Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
February 1, 2005
HISTORY: Environment and Culture
Gregg Easterbrook reviews "Collapse" by Jared Diamond, and gives an overview of Diamond's thesis, in his earlier book "Guns, Germs, and Steel," that the advantages of Western societies are wholly and completely an accident of environmental conditions. As set forth in this and other reviews (no, I haven't read the books), Diamond's thesis sounds like a classic example of a useful insight carried to ludicrous extremes. Easterbrook:
Diamond's analysis discounts culture and human thought as forces in history; culture, especially, is seen as a side effect of environment. The big problem with this view is explaining why China -- which around the year 1000 was significantly ahead of Europe in development, and possessed similar advantages in animals and plants -- fell behind. This happened, Diamond says, because China adopted a single-ruler society that banned change. True, but how did environment or animal husbandry dictate this? China's embrace of a change-resistant society was a cultural phenomenon. During the same period China was adopting centrally regimented life, Europe was roiled by the idea of individualism. Individualism proved a potent force, a source of power, invention and motivation. Yet Diamond considers ideas to be nearly irrelevant, compared with microbes and prevailing winds. Supply the right environmental conditions, and inevitably there will be a factory manufacturing jet engines.
Of course, to argue that the environmental factors Diamond cites were a boon to the West is to state the obvious; to suggest that they, and the conditions to which they contributed, also contributed to the West's dynamic culture of individualism and rational, skeptical thought is likewise common sense. But, as Easterbrook points out, it's hard work to ignore culture completely. Easterbrook also notes the logical leap made by Diamond's latest book, "Collapse," when it tries to generalize lessons for the wider world from the collapse of societies like Easter Island and the Viking settlement in Greenland:
How much do Diamond's case studies bear on current events? He writes mainly about isolated islands and pretechnology populations. Imagine the conditions when Erik the Red founded his colony on frigid Greenland in 984 -- if something went wrong, the jig was up. As isolated systems, islands are more vulnerable than continents. Most dire warnings about species extinction, for example, are estimates drawn from studies of island ecologies, where a stressed species may have no place to retreat to. "Collapse" declares that "a large fraction" of the world's species may fall extinct in the next 50 years, which is the kind of conclusion favored by biologists who base their research on islands. But most species don't live on islands. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the leading authority on biodiversity, estimates that about 9 percent of the world's vertebrate species are imperiled. That's plenty bad enough, but does not support the idea that a "large fraction" of species are poised to vanish. Like most species, most people do not live on islands, yet "Collapse" tries to generalize from environmental failures on isolated islands to environmental threats to society as a whole.
A theme I've noted before here is that many bad ideas are simply good ideas stretched too far. This seems like a perfect example.