Going Hard on Diamond

I read the first chapter or so of Jared Diamond’s book Collapse which Lex commented on below. I didn’t read much farther because I found his conclusions largely trite. Diamond essentially advances the old Malthusian idea that short-sighted over-consumption leads to resource depletion which causes civilizations to collapse. While vaguely true, this view of collapses ignores the fundamental issue of why any particular civilization runs out of resources while others in very similar circumstances do not.

I would argue that it is not over-consumption but rather under-production that causes collapses. I think three major factors cause under-production:

1) Lack of trade,
2) Static technology,
3) Concentrated political power,

or as we call them in the modern political context:

1) Anti-globalization,
2) Sustainable development,
3) International governance.

Yep, the most popular prescriptions of the far Left today are exactly those which in previous eras have caused civilizations to collapse. All the well-meaning warm and fuzzy leftists out there are, out of well-intentioned ignorance, working hard to slip a knife in between the ribs of our planetary civilization.

Lack of trade dooms a civilization because it prevents a society from acquiring material goods in times of dearth. Droughts, floods, pestilence and other calamities happen in all times and places. Trade helps buffer against such bad times. Further, even in very low-tech societies, trade brings in new technologies (such as new food plants and animals), practices and forms of organization that allow a civilization to adapt to changes in climate or resource exhaustion.

Static technology kills because there really isn’t such a thing as an infinitely sustainable technology base. All forms of human manipulation of the environment alter the environment in some negative way. The only differences lie in the time it takes the negative aspects to manifest. Even hunter-gatherers radically alter their environment, often wiping out all the macroform species in just a few centuries. Even if some kind of equilibrium is reached, over the course of centuries or millennia the climate or biome will change on its own. Humans adapt to environmental change by changing their technology. Static technology in a changing environment equals death.

Centralized or elitist political control (which almost always go together) kill because the powers-that-be perceive the changes needed to adapt as threats to their power and position. Without any other competition for power, such as from an external enemy, the political system focuses exclusively on internal challenges from below. When the civilization is stressed, the leadership responds by trying to reinforce the status quo. The society grow more hidebound and less adaptable just when it needs the opposite. Eventually, the polity shatters into anarchy and the economy, devoid of organization, evaporates.

All of the civilizations that Diamond examines suffered from all three of the factors that lead to an eventually lethal under-production. The policies popular on the Left today seek to create under-production on a global scale.

Anti-globalization seeks to chop the world up into largely self-contained economic pockets dependent only on local resources. This may sound emotionally appealing but it would also mean that if you don’t have resources in your local era you do without, possibly with fatal consequences. Even if you can make do, you will do so at a much lower efficiency, which will lead to a reduced material standard of living. A lower standard of living means a smaller surplus that can be used to support innovation or to deal with emergencies.

Sustainable development is an eventual death sentence because it is based on fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between technology and resources. Advocates of sustainable technology believe that resources exist a priori — independently of the technology that utilizes them — and that the resources are fixed and finite. Therefore they believe that only by using the minimal amount of the resources possible at any one time can the technology be sustained.

The reality is exactly the opposite. Technology creates the resources it consumes. Progressing technology bootstraps its own resource production. Increasing agriculture production creates a surplus you can use to clear more land. Mining iron lets you create iron tools that make it easier to mine iron. Pumping oil for energy gives you surplus energy to find more oil or to create another energy source. Throughout history, each new technology has created more resources than it has consumed. Freezing technology will itself eventually lead to resource exhaustion by preventing the creation of new resources.

International governance is dangerous because it will eventually lead to a state with no external competition. At that point, politics will become a struggle between the political class and everyone else. Change, especially technological change, will be seen as a dangerous threat to the status quo. Planetary civilization will grow static, and like all other static civilizations will collapse when stressed.

The leftists of every generation always believe that they know how to achieve a practical near-utopia, and since once you have reached utopia there is no further need for improvement, they always conceive of such a civilization as a static one. If implemented, the ideas of anti-globilization, sustainable development and international governance will create the conditions that have destroyed numerous previous civilizations.

If our planetary civilization is at risk for collapse it is not due to the supposed mindless consumption of the free-markets and unfettered innovation, but from the hubris of those who believe they have the final answers. But answers are never final. The only constant is change. Adapt or die.

Stasis kills.

11 thoughts on “Going Hard on Diamond”

  1. This is a fine distinction you make between the “far left” and the “left.” I had not thgouth many of the fairly primitiave groups Jared referred to were much aware of globalization. But perhaps they too had cable news available and I did not know this.

  2. Actually, if you read the rest of Diamond’s book, he comes up with essentially the same summary of reasons. Isolation (lack of trade), unwillingness or inability to innovate, and inadequate political systems.

  3. All societies are governed by 2 rules.
    1) conservation of natural resources
    2) maintaining full employment

    Technological change is prohibited if it causes people to lose jobs. Rapid technological change is possible only when there is no government or no unemployment. The US 1600-1950 is an example of the absense of government; Europe after the Black Plague an example of full employment. No society has the unlimited resources to maintain a large percentage of unemployed nor are the employed willing to work while others do nothing.

    All societies worry about running out of something. England and Europe had their blood-thirsty forestry laws which is why they build in stone. Only in America 1600-1900 was a society faced with absolutely unlimited resources with absolutely no need for conservation.

    America grew because of an amazing accidental combination of no government and unlimited resoutces.

    If what you say and I say is true, then there is only one nagging questions. Why didn’t the indians do it first?

  4. Christopher,

    As I remember he comes down pretty hard on the side of “conserving resources” which is pretty much a counterproductive endeavor.

    I could be misremembering though. I perused the book some months ago. I do remember being singularly unimpressed which surprised me because I really liked Guns, germs and steel.

  5. Consider an example used by Diamond: the Maya. Diamond argues:

    “A major factor was environmental degradation by people: deforestation, soil erosion and water management problems, all of which resulted in less food. Those problems were exacerbated by droughts, which may have been partly caused by humans themselves through deforestation. Chronic warfare made matters worse, as more and more people fought over less and less land and resources.”

    But the same area today supports a population that is considerably larger than it did then. How? Industrial agriculture and international trade. Through the use of “unnatural” fertilizers and “inorganic” pesticides that were unavailable to the prior population, the current population now produces more food from a smaller area. Other food and additional resources that were unavailable to the earlier inhabitants can now be bought from a “globalized” marketplace.

    Rejection of high intensity industrial agriculture and “globalization” in favor of organic village-scale ecosystem stewardship is little more than a call for a massive dieback on the order of several millions.

  6. Diamond argues that civilizations collapse due to ecological suicide. But homicide is a more apt description of how civilizations pass into the history books, which may explain why many of his examples are charmingly exotic.

    Diamond cites the Maya but does not mention the Aztecs and the Incas. He cites the Eater Islanders but not the Maoris, the Australian Aboriginals, the Tasmanians, or the Chatam Islanders (who were exterminated by the Maori). He cites the Vikings in Greenland but not Saxons in Britain or the Celts in Ireland. He cites the Anasazi, but not the Cherokee, the Sioux. And so on.

    Emphasizing the risk of civilizational “suicide” at the expense of emphasizing the risk of inter-civilizational homicide produces an inverted set of priorities.

  7. Tex,

    I ‘m not sure that civilizations per se ever really perish via “homicide.” The most common pattern is that the ruling elites of one region will be replaced by the invaders but the main mass of the population continues on largely uneffected.

    Throughout history the principle goal of conquest has been to militarily dominate others and to thereby exploit their labor. We talk about seizing land but the land itself is worthless without the people to exploit it. The true goal of conquest is enslavement in one form or the other.

    Population crashes associated with conquest are I think relatively rare and as in the case of the Aztecs and Inca’s, largely accidental when they do occur. Political entities and even cultures may disappear in waves of violence but the actual individuals who comprise the entities do not, the simply get renamed.

  8. I’m not sure that civilizations per se ever really perish via “homicide.”

    Much the same could be said about civilizations that “collapse” via “environmental suicide”.

    Nevertheless, the paracollapse via parahomocide is more likely than paracollapse via parasuicide.

    There is more reason for concern about Jihad than McWorld.

  9. A nice concise review, shannon: you go from Malthus to Postrel in only several paragraphs.

    CEI’s Fred Smith did a full-length review, some 16 pages if I recall correctly, for the journal Energy & Environment, August 2005, here.

    Smith manfully dissectss the childish worldview of eco-theology’s neo-Malthusian irrelevance. He mistakes communal and hierarchical societies for the modern, dynamic ones we know today that have refuted the good Reverend because we have evolved superior institutions. Wealth and knowledge created through property rights and technology have pierced the gloom of incessant security that has dogged humanity throughout time – yet, somehow, all this recent history escapes him.

    This is surprising if only because a bio-geographer ought to be interested in the biocentric implications of successful political-economic-cultural adaptations – but no. In the book’s final chapter, he dismisses critics in a short section rather than engaging them. Having seen Diamond on C-SPAN discourse on “Collapse” and respond to Q & A, it’s clear he has no knowledge of modern economics or economic history that could have saved him from flaunting his ignorance. Instead he embraces a “superior” ecological truth the benighted need to accept – or else. Tortured implications substitute for genuine argument.

    Eco-apologetics are supposed to substitute for real thought. Check out Smith’s full accounting for error for more insights because, like “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” it’s a bestseller – but unlike it, it’s mostly non-sense on stilts. Forewarned is forearmed.

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