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Jared Diamond’s Collapse: A Review

It is by now a well-known and undisputed fact that climate change in all its guises is, or will soon be, the biggest problem for life on planet Earth. There is no longer any credible debate that it is occurring, and even the debate whether or not it has been caused mostly by human activity now depends only on an individual’s acceptance of the head-in-the-sand propaganda led by the oil lobby. My position is that regardless of whether climate change is caused by humans or not, we should treat it as if it were and take the threat seriously. If it turns out that the 97% of scientists who have been studying the issue in depth for decades were actually wrong and we ended up with cleaner, cheaper energy, a less wasteful and more sustainable way of living, and cleaner air, water, and land, then that is a consequence we can happily live with. On the other hand, if it turns out that the scientists are correct, but governments do not take action soon enough, we may risk if not total human extinction, quite probably the large-scale extinction of the type of modern civilization, values, and rights we have come to take for granted (as well as a mass extinction of huge numbers of plant and animal species). For all its faults, our modern civilization is infinitely better and more livable than the type of apocalyptic scenarios we are used to seeing in films and TV, but can hardly imagine actually happening in our lifetimes. In the worst-case scenario, the effects of climate change will rip apart the fragile trappings of civil society and make survival and the defense of basic natural resources the daily priority of most of the remaining humanity.

collapseThe collapse of individual human societies, either suddenly or over a long period of time, is nothing new. Just as a huge majority of the animal species that ever existed have gone extinct, a very large percentage of human societies that ever existed have gone extinct in different ways. Some have slowly transformed, migrated, or integrated into something completely different from what came before. The entire human species can be seen as one big melting pot in this way, genetically, culturally, linguistically, and anthropologically. In many well-known cases, there have been total or near collapse of entire societies. Jared Diamond, in his 2005 book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, examines several examples of such societies and analyzes the main factors that lead to societal collapse, and some examples of how other societies have avoided such a fate through various actions. The book is very interesting from a historical perspective alone, but the lessons we can draw from it still have very clear and present ramifications given that there are no longer individual isolated human societies as such, but just one single global human society whose fate will be shared be all–with the biggest burden upon the shoulders of the poorest and least culpable of us.

Collapse is the follow-up book to Diamond’s celebrated Guns, Germs, and Steel, in which he attempted to show how European countries quite suddenly and unexpected came to dominate the world for the last five centuries (I summarized and discussed that book at length in this article). Like its predecessor, Collapse is so rich in details, anecdotes, and useful analysis that it is impossible for a brief review to fully capture everything, and I would obviously suggest reading and pondering upon it for yourselves. In any case, I will attempt to give as brief a synopsis as possible and some relevant observations from my own reading. Why do I write a review of a book that came out 10 years ago? I read the book four years ago and, like Guns, Germs, and Steel, its lessons and conclusions stuck with me as I continued my ongoing education and search for how to live a good life. As I watch the news and reflect upon the state of the world and the environment today, I am often reminded of one or another of the lessons and wisdom from this book, which remains more relevant than ever.

The book compares a select group of past and present societies that either collapsed due to some of a variety of factors, or were able to recognize and overcome those factors in time to ensure their survival. The five factors Diamond identifies that contribute to societal collapse are: climate change, hostile neighbors, loss of essential trading partners, environmental problems, and failure to adapt to these environmental problems. He shows that the one shared trait among all collapsed societies is environmental problems, and that the single most decisive among the five factors is the failure to adapt to these problems. This is emphasized and shown throughout the book, thus anticipating and dismissing the charge of environmental and geographical determinism that is often leveled at Diamond by superficial critics. He further delineates 12 examples of environmental problems faced by human societies today, of which the first eight have all contributed in different levels to past societal collapses, and the last four or which are totally novel problems that have never before been faced by any human society:

Deforestation
Soil problems such as erosion, salinization, and loss of fertility
Water management problems
Overhunting
Overfishing
Effects of introduced plant and animal species on native species
Overpopulation
Impact of increased human density

Current and future factors to further complicate matters:
Man-made climate change
Buildup of toxins in the land and water
Energy shortages
Full use of the planet’s photosynthetic capacity

Deforestation of the Amazon in Brazil

Deforestation of the Amazon in Brazil

The single most important factor that causes other problems is overpopulation relative to the environmental and geographic carrying capacity (amount of sustainable human density allowed by geography and natural resources). The most representative environmental problem that leads to collapse is the destruction of forests, as Diamond says here: “Deforestation was a or the major factor in all the collapses of past societies described in this book.” Diamond also clarifies that environmental factors have not been the most important factor in all historic societal collapses; there are also military and economic factors to consider, such as in the cases of the Soviet Union and ancient Carthage to name two (and the hypothetical occurrence of nuclear war would fit into this category as well). Nevertheless, given the interconnectedness of the world today and the warming and deteriorating state of the environment, we will focus on the twelve factors that Diamond has listed and how they affect human survivability.

The first part of the book discusses at length the modern American state of Montana and shows some of the problems faced by several individuals and the work they are doing to protect their environment. Here he discusses especially how toxic to the environment the mining industry has been and still is for entire ecosystems.

Part two focuses on five historical examples of societal collapse and three historical success stories. The first is the Norse settlers of Greenland, who died out due to climate change, environmental damage, loss of trading partners (from Iceland), hostile neighbors (the Inuit, who have survived to modern times showing that adaptability is important), and unwillingness to adapt despite impending doom. On this last point, Diamond shows how the religious and political leaders continued to use their limited resources to import luxury status symbols for their own good rather than useful tools and metals that could be used to improve the colony; they also stubbornly refused to eat fish due to a social taboo even though they were living next to the water; furthermore, they continued to focus on raising cows despite the fact that the land could not support them.

Diamond next discusses Easter Island in a controversial chapter in which he holds that that island’s tribal societies collapsed completely owing to environmental damage. Specifically, he shows that the island was gradually deforested in order to build the huge monoliths that rival chiefs and tribes used as prestige symbols. When the island was deforested, the topsoil eroded and the island, already in a precarious situation as the most isolated place on Earth, could no support itself with no hope of help or escape.

The Anasazi people of southwestern North America, modern-day Arizona and New Mexico, collapsed due to environmental damage and climate change.

The Mayans of modern-day Mexico and Guatemala collapsed due to environmental damage, climate change, and hostile neighbors.

Then, he shows how some past societies avoided collapse due to recognizing their problems and changing course. The Pacific island of Tikopia is a small community where inhabitants assumed a bottom-up approach to limit and reverse deforestation and overfishing. On the island of New Guinea, highland peoples developed sophisticated agricultural techniques that fully used and conserved their natural resources, allowing them to thrive and survive undisturbed for thousands of years despite total isolation. In the 1600-1800s in Japan, the Tokogawa shogunate reversed centuries of deforestation due to constant warfare by dictating a top-down law restricting the felling of trees. It is one of the earliest and most successful examples of forest management, and ensured the survival and prosperity of societies in Japan to the present day (though he adds that the wood needed was outsourced from more distant countries, thus outsourcing as well the problem of deforestation, a problem which also has modern-day parallels).

Part three looks at some modern societies and the problems they face. The first of these is Rwanda. Diamond points out some of the political and environmental factors that led up to the horrific 1994 genocidal civil war in that country. As is often the case, Diamond speaks from decades of his own observations and travels in the places around the world he discusses. He had been to Rwanda before the civil war and noticed that there was no available land remaining for cultivation, with terraces running up to the very tops of the hills. This is one of the points that illustrates his conclusion that the main factor behind the violence was ultimately overpopulation and overuse of its available resources.

The next chapter interestingly compares two countries that share the same island and have had quite different paths: Haiti and the Dominican Republic. He does this on purpose to show that while environmental factors are always important, the most crucial aspect of a society’s collapse or survival is always attributable to the human reaction to the problems at hand. As he says: “For anyone inclined to caricature environmental history as “environmental determinism,” the contrasting histories of the Dominican Republic and Haiti provide a useful antidote. Yes, environmental problems do constrain human societies, but the societies’ responses also make a difference. So, too, for better or for worse, do the actions and inactions of their leaders.”

The last two chapters of part three look at problems facing a developing nation–China–and a first world nation–Australia. In both cases he lists some of the enormous environmental challenges faced by these countries as a way to show that the potential future outcomes can be positive or negative based on the actions or lack of actions by the leaders and citizens.

The last part of the book, and probably the most important, is what we can do to make a difference. Diamond writes: “It should also be understood that bottom-up and top-down approaches can coexist within a large-scale society that is organized as a pyramidal hierarchy of units. For example, in the United States and other democracies we have bottom-up management by local neighborhood and citizens’ groups coexisting with top-down management by many levels of government (city, county, state, and national).”

He goes on: “Leaders who don’t just react passively, who have the courage to anticipate crises or to act early, and who make strong insightful decisions of top-down management really can make a huge difference to their societies. So can similarly courageous, active citizens practicing bottom-up management. The Tokugawa shoguns, and my Montana landowner friends committed to the Teller Wildlife Refuge, exemplify the best of each type of management, in pursuit of their own long-term goals and of the interests of many others.”

About business, he has this to say: “When government regulation is effective, and when the public is environmentally aware, environmentally clean big businesses may outcompete dirty ones, but the reverse is likely to be true if government regulation is ineffective and if the public doesn’t care. It is easy and cheap for the rest of us to blame a business for helping itself by hurting other people. But that blaming alone is unlikely to produce change. It ignores the fact that businesses are not non-profit charities but profit-making companies, and that publicly owned companies with shareholders are under obligation to those shareholders to maximize profits, provided that they do so by legal means. Our laws make a company’s directors legally liable for something termed “breach of fiduciary responsibility” if they knowingly manage a company in a way that reduces profits. The car manufacturer Henry Ford was in fact successfully sued by stockholders in 1919 for raising the minimum wage of his workers to $5 per day: the courts declared that, while Ford’s humanitarian sentiments about his employees were nice, his business existed to make profits for its stockholders. Our blaming of businesses also ignores the ultimate responsibility of the public for creating the conditions that let a business profit through hurting the public: e.g., for not requiring mining companies to clean up, or for continuing to buy wood products from non-sustainable logging operations. In the long run, it is the public, either directly or through its politicians, that has the power to make destructive environmental policies unprofitable and illegal, and to make sustainable environmental policies profitable. The public can do that by suing businesses for harming them, as happened after the Exxon Valdez, Piper Alpha, and Bhopal disasters; by preferring to buy sustainably harvested products, a preference that caught the attention of Home Depot and Unilever; by making employees of companies with poor track records feel ashamed of their company and complain to their own management; by preferring their governments to award valuable contracts to businesses with a good environmental track record, as the Norwegian government did to Chevron; and by pressing their governments to pass and enforce laws and regulations requiring good environmental practices, such as the U.S. government’s new regulations for the coal industry in the 1970s and 1980s. In turn, big businesses can exert powerful pressure on their suppliers that might ignore public or government pressure.”

Diamond shows the urgency of the situation we are facing in this quote: “Our world society is presently on a non-sustainable course, and any of our 12 problems of non-sustainability that we have just summarized would suffice to limit our lifestyle within the next several decades. They are like time bombs with fuses of less than 50 years. For example, destruction of accessible lowland tropical rainforest outside national parks is already virtually complete in Peninsular Malaysia, will be complete at current rates within less than a decade in the Solomon Islands, the Philippines, on Sumatra, and on Sulawesi, and will be complete around the world except perhaps for parts of the Amazon Basin and Congo Basin within 25 years. At current rates, we shall have depleted or destroyed most of the world’s remaining marine fisheries, depleted clean or cheap or readily accessible reserves of oil and natural gas, and approached the photosynthetic ceiling within a few decades. Global warming is projected to have reached a degree Centigrade or more, and a substantial fraction of the world’s wild animal and plant species are projected to be endangered or past the point of no return, within half a century. People often ask, “What is the single most important environmental/population problem facing the world today?” A flip answer would be, “The single most important problem is our misguided focus on identifying the single most important problem!” That flip answer is essentially correct, because any of the dozen problems if unsolved would do us grave harm, and because they all interact with each other. If we solved 11 of the problems, but not the 12th, we would still be in trouble, whichever was the problem that remained unsolved. We have to solve them all.”

“The prosperity that the First World enjoys at present is based on spending down its environmental capital in the bank (its capital non-renewable energy sources, fish stocks, topsoil, forests, etc.). Spending capital should not be misrepresented as making money. It makes no sense to be content with our present comfort when it is clear that we are currently on a non-sustainable course.”

Diamond offers a few solutions here: “Is there anything that a poor individual who is neither a CEO nor a political leader can do to make a difference? Yes, there are half-a-dozen types of actions that often prove effective. But it needs to be said at the outset that an individual should not expect to make a difference through a single action, or even through a series of actions that will be completed within three weeks. Instead, if you do want to make a difference, plan to commit yourself to a consistent policy of actions over the duration of your life. In a democracy, the simplest and cheapest action is to vote. Some elections, contested by candidates with very different environmental agendas, are settled by ridiculously small numbers of votes. An example was the year 2000 U.S. presidential election, decided by a few hundred votes in the state of Florida. Besides voting, find out the addresses of your elected representatives, and take some time each month to let them know your views on specific current environmental issues. If representatives don’t hear from voters, they will conclude that voters aren’t interested in the environment. Next, you can reconsider what you, as a consumer, do or don’t buy. Big businesses aim to make money. They are likely to discontinue products that the public doesn’t buy, and to manufacture and promote products that the public does buy. The reason that increasing numbers of logging companies are adopting sustainable logging practices is that consumer demand for wood products certified by the Forest Stewardship Council exceeds supply. Of course, it is easiest to influence companies in your own country, but in today’s globalized world the consumer has increasing ability to influence overseas companies and policy-makers as well. A prime example is the collapse of white-minority government and apartheid policies in South Africa between 1989 and 1994, as the result of the economic boycott of South Africa by individual consumers and investors overseas, leading to an unprecedented economic divestiture by overseas corporations, public pension funds, and governments. During my several visits to South Africa in the 1980s, the South African state seemed to me so irrevocably committed to apartheid that I never imagined it would back down, but it did. Another way in which consumers can influence policies of big companies, besides buying or refusing to buy their products, is by drawing public attention to the company’s policies and products. One set of examples is the campaigns against animal cruelty that led major fashion houses, such as Bill Blass, Calvin Klein, and Oleg Cassini, to publicly renounce their use of fur. Another example involves the public activists who helped convince the world’s largest wood products company, Home Depot, to commit to ending its purchases of wood from endangered forest regions and to give preference to certified forest products. Home Depot’s policy shift greatly surprised me: I had supposed consumer activists to be hopelessly outgunned in trying to influence such a powerful company. Most examples of consumer activism have involved trying to embarrass a company for doing bad things, and that one-sidedness is unfortunate, because it has given environmentalists a reputation for being monotonously shrill, depressing, boring, and negative. Consumer activists could also be influential by taking the initiative to praise companies whose policies they do like. In Chapter 15 I mentioned big businesses that are indeed doing things sought by environmentalist consumers, but those companies have received much less praise for their good deeds than blame for their bad deeds. Most of us are familiar with Aesop’s fable concerning the competition between the wind and the sun to persuade a man to take off his coat: after the wind blew hard and failed, the sun then shone brightly and succeeded. Consumers could make much more use of the lesson of that fable, because big businesses adopting environmentalist policies know that they are unlikely to be believed if they praise their own policies to a cynical public; the businesses need outside help in becoming recognized for their efforts. Among the many big companies that have benefited recently from favorable public comment are ChevronTexaco and Boise Cascade, praised for their environmental management of their Kutubu oil field and for their decision to phase out products of unsustainably managed forests, respectively. In addition to activists castigating “the dirty dozen,” they could also praise “the terrific ten.” Consumers who wish to influence big businesses by either buying or refusing to buy their products, or by embarrassing or praising them, need to go to the trouble of learning which links in a business chain are most sensitive to public influence, and also which links are in the strongest position to influence other links. Businesses that sell directly to the consumer, or whose brands are on sale to the consumer, are much more sensitive than businesses that sell only to other businesses and whose products reach the public without a label of origin. Retail businesses that, by themselves or as part of a large buyers’ group, buy much or all of the output of some particular producing business are in a much stronger position to influence that producer than is a member of the public. I mentioned several examples in Chapter 15, and many other examples can be added. For instance, if you do or don’t approve of how some big international oil company manages its oil fields, it does make sense to buy at, boycott, praise, or picket that company’s gas stations. If you admire Australian titanium mining practices and dislike Lihir Island gold mining practices, don’t waste your time fantasizing that you could have any influence on those mining companies yourself; turn your attention instead to DuPont, and to Tiffany and Wal-Mart, which are major retailers of titanium-based paints and of gold jewelry, respectively. Don’t praise or blame logging companies without readily traceable retail products; leave it instead to Home Depot, Lowe’s, B and Q, and the other retail giants to influence the loggers. Similarly, seafood retailers like Unilever (through its various brands) and Whole Foods are the ones who care whether you buy seafood from them; they, not you, can influence the fishing industry itself. Wal-Mart is the world’s largest grocery retailer; they and other such retailers can virtually dictate agricultural practices to farmers; you can’t dictate to farmers, but you do have clout with Wal-Mart. If you want to know where in the business chain you as a consumer have influence, there are now organizations such as the Mineral Policy Center/Earthworks, the Forest Stewardship Council, and the Marine Stewardship Council that can tell you the answer for many business sectors.”

And finally: “Working to fix your local environment has another benefit besides making your own life more pleasant. It also sets an example to others, both in your own country and overseas. Local environmental organizations tend to be in frequent contact with each other, exchanging ideas and drawing inspiration. When I was scheduling interviews with Montana residents associated with the Teller Wildlife Refuge and the Blackfoot Initiative, one of the constraints on their schedules arose from trips that they were making to advise other such local initiatives in Montana and neighboring states. Also, when Americans tell people in China or other countries what the Chinese should (in the opinion of the Americans) be doing for the good of themselves and the rest of the world, our message tends to fall on unreceptive ears because of our own well-known environmental misdeeds. We would be more effective in persuading people overseas to adopt environmental policies good for the rest of humanity (including for us) if we ourselves were seen to be pursuing such policies in more cases. Finally, any of you who have some discretionary money can multiply your impact by making a donation to an organization promoting policies of your choice. There is an enormous range of organizations to fit anyone’s interests: Ducks Unlimited for those interested in ducks, Trout Unlimited for those into fishing, Zero Population Growth for those concerned with population problems, Seacology for those interested in islands, and so on. All such environmental organizations operate on low budgets, and many operate cost-effectively, so that small additional sums of money make big differences. That’s true even of the largest and richest environmental organizations. For example, World Wildlife Fund is one of the three largest and best-funded environmental organizations operating around the world, and it is active in more countries than any other. The annual budget of WWF’s largest affiliate, its U.S. branch, averages about $100 million per year, which sounds like a lot of money—until one realizes that that money has to fund its programs in over 100 countries, covering all plant and animal species and all marine and terrestrial habitats. That budget also has to cover not only mega-scale projects (such as a $400million, 10-year program to triple the area of habitat protected in the Amazon Basin), but also a multitude of small-scale projects on individual species. Lest you think that your small donation is meaningless to such a big organization, consider that a gift of just a few hundred dollars suffices to support a trained park ranger, outfitted with global positioning software, to survey Congo Basin primate populations whose conservation status would otherwise be unknown. Consider also that some environmental organizations are highly leveraged and use private gifts to attract further funds from the World Bank, governments, and aid agencies on a dollar-for-dollar basis. For instance, WWF’s Amazon Basin project is leveraged by a factor of more than 6-to-1, so that your $300 gift actually ends up putting almost $2,000 into the project. Of course, I mention these numbers for WWF merely because it’s the organization with whose budget I happen to be most familiar, and not in order to recommend it over many other equally worthy environmental organizations with different goals. Such examples of how efforts by individuals make a difference can be multiplied indefinitely.”

There is so much rich detail of information and historical example in Collapse that it is hard to capture in a short review. This book, now over 10 years old, is still as relevant as when it was published because its lessons are universal and timeless. They can be summarized as something like the following: the only path to a successful society is an environmentally sustainable one; and, leaders need to take action to solve problems, and citizens need to be aware of the problems and push leaders to act. There is still time to make a difference, especially with the United Nations Climate Conference happening in Paris at the end of this year, but failure to adapt will be as deadly for us as it was for Easter Islanders.

Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel

Why did Europeans dominate and colonize the rest of the world for so long? Why did they develop technology faster than other cultures, and why did European diseases wipe out native populations and not vice versa? These are some of the basic questions that Jared Diamond attempts to investigate and explain in his 1997 book, Guns, Germs, and Steel. This multi-disciplinary book, which won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction, has been mostly well-received, with a not-insignificant share of criticism and mild controversy. I read the book four years ago, but I recently discovered and viewed a three-part miniseries by the National Geographic Society (aired by PBS in 2005) in which Professor Diamond visited diverse locales from around the world in order to reaffirm the basic ideas behind his thesis. I will provide a summary of these ideas, followed by my own opinions on this matter and why it matters to us.

Diamond bird-watching in New Guinea (from NGS/PBS)

Diamond, who is a physiologist by training, as well as an expert ornithologist, is currently a professor of geography and environmental history at UCLA. This book is the product of 30 years of study, beginning when he was in New Guinea on one of his annual bird-watching trips to that island and was asked by a local politician named Yali, “Why do white people have so much cargo [the word used for inventions/manufactured goods], but we New Guineans have so little?” Diamond had never considered this question, but quickly realized that it applied to other societies as well–Native Americans, Sub-Saharans Africans, Australian Aborigines, etc. The answer, which he methodically explains over the next 500 pages, is based on the environmental disposition of the continents, the relative number of various people-friendly plants and animals, and the positive feedback loops caused by these factors.  Basically, “It’s the geography, stupid.” Diamond’s approach has been criticized as presenting a deterministic scenario that is overly-dependent on the environment. In any case, it surely wholly discredited any vestiges of the widespread Victorian (and later) Era commonplace that Europeans were inherently superior, either genetically, mentally, or technologically.  Diamond uses a few case studies to demonstrate the error of this credence.

Some of the basic points include:

  1. Starting from a prehistoric time when all human societies were all roughly at the same level of development, about 15,000 years ago after the last Ice Age.
  2. Analyzing the development of societies from hunter-gatherers to agriculture, and later to more complex hierarchical structures with cities and kings.
  3. Listing the different types of edible plants in each geographical zone. Starting in the Fertile Crescent, the Eurasian land mass developed a rich agricultural tradition based around such nutritious (and protein-rich) grains as barley, two types of wheat, pulses, and flax, which were also easy to sow by throwing seeds over the ground. Nowhere else had such abundance: New Guinea only had a nutrient-poor tree-pulp harvest; the Americas had only maize, which was also nutrient-poor and difficult to plant by hand.
  4. Listing the domestic animals in each zone.  Diamond finds a total of 148 potential large (100 lbs. or more) mammals that could be domesticated in the world. Only 14 of these were ever domesticated, and all but one of these were native to Eurasia. The llama/alpaca from South America was the only outlier, and even that animal was never used for labor or transportation. The other 13, including the ‘big four’ of cows, horses, sheep, and pigs, provided Eurasian societies with a plethora of benefits, including meat, labor, milk, transportation, wool, leather, etc. Africa has a number of large mammals, but none that can be domesticated. Australia has none, and many were probably hunted to extinction long ago. New Guinea gained the pig only 5000 years ago, and it can only be used for meat in any case.
  5. Already, the simultaneous presence of this animal/agricultural diversity benefits Eurasia and leads to a positive benefit for humans, animals, and plants there.
  6. Because of the long east-west running axis of Eurasia, plants and animals could spread more easily to similar climates with the same day-length. There were no geographical barriers that hindered the spread of these plants and animals that were native to any local region throughout the entire landmass.
  7. Every other area had vast physical barriers and long north-south axes that prevented effective spread of any potential benefits from one area to another.
  8. As Eurasian societies gained agricultural surpluses due to their grain yields and available animal power, they also developed more complex societies with specialists who did not need to work for food. Writing was invented in the Fertile Crescent and spread. There were also artisans, inventors, and armies. Any innovation in one area would be quickly adopted by neighboring tribes/societies in an ongoing ‘arms race’ that insured the faster technological progression of these areas.
  9. Humans living in such close proximity to so many domesticated animals, and in ever-larger towns and cities, meant that diseases would be more prevalent and spread rapidly. Many plagues thus swept through Eurasia, killing large swathes of the population each time, but also genetically strengthening those fortunate survivors.
  10. The societies without such animal domestication, and without close proximity to other groups, did not suffer widespread plagues seen in Eurasia. This also means that when Europeans eventually sailed to distant shores, they took their diseases with them. They had become immune, but the Native peoples were not.
  11. Many technological developments were invented in the Middle East or China, but the Europeans were still able to reap the benefits, taking and improving on things invented elsewhere.
  12. Diamond argues also that environmental factors further helped Europeans more than other Eurasia societies. The original Fertile Crescent innovators had perhaps been too gung-ho about agriculture and eventually caused desertification of once-fertile land. China developed and became unified fairly rapidly, but was too isolated to remain dynamic. Europe, however, had enough mountain barriers to ensure a large number of independent states that could still constantly compete, trade technology, and engage in a never-ending ‘arms race’.
In one case study, Diamond discusses the conquest of the huge Inca Empire by only a couple hundred Spanish soldiers. The pathogens (probably smallpox) of the Europeans had already spread across the continent well in advance of the actual Spanish soldiers, killing a huge number of the native population. The Spanish had horses, which the Inca had never seen, and were extremely adept at using them in combat. They also had steel swords, and the inaccurate, but still impressive, early firearm called the harquebus. The Inca emperor, Atahualpa, thought that the small number of strange men was no threat and allowed them to advance all the way to his distant capital. Even though he was surrounded by an army of ten thousand, the Spanish were still able to orchestrate a surprise morning attack against the unsuspecting Inca and capture the emperor himself. They imprisoned him for 10 months and used him to gain vast amounts of gold treasure to take back to Spain, and then executed him. In this way, it was easy for a small number of Europeans to conquer and colonize other lands using their guns, germs, and steel that they had gradually gained through the ‘geographic lottery’.

Some criticisms of the book take issue with relatively minor points, such as the nutritional value of some crops like maize, the difficulty in adapting crops to new areas, and the effects of various geographical barriers (such as European mountains), etc.  A more serious criticism takes aim at the entire premise, stating that it is too deterministic, or dependent on environmental factors to explain the success or failure of every society, minimizing the actual innovations that were developed by the people themselves. Diamond has refuted this by explaining only that environmental factors (animals, plants, geography) allowed Europe to get a ‘head-start’ and develop faster; he says that other societies would have also progressed eventually to their own industrial revolutions, but at a slower rate. The Europeans had already used their advantage to conquer before other areas had the chance to catch up!

Also, some people say that Diamond has not made use of the more nuanced history of the modern world, and how societies continue to develop today. In fact, Diamond concludes his study in modern-day Africa, taking a trip into the interior of Zambia. There, he finds a society still devastated by the epidemic of malaria. In the video, he is emotionally overcome at the sight of so many helpless children having no hope, and dying in huge numbers. He realizes that geography still plays a part in determining the fate of a country. The colonization of Africa changed the lifestyle of the people there away from their natural customs to follow the European model. They came down from the cool highlands to live in big cities in the mosquito-infested lowlands. With prosperous Asian countries such as Singapore, he gives an example of how people can change their situation using current scientific knowledge and resources. Singapore also used to be a poor country in a swampy land with rampant malaria. A long series of land-reclamation projects and intense malaria-fighting measures eventually provided the people with the freedom to not only survive, but to flourish.

There are many other interesting facets of this book, but I will conclude with my final observation. Diamond has shown how geography plays an integral role in facilitating the success of a society. In ancient times, technological developments were gradual, as was the population growth. There was a slow ebb and flow and societies that were heavily dependent on the environmental factors they had to constantly deal with. Today, the world can be seen as almost one society, or at least one in which everyone is potentially connected and dependent on people from around the globe for various foodstuffs and products. Globalization is not going away. But a rapidly growing population now uses more natural resources than ever before, with huge industrialization straining limited supplies of fresh water, arable land, and animals and fish. Everywhere there is growing prosperity in the world, but it is built on a foundation of inefficient use of resources, rampant waste, and disgusting pollution of every kind. This is not the historical model of any successful society in history. There is no reason to think that our modern society will escape the pattern of failure that always follows from such environmental factors. The difference is that in the past, people were unaware of and helpless to influence their environment. That is not the case today. I wonder when we will decide to take control of our own fate to protect the environment that sustains our prosperous, and precipitous, society.

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