete and final. Greer's essay - which he has encountered some difficulty in placing in a peer-reviewed journal (it is currently archived at ) - contains significant theoretical insights, though it comes from a relatively unknown researcher working with easily available historical materials. One cannot help but wonder why Diamond, with the considerable resources of a major publisher and willing graduate students, could not have done much more to advance the theory of collapse.

A second disappointment that readers already familiar with the subject matter may encounter with Collapse is the perception that, while the author is warning us that modern industrial civilization may be headed the way of the Classic Maya or the Easter Islanders, he seems satisfied with this warning. He offers, in essence, a message of the type we have come to expect: Humanity is undermining its ecological viability, but there are things we can do to turn the tide. Indeed, Diamond predictably devotes the last section of his last chapter to "reasons for hope", leaving the reader with evidence for thinking that collapse will not occur in our own instance after all. This excuses him from asking a question that appears to be tugging at more minds, and with more urgency, every day: What if it's already too late? Yes, if collapse can be averted, we should of course be working toward that end. But suppose for a moment that we have passed the point of no return, and that some form of collapse is now inevitable. What should we be doing in that case?

If we simply regard the question as unthinkable (because its premise is itself unthinkable), then we foreclose a discussion that could be extremely important. In a moment I intend briefly to state three good reasons for thinking that collapse is in fact unavoidable at this point. But even if there is only a moderate likelihood that industrial society is headed toward history's dustbin, shouldn't we be devoting at least some mental effort toward planning for a survivable collapse? Shouldn't we be thinking about what needs to be preserved so that future generations will have the information, skills, and tools that they need in order to carry on?

Here are my three reasons for concluding that Diamond has in fact made an extremely timid case for the likelihood of global industrial collapse; there are certainly others.

1. Diamond does not even hint at the phenomenon of the imminent global oil production peak. Even though he cites Paul Roberts' book the End of Oil and Kenneth Deffeyes' Hubbert's Peak in a note on page 551, he shows no understanding whatever of these authors' work. There is no discussion of the fact that oil production capacity is declining rapidly in nearly two dozen countries, while the world's reliance on oil for its essential energy needs continues to grow with each passing year. This is not a minor oversight. At least four independent studies now forecast that the global oil peak is likely to occur as soon as 2005 and probably before 2010, which means that there will not be enough time to invest in replacement energy sources before the decline begins; nor can we be assured that adequate replacement energy sources exist. In the estimation of a growing chorus of informed observers, the oil peak is likely to be a trigger for global economic crisis and the outbreak of a series of devastating resource wars.

2. At the same time, the global economic system and the world's monetary system are becoming increasingly dysfunctional for other reasons. Currently, the US dollar functions as the global reserve currency, and the dollar (like most other currencies) is loaned into existence at interest. This means that continual economic growth is structurally required in order to stave off a currency crash. Yet infinite growth within a closed system (such as the Earth) is impossible. So how long can growth continue? There are strong signs that the American economy, and hence that of the entire world, is headed soon toward a "correction" of unprecedented proportions. US debt (in the forms of consumer debt, government debt, and trade deficits) is at truly frightening levels and the American mortgage and real estate bubbles appear ready to burst at any moment. If one looks deeper, there are still other reasons to conclude that the global economy has nearly reached fundamental and non-negotiable restrictions on expansion. In his book The Limits of Business Development and Economic Growth (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), business strategist Mats Larsson makes the point that most of technology and business development in the past has had as its goal the reduction of time and cost in manufacturing. But nothing can be done at less than no time or at less than no cost. He cites the example of the printing and distribution of books and other written media: with these, Gutenberg famously reduced time and cost. Now, the Internet enables the electronic reproduction and distribution of books, films, and music at almost no cost and in almost no time. Similarly, labor cost in China is probably now at close to the absolute theoretical minimum. Larsson's conclusion is that economic growth is perilously close to its ultimate bounds, even when resource constraints are not factored into the calculation.

3. Averting collapse would require changes that must be championed and partly implemented by political leaders: unprecedented levels of national and international cooperation would be needed in order to allocate essential resources in order to avert deadly competition for them as they become scarce, and our economic and monetary systems would have to be reformed despite pressure from the entrenched interests of wealthy elites. Yet the American political regime - the most important in the world, given US military supremacy and economic clout - has evidently become terminally dysfunctional, and is now the province of a group of extremist ideologues who apparently have virtually no interest in international cooperation or economic reform. This is a fact widely recognized outside the US, and by many sober observers within the country. The problem is not merely that politicians are being bought and sold by corporations (this has been going on for decades), but that the entire system has been hijacked by partisans who pride themselves on making decisions solely on the basis of ideology and in supreme disdain for "reality". At the same time, the US electoral system has been eviscerated and commandeered by a single party (using various forms of systematic fraud that have now become endemic), so that a peaceful rectification of the situation by a vote of the people has become virtually impossible. Moreover, the American media have been so cowed and co-opted by the dominant party that most of the citizenry is blissfully unaware of its plight and is thus extremely unlikely to vigorously oppose the current trends.

Diamond shows some limited awareness of this truly horrifying state of affairs, and he realizes that wise political leadership would be essential to the avoidance of collapse. Yet he refuses to draw the obvious conclusion: the most powerful of the world's current leaders are every bit as irrational as the befuddled kings and chiefs who brought the Maya and Easter Islanders to their ruin.

None of these three problems can be solved quickly or easily if at all; each of the first two is by itself a sufficient cause for collapse; the third will effectively preclude any attempts to reverse the slide toward international chaos; and all three will no doubt rebound upon each other synergistically.

Diamond's subtitle, "How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed", implies that, for modern industrial societies, success is still an option. Yet if "success" implies the ability to maintain current population levels and current per-capita rates of consumption, then we may already have exhausted our choices. We cannot replace dwindling non-renewable resources, we cannot make industrial wastes disappear, we cannot quickly restabilize the global climate, and we cannot revive species that have become extinct.

What, then, are Diamond's "reasons for hope"? He offers only two: first, that our problems are, in principle at least, solvable; and second, that environmental thinking has become more common in recent years. But for hope to be realized, he says, modern societies will have to make good choices in two areas. We will need "courageous, successful long-term planning", which, he says, is indeed being undertaken by some governments and political leaders, at least some of the time. What Diamond doesn't mention is that the single instance of long-term planning that might have made all the difference to the survival of our civilization - a sustained choice by the US to wean itself from fossil fuels, beginning in the 1970s at the time of the first oil shocks - was not followed through; as a result, economic crises and resource wars are now virtually assured. We will also, he says, need to reconsider some of our core values, and he cites a few examples of modern societies that have done this (for example, over two decades ago China decided to restrict the traditional freedom of individual reproductive choice). However, Diamond may be underestimating the degree to which some of the "values" that we would have to change (such as our mania for continuous economic growth) are not mere preferences or easily reversible government policies, but necessities structurally reinforced by multiple layers of institution, privilege, and power.

Perhaps the message of Collapse would have had more of a cutting-edge quality if the book had appeared in the early 1970s, when mere warnings were appropriate. Collapse might have added to the chorus of voices raised on the first Earth Day, and might have helped drive home the importance of the often-misrepresented Limits to Growth study.

Today, however, we are living in a different era. Collapse has, in effect, already begun, even though we have seen only the first of the trigger events that will eventually rivet public attention on the cascading process of disintegration taking place around us. The question is no longer that of avoiding collapse, but rather of making the best of it.

One of the many virtues of Joseph Tainter's book was that he dissipated some of the pejorative cloud surrounding the word collapse, defining it simply as a reduction in social complexity. This helps us to see that the process can manifest in different ways: it can occur slowly or quickly (usually the process takes decades or even centuries); it can be complete or partial; and it can be controlled or chaotic. Such an understanding leads one to envision the possibility of a managed collapse.

Given Jared Diamond's emphasis on choice, it might have been helpful if he had studied what people chose to do during previous periods of collapse, and how certain actions helped or hindered personal survival and the survival of culture.

In our own instance, efforts to manage the collapse might take several forms. Initial work along these lines might be indistinguishable from actions taken to try to prevent collapse - the sorts of things many people have been doing at least since the 1970s: the active protest of war, the protection of ecosystems and species, the defense of indigenous and traditional cultures, and the adoption of lifestyles of voluntary simplicity.

Then, as fossil-fuel-based support infrastructures began to disintegrate, other strategies might come to the fore: efforts to re-localize economies, to build intentional communities, and to regain forgotten handcraft skills. Like the European monks of the Middle Ages, forward-thinking groups with useful knowledge and abilities could build cultural lifeboats - communities of preservation and service that help surrounding regions cope with change and stress.

It would be foolish to assert that such a program could avert all of the potholes on the road down to a sustainable level of societal complexity; however, if we do not make efforts to manage the process of economic and societal contraction, it is easy to imagine collapse scenarios that would be hellish indeed.

One hesitates to criticize too harshly a book that tries to tell the world a truth that all too many refuse to hear. And yet this isn't the book that it could have been. At this point in time, we could stand a prominent book by an important author that finally announces what so many of us know all too well: collapse has begun.

Such a message need not be fatalistic in tone, because fatalism implies absence of choice. Diamond is right: we always have some control over events, or at least our response to events. The choice we have now is not as to whether our society will collapse, but how.

Ladies and gentleman, the ship is sinking. I suggest that we set aside our immediate plans and consider how best to proceed, given the facts.

* * * * *

If Diamond focuses on the environmental aspects of collapse, Jane Jacobs - the legendary historian of cites who, in the 1960s, worked heroically to save the neighborhoods of Manhattan from the automotive fixations of urban redeveloper Robert Moses - explores the cultural dimensions of the process in her recent book Dark Age Ahead (Random House, 2004).

"Writing, printing, and the Internet give a false sense of security about the permanence of culture", writes Jacobs. The most important aspects of culture are continually reinforced through example, and are thus as perishable as flesh itself. Dark ages are terrible times when entire societies experience mass amnesia, forgetting arts, sciences, mathematics, and even fundamental conventions of conviviality. And this is the future that Jacobs sees as likely for us, given the perceived decay of what she declares to be the five pillars of civilized culture:

<> Community and family,
<> Higher education,
<> The effective practice of science and science-based technology,
<> Taxes and governmental powers directly in touch with needs and possibilities, and
<> Self-policing by the learned professions.

Jacobs devotes a chapter to each of these pillars, offering unequivocal examples of dissolution - from soaring levels of household debt to Enron accounting fraud. Many of these individual problems are well known; Jacobs shows how they are related to one another as elements of a systemic cultural decline.

The author also cites examples to show that culture can be protected even in times of great challenge, as Japan managed to do in the late 19th century, or as Ireland did despite British colonization. The clear implication is that we could recover and preserve our own cultural integrity in the face of the threats confronting our own society.

Jacobs' writing is wonderfully sane, urbane, and intelligent. Her prose is never dry or pedantic, but glows with the richness of a lifetime's experience ranging from the Great Depression through activist struggles in the turbulent 1960s and 1970s and up to the present. If the book has a flaw, it is that Jacobs does not appear to understand the relationship between culture and energy: in her last chapter, "Dark Age Patterns", she discusses the differences between agrarian and post-agrarian society, yet she never mentions the single element that mostly accounts for the transformation from one to the other: access to cheap fossil fuels.

Alas, the vibrant urban North American and European industrial culture of the early twentieth century rode on a wave of expanding resource availability, and hence expanding savings, expanding technological competence, and expanding manufacturing capacity. For all its virtues and vices (and there were plenty of the latter), much of that culture is gone forever, as surely as is the oil that was burned to build it. We cannot revive or preserve any part of that culture that depends upon our use of still more fossil fuel. Instead, we and our descendants will have to invent new forms of culture appropriate to the available resource base. If these cultural forms are agrarian in nature, so be it.

* * * * *

A Century of War: Anglo-American Oil Politics and the New World Order, by William Engdahl (Pluto Press, 2004), is essential reading for anyone who wonders how oil shaped world events during the twentieth century.

While Daniel Yergin, in The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power (Touchstone, 1993), focused primarily on the oil industry per se, Engdahl looks more at the geopolitical situation as it responded to new discoveries in the Middle East and elsewhere, and also brings to bear his considerable insight into monetary policy. The result is breathtaking, as the reader learns the background to wars, assassinations, and political upheavals - from the 1912 battle between the US and Britain for Mexico's oil, to the secret intrigues leading up to Operation Desert Storm.

A major theme in the book is the drive of the British banking and financial establishment to control global resources, and the dominating influence of these same interests in American policy decisions during the latter half of the century as the US became the world's dominant industrial and military power.

Along the way we learn the eerie similarities between Great Britain in the years just prior to World War I, after its own manufacturing and savings base had been hollowed out by its efforts toward globalization; and the US today. Then, Germany was a rival industrial power, seeking to build the Berlin-to-Baghdad railway to open access to Middle Eastern oil for continental Europe; now, China is America's competitor, rapidly industrializing and seeking long-term oil contracts in Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Africa, and Canada.

We see how the Second World War grew inevitably from the first, as Britain required the payment of unrealistic and ruinous reparations from Germany, opening the way to the ascendancy of Hitler (whom several top British and American financiers covertly supported). We also discover the basis of the post-war global economic and petroleum regimes, with the US taking up the imperial mantle from Britain, and the Anglophile East-Coast liberal banking establishment calling the shots.

Unfortunately, toward the middle of the book Engdahl reveals himself to be a pro-nuclear cornucopian who sees no peril in a rapidly expanding human population and who assumes that the answer to global problems lies in more industrial growth. This opinion skews his statements on a number of issues, including the 1972 Limits to Growth study, which he badly mischaracterizes (he says in apparent seriousness that the authors merely "added modern computer graphics to the discredited essay of Malthus"). This is not a small failing, and one cannot help but wonder where else the author's ostensible statements of fact may actually constitute mere supposition or prejudice.

Nevertheless, in other respects the author's account of events meshes closely with other sources, and Engdahl fills in blanks believably and with explanatory potency. Even with its flaws, this book helps immeasurably to make sense of recent history. And without historical perspective, it is almost impossible to understand our current global political and economic situation, or to imagine what to do about it.

Bill Totten


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