Decline And Fall

A review of Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond (Viking, 592 pp., $29.95).

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Magazine

Jared Diamond’s bestselling Guns, Germs, and Steel argued that geography trumped culture, and that the current privileged position of the West was therefore mostly attributable to the advantageous resources in, and location of, Western countries, rather than to Europe’s singular values. Despite the allure of such a politically correct exegesis — President Clinton endorsed the book wholeheartedly — there were numerous criticisms of this determinist idea of natural accidents resulting in the present-day dominance of the West. At some point a Cleisthenes, Plato, Augustine, Magna Carta, Sistine Chapel, Thomas Edison, or Albert Einstein — and the thinking and substructure that produced them — is worth more than long, indented coastlines and concentrations of iron ore. Diamond seemed to be terribly confused about the course of 2,500 years of Western history: Environment, far from being a precondition for Western success, was often almost irrelevant to it.

For example, how did the Ptolemies create an even more dynamic civilization than that of the earlier dynastic pharaohs, when they inherited from them a supposedly exhausted and increasingly salinized landscape? Or why did the palatial culture of Mycenae prove to be a dead-end society, and yet the radically different Greek city-state centuries later blossomed in the exact same environment? More immediately, are we to suppose that there are underappreciated micro-climates that separate Tijuana from San Diego, strangely different soils on the two immediate sides of the Korean DMZ, and something about those ever-changing lagoons of Venice that made it irrelevant in late Roman times, a world power in 1500, and once again a backwater by 1850? Did the environment of Britain improve from A.D. 400 to 1700 while Rome’s declined, thus explaining why the former outpost of the Western world became its new center and vice versa?

Never mind that these bothersome historical details point to a particularly innovative — and ever evolving — social, economic, and political Western paradigm that can not only destroy, but repair, and, yes, often improve on nature in a way not quite possible in other cultures. The hillside slums of Mexico City, Sao Paulo, or Calcutta may support Diamond’s gloomy assessments of what population density and environmental ignorance have wrought, but why does such a theory break down when we look at civilized and relatively affluent life in similarly congested Tokyo and London? Instead of the hard work of sorting out the subtleties of how sophisticated Westernized cultures both succeed and fail in inhospitable landscapes, the morality tale of Guns, Germs, and Steel was soothing salve to the increasingly berated Westerner, who apparently was amused by the idea that he had not stolen, but bumbled onto, his embarrassing bounty. And so the book, presented in a chatty and often witty style, went on to sell a million copies.

Perhaps Diamond sensed those inconsistencies and thus in his new book, Collapse, he attempts to demonstrate through case histories of small micro-climates from Easter Island and modern Montana to Iceland and Greenland how civilizations disintegrate: Mishandling of the fragile environment causes wars, famines, depopulation, and eventual breakdown — and we modern wastrels should learn from them all before it is too late. Of course, empires can seem to fall for other reasons, but usually historians fail to see that political and military causation “masquerades” deeper environmental degradation.

Diamond’s natural determinism and condemnation of the West’s pathological means of exploitation are nothing new, but represent a synthesis of the previous pessimisms from Marx and Toynbee to Paul Ehrlich and Kirkpatrick Sale. Most scholars, however, would accept the notion that societies like those of the Egyptians, Romans, Aztecs, or Ottomans — civilizations that, unlike those of Diamond’s tiny settlements at Pitcairn Island or Vineland, had millions of inhabitants — at some period in their growth, evolution, and maturity inevitably declined; whether abrupt or insidious, such breakdowns were largely due to government overcentralization and rigid bureaucracy, affluence and leisure among a bored elite, high taxation, and depopulation in the countryside — all of which made rulers insensitive to change and unable to react rapidly to the radically new stimuli of invasion, novel religions, internal dissent, and, yes, occasional natural challenge.

In contrast to this broad historical picture, most of Diamond’s examples are slanted: They involve fragile, mostly isolated or island landscapes that witnessed colonists, renegades, or adventurers who sought in their greed or ignorance to put too many people in the wrong place. Modern Montana cattlemen and miners, like Norsemen and Mayan big men of the past, are easy targets; Diamond breezily disparages them through comparisons to “modern American CEOs” and caricatured chauvinists who proclaim “the unconscious message, ‘We are Europeans, we are Christians.’” When the reader begins to suspect that these light, anecdotal impressions are either irrelevant to larger historical questions or themselves internally inconsistent, Diamond coughs out a necessary qualifier: “I am not claiming,” “On the other hand,” and “Nor am I . . .”

The main problem, however, with this book is that Diamond’s well-meaning, environmentally correct storytelling cannot impart any coherent lesson of why in fact societies fail. Environmental degradation, climate change, hostilities, political and cultural failures, and trade are cited as the roots of collapse, but are used so interchangeably that we never learn to what degree mismanagement of nature or of people brings on doom. As a result, when Diamond ventures into systematic analysis of historical questions that he knows nothing about, he has a predictable propensity to say things that are not simply wrong but hilarious.

Yes, Americans once clear-cut the northeast, but now it has more forests than ever — because, among other things, technology moved us beyond wood-burning fuels. Iceland lost its topsoil and trees and thus many of its early settlements — but modern technology, liberal government, and Western jurisprudence ensure that its current Scandinavian descendants inhabit a successful society despite its cold, denuded, and unfertile island. And if Diamond believes that is so because Icelanders finally got smart and now follow his environmentally correct nostrums, he should ask why that is so — or what would happen in a decade should they magically be transferred to Haiti or Yemen and, in turn, Haitians and Yemenis were to take over Iceland.

Perhaps the wealthy, pampered 9/11 terrorists did count on the teeming slums of the Middle East for their base of support, and no doubt Rwanda’s genocide likewise had elements of too many people expecting too much from too few resources, but such environmental explanations are in the end fatuous when seen in larger and far more important political and economic terms. A Singapore or South Korea — or Manhattan — shows that modern technology, free markets, and the rule of law create a fluid and ever responsive social structure that can trump tribalism, religious fundamentalism, and the miseries of material poverty, limited resources, and an unforgiving nature.

Diamond also fails to see that his “masquerading” works both ways. If we historians are fooled into thinking environmentally degraded societies lose wars owing to military ineptness rather than resource depletion, then he is utterly incapable of seeing that material want is often a mere pretext for national delusion and aggression. Germany is more populous today on smaller territory than in 1939, when it advanced the bogus notion of Lebensraum; overcrowded contemporary Japan, Inc. does fine within its smaller borders without warring for a Greater Co-Prosperity Sphere. Few think that the Falklands were vital to Argentina’s food supply.

In an age of sophisticated fertilizers that can implant huge amounts of nitrogen into the soil through a variety of mechanical, chemical, and “organic” mechanisms, it is simply not true — as I can attest from 30 years of farming trees and vines — that in Montana “apple orchards, which were initially very profitable, collapsed, due to in part to apple trees’ exhausting the soil’s nitrogen.” Diamond laments that out-of-state homeowners are “careful to stay in Montana for less than 180 days per year in order to avoid Montana income tax and thereby [not] to contribute to the cost of local government and schools,” but ignores the logical corollary that many of his maligned affluent Californian interlopers (and other commuters like them from other states) already pay almost 10 percent of their salaries back home for services that they, as absentee residents, do not fully use.

Diamond idealizes the Netherlands as one of the world’s most environmentally sound countries, where the need to manage the tides has made it an especially communitarian culture of the “polter” — as if resource management will address unassimilated Islamic ghettos, or as if such environmental sensitivity extended to the more mundane task of cultural integration. (In any case, that country is in near paralysis from, and now furious at, the murder of Theo Van Gogh and Islamic fundamentalist threats to its democracy.) Similarly, Diamond’s idea that the Australian continent not only cannot support its present small population, but is doomed unless it reverts to a more natural human community of 8 million is ludicrous. The recent history of Australia has actually seen a steady rise in the standard of living, directly connected with growing population and a newfound allegiance to free trade, open markets, and foreign investment — all of which have capitalized on the rich Australian environment in novel and often sustainable fashion.

Finally, the moral lectures about contemporary Western dissipation are sadly compromised by occasional hypocrisy. While I think Diamond is absolutely right that “wealthy people” often “insulate themselves from the rest of society” and “use their own money to buy services for themselves privately,” I also know that his own environment of Westwood and UCLA is not quite Bakersfield or Memphis, but one of the most affluent and secluded in the world. Diamond’s ample reference in the text to dozens of overseas trips, and numerous sabbaticals and research grants the world over, testifies not merely to his privilege, but also to the success of the modern Western world in altering the environment. Safe and rapid global travel, modern medicine, and the security brought through jurisprudence — all developed over the same 2,500 years of Western exploitation that Diamond takes jabs at — are a world away from the brutish, more natural world of New Guinea that in the past he has often romanticized, but ultimately chooses to visit periodically rather than raise his children in on a permanent basis. Indeed, the exploitation of fuels, ores, and soils that Diamond seems to think is so often reckless and presages our own collapse is very oftennot reckless, and thus inseparable from his own current enlightened and rich existence.

Parts of Collapse are a therapeutic and salutary reminder to recycle more, trade in our gas-guzzling SUVs, and cut back on the parathion, but sound history this book unfortunately is not.

©2005 Victor Davis Hanson

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