Those Who Fail To Learn History. . . something or the other.
January 10, 2005 9:28 AM   Subscribe

The Rapanui (of Easter Island), the Mayans, and the Norse colonists of Greenland all share one similarity: each culture was brought down by preventable, human-cause environmental catastrophe. Sure, Michael Crichton says it's all bunk, but Jared Diamond (the author of the infinitely discussable, Pulitzer prize winning Guns, Germs and Steel) recently came out with a new book that suggests that maybe we ought to be worried after all. Hear him discuss it on NPR's morning edition.
posted by absalom (20 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
There's a nice dismantling of Chrichton's new book at the New Yorker.
posted by jokeefe at 9:38 AM on January 10, 2005

The book (Collapse) was reviewed by Malcalm Gladwell in the New Yorker. I'm curious if anyone has read it because Diamond seems to make the case that part of the reason for the failure of the Greenland settlements is that the Vikings refused to eat fish according to the review, which isn't true.
posted by euphorb at 9:40 AM on January 10, 2005

Also, see here (although this post is much more in depth).
posted by trey at 9:52 AM on January 10, 2005

Francis Fukuyama takes a critical view in the WSJ:
While the individual stories are entertaining, a question remains as to how much light they shed on our current situation. Many of Mr. Diamond's case studies involve societies situated in marginal parts of the globe, like Greenland or tiny Pitcairn and Henderson Islands, where societies rarely flourish under the best of circumstances. A more interesting choice of cases would have involved societies collapsing amid plenty -- 20th-century Argentina comes to mind.

A second problem is our ignorance of detail. Mr. Diamond cites a number of reasons why societies make bad environmental choices, including political conflict, cultural biases and a failure to grasp the seriousness of an approaching problem or to take collective action. Yet his examples are drawn mostly from ancient and primitive societies, which means that we have virtually no information to tell us which reasons were most important. Mr. Diamond assumes, for instance, that environmental collapse drove political conflict on Easter Island. But perhaps it was the other way around: Years of tribal fighting exhausted the island's resources and led to the cutting of the last tree -- a much more conventional story. We will never know.

The final problem with "Collapse" concerns Mr. Diamond's analogy with our current problems. He lists 12 crises today that could lead to global collapse, including overpopulation, loss of biodiversity, global warming, soil erosion, toxic wastes and the like. All these are serious problems, but it is not clear that any of them (except global warming) can trigger a sudden, irreversible planetary collapse, as opposed to a slow period of technology substitution and social adjustment.
While that very well may be true, it still sounds like a fascinating book.
posted by alms at 9:56 AM on January 10, 2005

Missed the original thread linking the Gladwell article, so I'll just highlight here this one passage that I find interesting:

The Norse needed to reduce their reliance on livestock—particularly cows, which consumed an enormous amount of agricultural resources. But cows were a sign of high status; to northern Europeans, beef was a prized food.

Those crazy Norse, huh?
posted by soyjoy at 9:59 AM on January 10, 2005

A note: Crichton has an undergraduate degree in anthropology, lectured at Cambridge in anthro (but I don't know whether he was physical or cultural—an important distinction) and is a physician (just in case anyone didn't already know this) and so, presumably, on matters related to anthropology and medicine he can be trusted. However, on quite a few other topics on which I have enough expertise myself to judge, he's come up very short. His treatment of "chaos theory" in Jurassic Park—a major idea of the book, supposedly—was...well, I don't have words. Wrongity wrong wrong wrong. I can't trust him on any subject where he doesn't have recognized expertise.

Diamond has a related background and some similar expertise, but is much more distinguished as an academic. He's not an anthropologist, however. But he's recognized as an authentic multidisciplinary expert, however; while, in contrast, Crichton for the last several decades has just been writing novels. I'd trust Diamond.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 10:03 AM on January 10, 2005

I heard the second part of that interview this morning, and was disappointed that it turned out to be Diamond making those claims. I still haven't yet got around to GG&S but have been looking forward to it based on good reviews - but the way he came off in presenting this theory was not impressive. The comparison was very weak for multiple reasons which weren't properly addressed (difficult environments, limited resources, isolated societies, etc), and the connoted predictions were pretty sweeping. I agree that these are serious problems, but disagree that they're comparable to the failures of various ancient societies.

If we're going to analogize, I'd say our fall would be more likely to mimic the fall of rome... greed & laziness combined with uprising and war leading to a loss of unity & democracy and a rise of ignorance and tribalism.
posted by mdn at 10:14 AM on January 10, 2005

I'd trust Diamond.

But that's inconvenient. It's better to think that there aren't any consequences.
posted by Mayor Curley at 10:15 AM on January 10, 2005

I think sometimes Diamond tries a little too hard to tie his themes together. In _Collapse_, more than in GG&S, he clearly has an agenda: hey, everybody, look what we're doing to the environment, maybe we shouldn't be doing this stuff. Some of his ties between ancient and modern incarnations of environmental issues are a bit strained.

All of his case studies are fascinating, though, and his style makes for great reading. It's stuff I wouldn't be digging into on my own, without ol' Jared trying to tie it together for me. I'm a big fan.
posted by gurple at 10:17 AM on January 10, 2005

difficult environments, limited resources, isolated societies

Did you folks listen to the NPR interview in the FPP? He makes it clear this is not just about isolated societies in difficult environments. The NPR interviewer broached this question specifically and he answers it. Sometimes I think people just jump to conclusions without really understanding his work (Fukuyama included).
posted by stbalbach at 10:27 AM on January 10, 2005

I don't think that what amounts to an NPR soundbyte can really do justice to Jared Diamond's research, theories, and ideas about human societies.
posted by xyzzy at 10:40 AM on January 10, 2005

Aw, don't ruin it for me: GS&S was one of my favorite reads of the last 10 years. I don't want to have to actively seek out new authors.
posted by yerfatma at 10:56 AM on January 10, 2005

Diamond is not an archaeologist and, while he does write a good story, in those areas where my expertise overlaps with his story he is not reliably accurate.

Having said that, the whole may be bigger than the sum of its parts.
posted by Rumple at 11:09 AM on January 10, 2005

Jared Diamond's work is interesting not because of the 100% accuracy of his claims, but rather because he challenges our sense of dominance and invincibility and hence invites us to have a closer look at the interconnectedness of our political, social and environmental actions.
posted by threehundredandsixty at 11:16 AM on January 10, 2005

Thanks for the links, homunculus... I was wondering where the Crichton debunkings were. (The New Yorker piece is no good since I think Kyoto is undefendable).
posted by fleacircus at 11:54 AM on January 10, 2005

Have you heard of Michael Crichton's new book, "State of Fear," and its premise that a bunch of environmentalists are upset that their cause isn't getting the attention it deserves so they go around staging environmental disasters? Crichton has said publicly, as well as in his heavily footnoted book, that global warming is bunk -- which would be laughable were not the print run of his book one and a half million copies.

Everything you say is true. There are a couple of things to be added to it. One is that my previous book, "Guns, Germs, and Steel," has sold more copies than Michael Crichton's one and a half million, so I think my new book will get to more readers. And the other thing is that Michael Crichton is a very skilled writer of fiction. And fiction is, by definition, the telling of stories that are untrue. He's very good at that. And I'm a writer of nonfiction, which aims to be the telling of stories that are true.
posted by Relay at 12:05 PM on January 10, 2005

A Short History of Progress is a recent book on a very similar theme. Also it is the subject of the 2004 Massey Lectures, which are most excellent. The first part (of four) is available here in real audio.

From what little I've heard of each, I'd bet on Wright's book being less alarmist and more convincing.
posted by sfenders at 12:22 PM on January 10, 2005

The New Yorker article is misleading, Euphorb; in the book, Diamond points out that although Norse elsewhere ate fish, for some reason Greenlanders never did--there are simply very very few fish bones in their garbage pile. Nobody, however, can figure out why this might be so, when Norse elsewhere had no problems with fish--as your links show.

As for the problems of using case studies based on "small", "primitive" societies, I think the reason is twofold: one, oftentimes these small, rather self-contained societies can illustrate much more cleanly the problems he's talking about.

And furthermore, he opens the book with a long chapter on environmental problems in Montana, which is generally not considered small.
posted by goodglovin77 at 12:42 PM on January 10, 2005

When this was discussed a couple of weeks ago I posted a brilliant and disturbing excerpt from part 3 of The Massey Lectures. Also from two weeks ago was The Global Baby Bust thread.
posted by Chuckles at 7:58 AM on January 11, 2005

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