Last week, I enjoyed reading Hiteshew’s remarks (Dec. 28) and they brought back memories of a book I also enjoyed. Diamond’s insights have seemed to me useful and interesting. I was less happy to wake up to an NPR interview with him this morning, as he complained about global warming and overpopulation. It seemed, well, more trite than I’d remembered. These days I (appropriately) trust my memory less and less. However, when a friend sent “Kicking the Habitat” by Francis Fukayama, a review of Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed this afternoon, I began to suspect a more politicized or at least transitory agenda.
I certainly don’t get much read – Lex is intimidating – but thought the review might prompt discussion so I could learn more about both Diamond and Fukayama.
The earlier Guns, with its emphasis upon inevitability, the toughness derived from living beside domesticated animals, the problems with homogeneity in a gene pool, etc. seemed an argument for tough and transparent opennness. Sure, he seems to be working awfully hard (as most of the reviewers on Amazon note with approval) at dismantling any importance given to race and, as observers on this site noted, to culture. But his arguments about the north/south and east/west axis were interesting. The fact that the American Indians did not share much in terms of plants and animals seemed an interesting argument for, well, globalization. And culture does arise in response to many things and surely the environmental conditions he described affect it. (Okay, the MacArthur prize might have idicated he wasn’t really into global business ventures.) Still, he described what seemed inevitable–the importance of guns, germs, and steel. And he said it in an interesting way. Indeed, it reminded me of Sowell discussing coast lines. However, the accusatory subtitle of the new book indicates the hectoring tone that came on with my alarm this morning. Of course, one might argue that it implies personal responsibility rather than fatalism, but Fukayama doesn’t seem to take it that way.
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.
The first book wasn’t humble, it took a long range view. But I didn’t feel I was being brow-beaten nor that we were going on this interesting trek so he could make points. If his interview and this review are any indication, here he seems to choose interpretations he has tailoed to fit modern biases a bit too snugly.
Mr. Diamond seems to think that globalization and free trade increase the risk of global collapse because they create interdependencies and hence vulnerability. Yet a properly functioning global trading system should do precisely the opposite, by providing multiple sources of critical supplies, all flexibly mediated through a price mechanism. To the extent that there is a looming global food problem, it has less to do with environmental limits than with agricultural protectionism in rich countries — i.e., too little rather than too much free trade.