Collapse - “Song of Myself”

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					              “Why Civilizations Die: “No Island is an Island Entirely of Itself”

              ―Civilizations die from suicide not by murder.‖ Arnold Toynbee
     ―Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.‖ George Santayana

      For the most part I will address myself to Jared Diamond’s best-selling book Collapse:
How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.

        It may be presumptuous to offer to contextualize a 576 page book like Collapse but I will
try to do so by citing Lynn White, Jr.’s classic essay ―The Historical Roots of Our Ecological
Crisis‖ published in 1967. This essay was itself an index to the emerging concern over the fate
of the earth. Just how recent in human history this concern is, is made dramatically clear by

       People, then, have often been a dynamic element in their own environment, but in the
       present state of historical scholarship we usually do not know exactly when, where, or
       with what effects man-induced changes came. As we enter the last third of the 20th
       century, however, concern for the problem of ecologic backlash is mounting feverishly.
       Natural science, conceived as the effort to understand the nature of things, had flourished
       in several eras and among several peoples. Similarly there had been an age-old
       accumulation of technological skills, sometimes growing rapidly, sometimes slowly. But
       it was not until about four generations ago that Western Europe and North America
       arranged a marriage between science and technology, a union of the theoretical and the
       empirical approaches to our natural environment. The emergence in widespread practice
       of the Baconian creed that scientific knowledge means technological power over nature
       can scarcely be dated before about 1850, save in the chemical industries, where it is
       anticipated in the 18th century. Its acceptance as a normal pattern of action may mark
       the greatest event in human history since the invention of agriculture, and perhaps in
       nonhuman terrestrial history as well.

         Even in 1967, the widespread use of fossil fuels and the extremely rapid growth of human
population led White to lament that ―surely no creature other than man has ever managed to foul
its nest in such short order.‖ And, he concludes, unless ―we rethink our axioms‖ (our core values
as Diamond calls them) the prospects of cleaning up our failed nest are nil.
         White, in sum, argued that the linking of science and technology together with the
democratic revolutions of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, have created our
ecologic crisis. Rising standards of living and reduced mortality rates have their costs. White,
whose specialty was medieval science and technology, then returns to trace the origins of
western science to the translation of Arab and Greek scientific works into Latin in the eleventh
century. His review of the ―Medieval View of Man and Nature‖ leads him to a brief history of
Christianity and to the proposition that we continue to live ―very largely in a context of Christian
axioms.‖ In particular, White points to the language of Genesis I.8 (in English), which claims
man’s ―dominance‖ over nature, the source of so much mindless (and soulless) exploitation and
ruin of earth, water, and air, and all the fauna and flora that depend on them. In brief, White is
skeptical that more science and more technology will save us. Rather, he invokes St. Francis as a
Christian who proposed a different view of the human-natural dichotomy:
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          The greatest spiritual revolutionary in Western history, Saint Francis, proposed what he
          thought was an alternative Christian view of nature and man's relation to it; he tried to
          substitute the idea of the equality of all creatures, including man, for the idea of man's
          limitless rule of creation. He failed. Both our present science and our present technology
          are so tinctured with orthodox Christian arrogance toward nature that no solution for
          our ecologic crisis can be expected from them alone. Since the roots of our trouble are so
          largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious, whether we call it that or
          not. We must rethink and refeel our nature and destiny. The profoundly religious, but
          heretical, sense of the primitive Franciscans for the spiritual autonomy of all parts of
          nature may point a direction. I propose Francis as a patron saint for ecologists.

         Now White’s essay was of course controversial in its own time a generation ago, and it is
still controversial. Oddly (in my view) Diamond does not refer to it, even though (or because?)
White was a colleague of his at UCLA. Be that as it may, there are many parallels between
White’s views and Diamond’s, especially the idea memorably phrased by the philosopher
George Santayana: ―Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.‖ He also
said: ―There is no cure for birth and death save to enjoy the interval.‖ But before I turn to the
substance of Diamond’s book, a few words about the title and subtitle of his book.
         Let me begin with a couple of grumbles. First, Diamond’s implied definition of
―Collapse‖: Over a period of decades or centuries, civilizations stop working. This definition, I
would argue, is at odds with both the common understanding of the word ―Collapse‖ and with
the image that understanding conjures up. Dictionary definitions all suggest that a collapse is a
sudden falling, a cave-in which takes place without warning and with obliterating force, neither
of which notions is consistent with the score or so of test cases Diamond lays out. None of them
involved an inexorable and precipitous breakdown like the volcanic eruptions that destroyed
Krakatoa as Simon Winchester has detailed it. Now one of the reasons for Diamond’s choice of
Collapse over, say, Disintegration, is the nearly onomatopoeic nature of the word Collapse: like
Shoah the respiratory system embodies the meaning of these words: to say Collapse or Shoah,
out loud is to perform their exhaling of vital energy that is at the core of their meaning. Shoah
and Collapse spoken leave the speaker breathless.
         At the same time, if you were in charge of marketing, which word would you choose to
promote a book about the unraveling of civilizations: Disintegration or Collapse? I think the
answer is clear.
         But let us leave this lesson in semantics aside; let us not, as Henry James once observed,
meddle with an author’s instrument and then criticize his playing. I will therefore only mention
in passing that the subtitle—How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed—puts this matter rather
judgmentally. Much more of human history—individually and collectively—is unconscious and
therefore irrational. Societies don’t make choices, individuals do, and individuals, I will argue,
are less rational than we like to think they are.
         There is little doubt, however, that Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to
Fail or Succeed (2005) has subsumed and supplanted the earlier works I will allude to. I should
say at the outset that I admire the scope, scale and thickly detailed quality of Diamond’s book as
well as his generally successful attempt to present balanced accounts of the hotly contested
issues he addresses in this book. He writes well and has the intellectual power to handle large
and complex ideas.
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        Before I move on to an executive summary of Diamond’s wide-ranging book, I want to
point you to a number of other earlier works that undertook to answer the key questions of why
civilizations die and who kills them. It is fair to say that Collapse subsumes and surpasses them
because Diamond looks at civilizations through both ends of the telescope. That is, he both
distances and magnifies the large number of societies he examines. As all artists do, he shuttles
back and forth between the particular and the general.
        Surely everyone on this trip has at home a dog-eared copy of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall
of the Roman Empire (1776-88), a series of volumes that blames the loss of civic virtue (and the
rise of Christianity) for the long decline of a once glorious civilization. A century later Karl
Marx theorized that the threat to modern societies was the concentration of wealth in the hands
of the few and the resulting oppression of the masses. Oswald Spengler opined in The Decline
and Fall of the West (1918-22, 2 vols) that every culture, like every person, passes through birth,
maturity and old age—and inevitably to death. Another influential historian was Arnold
Toynbee, whose multi-volume A Study of History’s basic argument had to do with Western
Culture as a whole rather than simply nation-states. Civilizations rise, Toynbee argued,
depended on what he called ―creative minorities‖ who responded appropriately to extreme
challenges. Failed civilizations failed because of their inadequate responses—making the wrong
decisions or failing to make decisions appropriate to the nature of the challenges. Toynbee is
famous for his declaration that ―Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder.‖ I will take issue
with this formulation a bit further on.
        Two other volumes are worth brief mention: Barbara Tuchman’s popular The March of
Folly: From Troy to Vietnam (1984) offers a history of mistaken judgment in high places that has
undergone renewed interest in very recent years, as toxic leadership has been foregrounded.
Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies (1988) offers a very thorough review of
―collapse theory‖ and offers the following ―global‖ definition of collapse after a series of twenty-
one case studies: ―Collapse is fundamentally a sudden, pronounced loss of an established level of
sociopolitical complexity.‖ ―Sudden‖ for Tainter also may entail decades, and I think this is
another abuse of language. Diamond acknowledges the importance of Tainter’s work to his own.
        Diamond’s approach is to provide exquisitely detailed case histories of a score of
societies past and present: ―Modern Montana,‖ Easter Island, the Pitcairn and Henderson Islands,
the Anasazi, the Maya, the Vikings, Norse Greenland (and the Inuit), the New Guinea Highlands,
Tikopia, Tokugawa Japan, as well as modern societies such as Rwanda, the Dominican Republic
and Haiti, China and Australia, with lesser coverage of many other times and places, including
Los Angeles. He also provides chapters on ―Why Do Some Societies make Disastrous
Decisions,‖ ―Big Business and the Environment‖ and what all his research on successful and
unsuccessful societies means to us today. To his great credit he anticipates and responds to a
series of ―one-liners‖ such as ―technology will solve our problems‖ and the common complaint
that ―individuals cannot effect policy.‖
        Diamond offers five major causes of societal collapse—environmental damage, climate
change, hostile neighbors, loss of trade partners and old-fashioned stupidity, the most telling of
all in my view. The Norse Greenlanders, for example, stupidly stuck, some would say, to
inappropriate practices and prejudices; they imposed their rather inefficient farming practices on
an environment very different from their place of origin and they obstinately refused to learn
anything from the ―barbaric‖ Inuit who lived successfully in Greenland long before and long
after the Norse community died out. By refusing to adapt their diet – they wouldn’t eat fish - and
cultural practices, the Norse settlement doomed itself though it did last 400 years.
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         Similarly, when the Easter Islanders managed to clear-cut their native forests to make
rollers and ropes to move and erect their Moai, they committed a fatal mistake. In both cases, I
think, the initial causes were cultural rather than biological—profound and unexamined articles
of faith—what White calls axioms. In both cases, the implied reasoning, if that is the right word,
was my God is bigger and better than yours. A corollary was ―our resources are infinite so what
does a little excess matter?‖ This latter reminds me of the Wimpy axiom: ―I will gladly pay you
Tuesday for a hamburger today.‖
         The central emphasis of Diamond’s huge book is on environmental violations: Here is a
series of a dozen wounds we inflict daily on the planet: chemical pollution of water, air, land and
the food chain; overdrawing water supplies; over-hunting and over-fishing; introduction,
intentionally or accidentally, of destructive plants and animals; excessive human reproduction;
the use of fossil fuel for energy; toxic wastes of human and natural resources resulting from
wars—all of these and more in the context of increasing impact of individuals on the planet’s
very finite resources. All these plus (in my opinion) the effects of the cowardice of most
politicians and the radical failures of both private and public education make our situation
perilous indeed.
         Diamond identifies four categories as the source of the failures of civilization: First is the
failure to anticipate threats – e.g. the introduction of rabbits and foxes to Australia. Secondly, he
cites the failure to perceive problems—e.g., the effects of toxic runoffs in the American
Southwest. Often, such failures occur because the problems are masked by normal
fluctuations—in rainfall, for example. Perhaps the most dramatic instance of trends masking
impending crises is global warming. It has only been within the last decade that most
climatologists have heard the bells ringing loud and clear. Over and over for the past twenty
years scientists, especially climatologists, have warned that we have arrived at the edge of a
precipice with respect to dumping carbon into the atmosphere, that we have only a few years left
before we enter an irreversible process. I believe that we in fact have begun the slip down the
slippery slope. (cite NYRB) The world’s ice—at the poles, among glaciers, in the arctic
tundra—has been melting at geometrically increasing speed. ―Slipping is Crashes Law‖ said
Emily Dickinson 150 years ago and she was right. We cannot make gravity or rapid warming go
away by citing sacred texts or worshipping bottom lines. Even when a problem is recognized, he
argues thirdly, societies fail to try to solve it—or delay efforts, because of the greed of powerful
interests—as in the case of the international logging companies that literally cut and run from
one country to another without concern for the future of the people whose ecology has been
weakened or destroyed. In recent years we have witnessed the consequences of elites that
believe they have insulated themselves while siphoning off investors’ funds—Enron executives
or Haitian dictators, for example. Barbara Tuchman’s March of Folly (1984) cites a number of
societies from ancient Mayan kings to the deadly leaders of Nazi Germany in this regard.
         Finally, some societies fail even when they recognized and tried to address a problem
because the problem was too big (degrading environment), resources too small ($800 a gallon for
specific herbicides to kill Leafy Spurge in Australia), or because action came too late. Of course,
many societies succeed and it is not always possible to say why one society succeeded and
another failed. Diamond does concede that the answer ―partly depends on idiosyncrasies of
particular individuals and will defy prediction.‖ He cites a number of leaders who had the
courage ―to anticipate a growing problem or just a potential one, and to take bold steps to solve it
before it becomes an explosive crisis.‖ (459). Such leaders make Diamond ―believe that [his]
book on a seemingly pessimistic subject is really an optimistic book.‖ (See handouts.)
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        I am a card-carrying academic humanist. That is, my professional life has been devoted
to the value disciplines—language, history, criticism and interpretation—disciplines that raise
and try to clarify questions if not provide answers. That is why I find some of the most
interesting and important parts of Diamond’s book those that deal with values, especially value
issues involving tensions, ambiguities, paradoxes. Why do people vote against their short-term
interests as individuals when their long-term interests as part of a community are also at stake?
Why did the dictator Trujillo in Haiti institute forest conservation policies when it was in his
short-term interest to ―harvest‖ trees without concern for a long-term future? For a variety of
reasons—including, from time to time, rational planning on the part of elites—even dictators
make socially beneficial decisions.
        Of course, many powerful individuals and elites make bad decisions. Does it make sense,
for instance, to offer assistance to African countries suffering from the AIDS pandemic only on
condition that they promote only abstinence as a way of controlling the spread of AIDS? Do
pro-life values trump the value of saving lives now?
        For the most part I have tried to report on what Diamond’s important book offers about
the lessons of history. Now I will tell you what my central objections are to Diamond’s
overarching argument. I think two of Diamond’s assumptions are faulty, both of them having to
do with irrationality or unpredictability. First, Nature is even more unpredictable than Diamond
allows. He does speak of climate change, of earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, tornadoes, forest
fires and the like. He even points out that we are now, in an interconnected world, only 24 hours
away from deadly pandemics and other rapidly acting biological threats, unanticipatable asteroid
trajectories. As Herman Melville put it, ―Chance has the last featuring blow at events.‖ Still,
Diamond seems to me to underestimate the potential for Nature to strike cataclysmically and
with little warning and without respect for human plans or desires.
        Even more importantly, Diamond assumes that human beings are more rational than I do.
Man, Aristotle concluded, was a rational animal, and Diamond puts more emphasis on the
rational than I think history will support. We all have three brains, and I, at least, have been
guided as much by the first as by the second or third. When fallible men (and it is mostly men I
worry about) have it in their power to destroy the planet in a few minutes, we all have reason to
be concerned about the future. Seventy-five years ago ee cummings spoke in a poem about man,
―at the least crooking of whose finger, elephants swoon into billiard balls.‖ Now we need to
worry that with the least pressing of a button the planet will go dark.
        Scale is everything. We live, operationally, in a nano-second world. And not just in
terms of financial transactions but in military operations as well. But we function politically in
an almost geological time frame—like two legged grasshoppers. There is, to use a popular term,
an asymmetry between what we can do technologically and how we decide what needs to be
done. An asymmetry also exists between the grounds for making decisions (still the ―interests‖
of nation-states) and the reality of global interconnectedness. We are in the grip of such
paradoxes and tensions.
        We in the U.S. have become accustomed to rising standards of living. Everyone who
works hard should be able to afford to tour World Heritage sites by private jet. We tend to
dismiss luck (and therefore feel little obligation to be grateful). We are inclined to think China’s
desire to move in a couple of generations from third world to first world status is a good thing.
After all, the Chinese are famous for their industriousness and their frugality. They deserve to
succeed. But we seldom consider the costs to the planet if they were to succeed. Diamond
obliges us to ponder the fact that the earth would have to double in size to have the basic
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photosynthetic capacity to feed, clothe, house and entertain these billions of increased demands
and impacts on the environment. Unless the word is associated with a tumor, growth is assumed
to be a good thing. Can we move from a medium-demand world population of six billion to a
high-demand population of nine billion in three decades without something giving way?
        To illustrate what happens when the daily needs of a population outstrip the capacity of
their environment to sustain them, Diamond reviews the history of Easter Island and Norse
Iceland. For now I will stick with Easter Island.
        You soon will hear a good deal about the fascinating history of Easter Island and about
the demise of its high civilization, so I won’t duplicate this story here. What is worth offering is
the moral Diamond draws from the destruction of its obsession with erection of the fabulous
Moai—one of the mostly widely recognized icons in history.
        Here is Diamond: (p.119)
        The parallels between Easter Island and the whole modern world are chillingly obvious.
        Thanks to globalization, international trade, jet planes, and the Internet, all countries on
        Earth today share resources and affect each other, just as did Easter’s dozen clans.
        Polynesian Easter Island was as isolated in the Pacific Ocean as the Earth is today in
        space. When the Easter Islanders got into difficulties, there was nowhere to which they
        could flee, nor to which they could turn for help; nor shall we modern Earthlings have
        recourse elsewhere if our troubles increase. Those are the reasons why people see the
        collapse of Easter Island society as a metaphor, a worst-case scenario, for what may lie
        ahead of us in our own future.

          Of course, the metaphor is imperfect. Our situation today differs in important respects
          from that of Easter Islanders in the 17th century. Some of those differences increase the
          danger for us: for instance, if mere thousands of Easter Islanders with just stone tools
          and their own muscle power sufficed to destroy their environment and thereby destroyed
          their society, how can billions of people with metal tools and machine power now fail to
          do worse? But there are also differences in our favor, differences to which we shall
          return in the last chapter of this book.

Again, I am not as sanguine as Diamond is about differences in our favor. The vision of planet-
destroying power under the control of a very small number of flawed people, in Iran, for example,
gives me what Mark Twain described as the ―fantods‖ a word that is not in my dictionary. Think
whim-whams, which is.
        We used to live on a huge and unknown planet; if we sailed too far people worried we
might eventually fall off its edge. Now we live on a very small planet; as I say a pandemic is
only 24 hours away.
        We have gouged its surface, clear cut its forests, fouled its waters, polluted its air, poked
holes in its roof, slaughtered its fauna, poisoned its soil, tarred over its history, decimated its
species, estranged its peoples. Our report card is not good. We have forgotten, to paraphrase
John Donne, No island is an Island unto itself.
        Civilizations die not because they are genetically programmed, but because they are rigid,
inflexible, unadaptive, habit-ridden. The world they live in changes, but they refuse to. The
world or civilizations end because toxic leaders refuse to accept the evidence of their senses, the
logic of palpable evidence. They are dominated by the metaphors of the past—whether religious
or political or otherwise ideological. The problem is, metaphorically, how to avoid
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arteriosclerosis of the policy-making faculties. Put another way, the problem is the one al of us
face every day of our lives: renewing our creativity, staying alert to always fresh opportunities
for meaningful living. Put yet another way, civilizations as well as individuals (and the
institutions they have created) must find a way to recognize changes in reality, the reality of
         One of the wisest men of our time is the historian-economist Robert Heilbroner: In
Visions of the Future (1995) he makes three points about the future of civilization defined as
societies on a world scale. First we must secure a healthy terrestrial base with a stabilized
population. Health requires closing the gap between super rich and poverty-stricken regions of
the world. The world does change as we walk on it.
         Second, we must find some way to deal with our warlike proclivities—proclivities that
lead to horrifying waste of blood and treasure. No one alive today needs to be reminded of this.
         Finally, and I give this third requirement special emphasis, we must become ever more
aware of ―the complex role that unconscious drives and fantasies play in the determination of our
behavior.‖ Without a skeptical check on our beliefs and actions, we are doomed to repeat the
mistakes that have brought ruin to ideologically driven nation-states of the past.
         Henry David Thoreau was something of an expert on the life and death of civilizations.
He knew Sanskrit, Latin, Greek, German, Italian and other languages, and read deeply in many
of them. I will leave you with two of his ideas: first, that schemes, methods, plans and systems
are fine, but there is no substitute for staying always alert. The second may be an antidote to my
gloomy take on the prospects for human-kind: the final sentence of his very great book Walden
reads: ―The sun is but a morning star.‖

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