[Marxism] Richard Heinberg's reviews Jared Diamond's Collapse

Don Hiatt donhiatt at gmail.com
Wed Mar 2 08:24:20 MST 2005

  Here is another take on Jared Diamond's "Collapse: How Societies
Choose to Fail or Succeed",
this time by Richard Heinberg (http://www.museletter.com/). Richard
has written many excellent
books and articles on the subject of Peak Oil and his "Museletter" is
very well written and highly educational.


URL: http://www.museletter.com/archive/154.html

No. 154 - February 2004

by Richard Heinberg

    Meditations on Collapse
    A review of Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail
or Succeed

    Jared Diamond - Collapse. How Societies Choose to Fail or
SucceedCivilizations collapse. That is the rule that we learn from
history, and it is a rule whose implications deserve careful thought
given the fact that our own civilization - despite its global extent
and unsurpassed technological prowess - is busily severing its own
ecological underpinnings. Thus we should pay close attention when
Jared Diamond, one of the world's most celebrated and honored science
writers, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel,
devotes his newest and already best-selling book to the subject of how
and why whole societies sometimes lose their way and descend into

    Diamond uses his considerable popular non-fiction prose-writing
skills - carefully honed in the crafting of scores of articles for
Natural History, Discover, Nature, and Geo - to trace the process of
collapse in several ancient societies (including the Easter Islanders,
the Maya, the Anasazi, and the Greenland Norse colony) and show
parallels with trends in several modern nations (Rwanda, Haiti, and

    One theme quickly emerges: the environment plays a crucial role in
each instance. Resource depletion, habitat destruction, and population
pressure combine in different ways in different circumstances; but
when their mutually reinforcing impacts become critical, societies are
sometimes challenged beyond their ability to respond and consequently

    The ancient Maya practised intensive slash-and-burn horticulture,
growing mostly corn. Their population increased dramatically, peaking
in the eighth century C.E., but this resulted in the over-cutting of
forests; meanwhile their fragile soils were becoming depleted. A
series of droughts turned problem to crisis. Yet kings and nobles,
rather than comprehending and responding to the crisis, evidently
remained fixated on the short-term priorities of enriching themselves,
building monuments, waging wars, and extracting sufficient food from
the peasants to support their ostentatious lifestyles. The population
of Mayan cities quickly began a decline that would continue for
several centuries, culminating in levels 90 percent lower than at the
civilization's height in 700.

    The Easter Islanders, whose competing clan leaders built giant
stone statues in order to display their prestige and to symbolize
their connection with the gods, cut every last tree in their delicate
environment to use in erecting these eerie monuments. Hence the people
lost their source of raw materials for building canoes, which were
essential for fishing. Meanwhile bird species were driven into
extinction, crop yields fell, and the human population declined, so
that by the time Captain Cook arrived in 1774 the remaining Easter
Islanders, who had long since resorted to cannibalism, were, in Cook's
words, "small, lean, timid, and miserable."

    Regarding the Anasazi of the American Southwest, who left behind
stone ceremonial centers that had been integrated into a far-flung
empire, I can do no better than to quote Diamond's own summary:

        Despite these varying proximate causes of abandonments, all
were ultimately due to the same fundamental challenge: people living
in fragile and difficult environments, adopting solutions that were
brilliantly successful and understandable in the short run, but that
failed or else created fatal problems in the long run, when people
became confronted with external environmental changes or human-caused
environmental changes that cities without written histories and
without archaeologists could not have anticipated.

    A second important theme in the book is that human choice can make
the difference between prosperity and ruin. Diamond is quick to point
out that he is not an "environmental determinist": while the leaders
of the Maya and Easter Islanders made disastrous decisions that
plunged their societies into collapse, others did better. He describes
how the Inuit in the Arctic and Polynesians on Tikopia managed to
create ways of life that were indefinitely sustainable, and why the
Dominican Republic has had a more peaceful and economically stable
history than its neighbor, Haiti.

    Diamond argues that our modern global industrial society is
creating some of the very same sorts of environmental problems that
caused ancient societies to fail, plus four new ones: "human-caused
climate change, buildup of toxic chemicals in the environment, energy
shortages and full human utilization of the earth's photosynthetic
capacity." Echoing the conclusions of the Limits to Growth study of
1972, Diamond notes that many of these problems are likely to "become
globally critical within the next few decades."

    There is much to admire in this book. Diamond's essential message
- that our very persistence as a civilized society may depend upon
well-led efforts to reduce the negative impact of our economic
processes upon nature - is one that more people desperately need to
hear. The author artfully skewers classic one-liner objections such
as, "The environment has to be balanced against the economy,"
"Technology will solve our problems," and "If we exhaust one resource,
we can always switch to some other resource meeting the same need."
Collapse draws the reader into rich and fascinating discussions of
specific modern instances in which collapse in some form already has
occurred, is occurring, or is likely to occur-Rwanda, Haiti, and
Montana-showing in each instance how political and economic events,
emerging from underlying environmental crises and constraints, can
lead to economic reversal, social disintegration, or even genocide.

    Yet while this is a helpful discussion of the subject for readers
who have never before contemplated the possibility that modern
fossil-fuel-based industrialism may be unsustainable in the starkest
meaning of the term, for readers who have been contemplating that fact
for some time - and especially for those who have already made some
efforts to draw parallels between the exuberance of modern industrial
society and the similar qualities of ancient empires in their
florescent stage immediately before their demise - Diamond's efforts
fall short.

    While the book is rigorous in detail, it is haphazard with regard
to theory. Diamond's methodological prowess shines, for example, as he
investigates the reasons for the failure of the Viking colony in
Greenland: he uses the most recent archaeological data to build a
careful, persuasive case that the Norse farmers simply failed to
adjust their cultural attitudes to take advantage of the most abundant
local protein source - fish - and hence starved. In the process, we
learn a great deal about how these people lived, and about how
archaeologists gather and piece together evidence in order to arrive
at conclusions about the human past. Details matter, and Diamond is
very good at moving beyond superficial similes ("America is like Rome
prior to its fall") to look at particular places with care and nuance.

    However, when presented with such a sweeping title and subject,
readers need breadth of overview as much as depth of specificity. Why
did the author select the examples he did? Why did he not choose to
discuss Imperial China or Rome, or the ancient Mesopotamians or
Egyptians? Why not, in addition to a thorough discussion of a few
emblematic societies, also offer a comprehensive and systematic survey
of all previous civilizations? This is not as daunting a prospect as
it might seem: there have only been about 24 civilizations in all of
human history (if we define civilization as a society with cities,
writing, full-time division of labor, and relatively high levels of
technological complexity). The wealth of data available would permit a
fascinating comparative overview using a range of selected criteria.

    Diamond refers on only three occasions (and then briefly) to
Joseph Tainter's classic The Collapse of Complex Societies (Cambridge
University Press, 1988), which is widely considered the standard work
on the subject. He rightly criticizes Tainter for underemphasizing the
role of environmental factors - especially resource depletion - in
previous instances of collapse. However, Diamond does not take the
time to explain Tainter's valuable contributions to the discussion. It
is difficult for the reader to have the sense of building on a
previous theory without an understanding of what the previous theory
is. Theory was in fact one of the great strengths of Tainter's book:
he surveyed all known complex societies, and systematically assessed
dozens of prior serious discussions of collapse (including the ideas
of Arnold Toynbee, Elman Service, Pitirim Sorokin, and Alfred
Kroeber), so that when he got around to introducing his own hypothesis
(which can be summarized as the inevitability of the diminishing of
returns on societal investments in complexity) the reader felt a sense
of participation in the refinement of our collective understanding of
the problem. This doesn't happen to nearly the same degree in
Collapse. Why? Perhaps Diamond was trying to avoid sounding academic
and wanted to write in such a way that the maximum number of readers
would commit themselves to the task of wading through a long book on a
dreary subject. But something was sacrificed in the process.

    Important contributions to the discussion about collapse have been
made since the publication of Tainter's magnum opus; one that comes
readily to mind is John Michael Greer's paper "How Civilizations Fall:
A Theory of Catabolic Collapse," with its distinction between
maintenance collapse, in which a society recovers and again achieves
imperial status, and depletion collapse, in which disintegration is
complete and final. Greer's essay - which he has encountered some
difficulty in placing in a peer-reviewed journal (it is currently
archived on this site) - contains significant theoretical insights,
though it comes from a relatively unknown researcher working with
easily available historical materials. One cannot help but wonder why
Diamond, with the considerable resources of a major publisher and
willing graduate students, could not have done much more to advance
the theory of collapse.

    A second disappointment that readers already familiar with the
subject matter may encounter with Collapse is the perception that,
while the author is warning us that modern industrial civilization may
be headed the way of the Classic Maya or the Easter Islanders, he
seems satisfied with this warning. He offers, in essence, a message of
the type we have come to expect: Humanity is undermining its
ecological viability, but there are things we can do to turn the tide.
Indeed, Diamond predictably devotes the last section of his last
chapter to "reasons for hope," leaving the reader with evidence for
thinking that collapse will not occur in our own instance after all.
This excuses him from asking a question that appears to be tugging at
more minds, and with more urgency, every day: What if it's already too
late? Yes, if collapse can be averted, we should of course be working
toward that end. But suppose for a moment that we have passed the
point of no return, and that some form of collapse is now inevitable.
What should we be doing in that case?

    If we simply regard the question as unthinkable (because its
premise is itself unthinkable), then we foreclose a discussion that
could be extremely important. In a moment I intend briefly to state
three good reasons for thinking that collapse is in fact unavoidable
at this point. But even if there is only a moderate likelihood that
industrial society is headed toward history's dustbin, shouldn't we be
devoting at least some mental effort toward planning for a survivable
collapse? Shouldn't we be thinking about what needs to be preserved so
that future generations will have the information, skills, and tools
that they need in order to carry on?

    Here are my three reasons for concluding that Diamond has in fact
made an extremely timid case for the likelihood of global industrial
collapse; there are certainly others.

    1. Diamond does not even hint at the phenomenon of the imminent
global oil production peak. Even though he cites Paul Roberts' book
The End of Oil and Kenneth Deffeyes' Hubbert's Peak in a note on page
551, he shows no understanding whatever of these authors' work. There
is no discussion of the fact that oil production capacity is declining
rapidly in nearly two dozen countries, while the world's reliance on
oil for its essential energy needs continues to grow with each passing
year. This is not a minor oversight. At least four independent studies
now forecast that the global oil peak is likely to occur as soon as
2005 and probably before 2010, which means that there will not be
enough time to invest in replacement energy sources before the decline
begins; nor can we be assured that adequate replacement energy sources
exist. In the estimation of a growing chorus of informed observers,
the oil peak is likely to be a trigger for global economic crisis and
the outbreak of a series of devastating resource wars.

    2. At the same time, the global economic system and the world's
monetary system are becoming increasingly dysfunctional for other
reasons. Currently, the US dollar functions as the global reserve
currency, and the dollar (like most other currencies) is loaned into
existence at interest. This means that continual economic growth is
structurally required in order to stave off a currency crash. Yet
infinite growth within a closed system (e.g., the Earth) is
impossible. So how long can growth continue? There are strong signs
that the American economy, and hence that of the entire world, is
headed soon toward a "correction" of unprecedented proportions. US
debt (in the forms of consumer debt, government debt, and trade
deficits) is at truly frightening levels and the American mortgage and
real estate bubbles appear ready to burst at any moment. If one looks
deeper, there are still other reasons to conclude that the global
economy has nearly reached fundamental and non-negotiable restrictions
on expansion. In his book The Limits of Business Development and
Economic Growth (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), business strategist Mats
Larsson makes the point that most of technology and business
development in the past has had as its goal the reduction of time and
cost in manufacturing. But nothing can be done at less than no time or
at less than no cost. He cites the example of the printing and
distribution of books and other written media: with these, Gutenberg
famously reduced time and cost. Now, the Internet enables the
electronic reproduction and distribution of books, films, and music at
almost no cost and in almost no time. Similarly, labor cost in China
is probably now at close to the absolute theoretical minimum.
Larsson's conclusion is that economic growth is perilously close to
its ultimate bounds, even when resource constraints are not factored
into the calculation.

    3. Averting collapse would require changes that must be championed
and partly implemented by political leaders: unprecedented levels of
national and international cooperation would be needed in order to
allocate essential resources in order to avert deadly competition for
them as they become scarce, and our economic and monetary systems
would have to be reformed despite pressure from the entrenched
interests of wealthy elites. Yet the American political regime - the
most important in the world, given US military supremacy and economic
clout - has evidently become terminally dysfunctional, and is now the
province of a group of extremist ideologues who apparently have
virtually no interest in international cooperation or economic reform.
This is a fact widely recognized outside the US, and by many sober
observers within the country. The problem is not merely that
politicians are being bought and sold by corporations (this has been
going on for decades), but that the entire system has been hijacked by
partisans who pride themselves on making decisions solely on the basis
of ideology and in supreme disdain for "reality." At the same time,
the US electoral system has been eviscerated and commandeered by a
single party (using various forms of systematic fraud that have now
become endemic), so that a peaceful rectification of the situation by
a vote of the people has become virtually impossible. Moreover, the
American media have been so cowed and co-opted by the dominant party
that most oft he citizenry is blissfully unaware of its plight and is
thus extremely unlikely to vigorously oppose the current trends.
Diamond shows some limited awareness of this truly horrifying state of
affairs, and he realizes that wise political leadership would be
essential to the avoidance of collapse. Yet he refuses to draw the
obvious conclusion: the most powerful of the world's current leaders
are every bit as irrational as the befuddled kings and chiefs who
brought the Maya and Easter Islanders to their ruin.

    None of these three problems can be solved quickly or easily if at
all; each of the first two is by itself a sufficient cause for
collapse; the third will effectively preclude any attempts to reverse
the slide toward international chaos; and all three will no doubt
rebound upon each other synergistically.

    Diamond's subtitle, "How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed,"
implies that, for modern industrial societies, success is still an
option. Yet if "success" implies the ability to maintain current
population levels and current per-capita rates of consumption, then we
may already have exhausted our choices. We cannot replace dwindling
non-renewable resources, we cannot make industrial wastes disappear,
we cannot quickly restabilize the global climate, and we cannot revive
species that have become extinct.

    What, then, are Diamond's "reasons for hope"? He offers only two:
first, that our problems are, in principle at least, solvable; and
second, that environmental thinking has become more common in recent
years. But for hope to be realized, he says, modern societies will
have to make good choices in two areas. We will need "courageous,
successful long-term planning," which, he says, is indeed being
undertaken by some governments and political leaders, at least some of
the time. What Diamond doesn't mention is that the single instance of
long-term planning that might have made all the difference to the
survival of our civilization - a sustained choice by the US to wean
itself from fossil fuels, beginning in the 1970s at the time of the
first oil shocks - was not followed through; as a result, economic
crises and resource wars are now virtually assured. We will also, he
says, need to reconsider some of our core values, and he cites a few
examples of modern societies that have done this (e.g., over two
decades ago China decided to restrict the traditional freedom of
individual reproductive choice). However, Diamond may be
underestimating the degree to which some of the "values" that we would
have to change (such as our mania for continuous economic growth) are
not mere preferences or easily reversible government policies, but
necessities structurally reinforced by multiple layers of institution,
privilege, and power.

    Perhaps the message of Collapse would have had more of a
cutting-edge quality if the book had appeared in the early 1970s, when
mere warnings were appropriate. Collapse might have added to the
chorus of voices raised on the first Earth Day, and might have helped
drive home the importance of the often-misrepresented Limits to Growth

    Today, however, we are living in a different era. Collapse has, in
effect, already begun, even though we have seen only the first of the
trigger events that will eventually rivet public attention on the
cascading process of disintegration taking place around us. The
question is no longer that of avoiding collapse, but rather of making
the best of it.

    One of the many virtues of Joseph Tainter's book was that he
dissipated some of the pejorative cloud surrounding the word collapse,
defining it simply as a reduction in social complexity. This helps us
to see that the process can manifest in different ways: it can occur
slowly or quickly (usually the process takes decades or even
centuries); it can be complete or partial; and it can be controlled or
chaotic. Such an understanding leads one to envision the possibility
of a managed collapse.

    Given Jared Diamond's emphasis on choice, it might have been
helpful if he had studied what people chose to do during previous
periods of collapse, and how certain actions helped or hindered
personal survival and the survival of culture.

    In our own instance, efforts to manage the collapse might take
several forms. Initial work along these lines might be
indistinguishable from actions taken to try to prevent collapse-the
sorts of things many people have been doing at least since the 1970s:
the active protest of war, the protection of ecosystems and species,
the defense of indigenous and traditional cultures, and the adoption
of lifestyles of voluntary simplicity.

    Then, as fossil-fuel-based support infrastructures began to
disintegrate, other strategies might come to the fore: efforts to
re-localize economies, to build intentional communities, and to regain
forgotten handcraft skills. Like the European monks of the Middle
Ages, forward-thinking groups with useful knowledge and abilities
could build cultural lifeboats-communities of preservation and service
that help surrounding regions cope with change and stress.

    It would be foolish to assert that such a program could avert all
of the potholes on the road down to a sustainable level of societal
complexity; however, if we do not make efforts to manage the process
of economic and societal contraction, it is easy to imagine collapse
scenarios that would be hellish indeed.

    One hesitates to criticize too harshly a book that tries to tell
the world a truth that all too many refuse to hear. And yet this isn't
the book that it could have been. At this point in time, we could
stand a prominent book by an important author that finally announces
what so many of us know all too well: collapse has begun.

    Such a message need not be fatalistic in tone, because fatalism
implies absence of choice. Diamond is right: we always have some
control over events, or at least our response to events. The choice we
have now is not as to whether our society will collapse, but how.

    Ladies and gentleman, the ship is sinking. I suggest that we set
aside our immediate plans and consider how best to proceed, given the

    * * *

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