Book Review – How Societies choose to Fail or Survive by Jared Diamond

Warwick Rowell, Tuesday 18 March 2014

How Societies choose to Fail or Survive
Jared Diamond, Allen Lane  2005

This is a challenging, frustrating and inspiring book.  The depth of scholarship, and the ease of reading is what we have come to expect from Jared Diamond.

There is a hint of his over-reliance on others for the staggering breadth of data he brings to the reader to support his argument; the material on Australia is both well-known locally, and a trifle off the mark.

His reliance on Alex Campbell’s years of work on salinity and its origins and causes unfortunately reflects one of the problems he discusses: the reluctance of a group of experts to continually validate their concepts on the ground. The impact of salinity on agriculture is in fact a symptom of a bigger problem; deforestation.  The ultimate problem is unsustainable cropping and stocking practices.

The more serious error in the book is to propose one solution that is clearly incorrect, and so to miss addressing what seems to be the most crucial key issue.   Diamond suggests that bolstering – the tendency of a group to not see the evidence that its concepts and values are no longer appropriate – and groupthink– following the conventional ideas rather than challenging them – are the cause of social problems leading to collapse.  This is anthropomorphism and a problem of scale which is revealed in the sub-title: “.. societies choose …” – they do not.

Societies and cultures do not think, make decisions, and act like a small, cohesive group of people. In seeing the value of these ideas with respect to how an elite might make its decisions (if the elite too was a coherent group, which they well may not be!), he fails to set out how that more amorphous process than  decision-making that leads to social change can be achieved to better enable a society to avoid collapse.   Perhaps there is scope of another book; Avoiding Collapse.  Or has Toynbee already written it?  Toynbee found that civilizations collapse when they fail to respond to a new and different challenge.

Failures of group decision making set out on pp 421, 422, and elsewhere are not translatable to the several levels higher; groups are subsets of subsets of institutions that make up a society.  Diamond has made an error of scale. “.. the stress and the need for mutual support and approval may lead to suppression of doubts and critical thinking, sharing of illusions, a premature consensus, and ultimately to a disastrous decision.  Both crowd psychology and groupthink may operate over periods of not just a few hours but also up to a few years: what remains uncertain is their contribution to disastrous decisions about environmental problems unfolding over the course of decades or centuries.”  p435.  Perhaps he acknowledges this difficulty in this last comment.

OLD PROCESSES CAUSING COLLAPSE: deforestation and habitat destruction, soil – erosion, salinization & fertility loss, water management problems, overhunting, overfishing, effects of introduced on native species, human population growth, and increased per capita impact of people. NEW PROCESSES CAUSING COLLAPSE: Human-caused climate change, build-up of toxic chemicals in the envt, energy shortages, and humans using all photosynthetic capacity. His core argument is that “The processes through which past societies have undermined themselves by damaging their environments fall into eight categories, whose relative importance differs from case to case… the environmental problems facing us today include the same eight that undermined past societies, plus four new ones.” p6-8

“Much more likely than a doomsday scenario involving human extinction or an apocalyptic collapse of industrial civilization would be “just” a future of significantly lower living standards, chronically higher risks, and the undermining of what we now consider some of our key values… such as the world-wide spreads of diseases or else of wars, triggered ultimately by scarcity of environmental resources.  If this reasoning is correct, then our efforts today will determine the state of the world in which the current generation of children and young adults lives out their middle and late years.”  p7

Here is the first clue as to the major problem: “..groups supplied food, timber, pottery, stone, and luxury goods to each other, supporting each other in an interdependent complex society, but putting the whole society at risk of collapsing.  Religious and political factors apparently played an essential role in sustaining the complex society, by coordinating the exchanges of materials, and by motivating people in outlying areas to supply food, timber and pottery to the political and religious centers. …This leads to “.. people .. living increasingly close to the margin of what the environment could support.” p155,6

But much more importantly for our situation today is what happened to Greenland.  He argues that their society failed because “.. much of the arriving cargo was devoted to materials for churches and luxuries for the elite.” p240 ..and again a little later: “I can’t help thinking of seemingly more important uses that the Greenlanders could have made of those boats and man-time (than the pursuit of) great prestige to the individual.. ” p242.

He raised as an issue something which could be advanced as the one positive benefit of the “coca-colonization” of the world.  He outlines why there was unlikely to be much intermarriage when “An Inuit wife would not have been nearly as useful to a Norseman, …(because they needed skills ) which Norse but not Inuit girls learned from childhood. ..(like) sewing skins..”  p265 and again: “A consequence of their relying on all these specialized methods is that it takes years of growing up in a village to learn how to farm successfully in the New Guinea highlands. My highland friends who spend their childhood years away from their village to pursue an education found, on returning to the village, that they were incompetent at farming their family gardens because they had missed out on mastering a large body of complex knowledge.”  p281.   However, this argument against the need for localized solutions will only work if the universal substitute is at least as sustainable, which it obviously is not at the moment.  And it unlikely that we will be able to adjust in time, due to the cultural lag he identifies.

He suggests one the major reason for this cultural lag is “those innovations could have threatened the power, prestige, and narrow interests of the chiefs.  In the tightly controlled, interdependent society of Norse Greenland, the chiefs were in a position to prevent others from trying out such innovations…”  Perhaps we need to get our wealthiest to consider his comment that “The last right that they obtained for themselves was the privilege of being the last to starve.”  p276

Diamond found the top-down, lurching, approach to dealing with threatened collapse did not work.   In contrast, “small societies occupying a small island or homeland can adopt a bottom-up approach to environmental management.  Because the homeland is small, all of its inhabitants are familiar with the entire island, know that they are affected by developments throughout the island, and share a sense they are affected by developments throughout the island, and share a sense of identity and common interests with the other inhabitants. Hence everybody realizes that they will benefit from sound environmental measures that they and their neighbours adopt. That’s bottom-up management, in which people work together to solve their own problems.”  p277/278

He quotes Firth: “Ultimately the mode of production is inherent in the social tradition, of which the chief is merely the prime agent and interpreter.  He and his people share the same values: an ideology of kinship, ritual, and morality reinforced by legend and mythology. The chief is to a considerable extent a custodian of this tradition, but he is not alone in this.  His elders, his fellow chiefs, the people of his clan, and even the members of his family are all imbued with the same values, and advise and criticize his actions.”   p293

He highlighted an ancient and modern practice, that is becoming increasingly common.  “.. part of the Tokugawa solution for the problem of resource depletion in Japan itself was to conserve Japanese resources by causing resource depletion elsewhere, just as part of the solution of Japan and other First World countries to problems of resource depletion today is to cause resource depletion elsewhere.” p300

He correctly identifies one major issue, and its on-going solution.  It is interesting that Daniel Bell, who first proposed the tragedy of the commons reframed the argument before he died, saying that it was clear from further research that the commons tragedy only occurred when the administration and decision making about the use of the commons was removed from local control. The best known example was the formation of the English parliament, and its take-over of decision making about managing the forests of England.

Diamond reiterates this view with his comment that “the solution to the tragedy of the commons is for the consumers to recognize their common interests and to design, obey and enforce prudent harvesting quotas themselves.  That is likely to happen only if a whole series of conditions is met: the consumers form a homogenous group; they have learned to trust and communicate with each other; they expect to share a common future and to pass on the resource to their heirs; they are capable of and permitted to organize and police themselves; and the boundaries of the resource and of its pool of consumers are well defined.” p429

He made a differentiation between being “exploited by a “stationary bandit” ie a locally entrenched warlord, who would at least leave peasants with enough resources to generate more plunder for that warlord in future years.  Worse was to be exploited by a “roving bandit”, a warlord who, like a logging company with short-term leases, would leave nothing for the region’s peasants and just move on to plunder another region’s peasants.”  p430.  Could much of the protest about multinationals and the MIA be because of a sense that this could happen if barriers to entry are removed?

He identifies a further modern concern: “Individual consumers collectively hold some clout over oil companies and (to a lesser extent) coal mining companies, because the public buys fuel directly from the oil companies .. Hence consumers know whom to embarrass or boycott in the event of an oil spill of a coal mine accident.  However individual consumers are eight steps removed from the hardrock mining companies that extract minerals, making a direct boycott of a dirty mining company virtually impossible.”  p467

“In the long run, rich people do not secure their own interests or those of their children if they rule over a collapsing society and merely buy themselves the privilege of being the last to starve or die”. p513

“Most of us who have children consider the securing of our children’s future as the highest priority to which to devote our time and our money.  We pay for their education and food and clothes, make wills for them, and buy life insurance for them, all with the goal of helping them to enjoy good lives fifty years from now.  It makes no sense for us to do these things for our individual children, while simultaneously doing things undermining the world in which our children will be living 50 years from now.”  p513  (My emphasis)

It appears that the major problem we face is increasing size of social and government units, and attempts at common decisions and processes.  We need to go back to smaller decision making units, and use modern technologies to achieve coordination and information passing, rather than stripping local resources to support supposed decision-making elites, who are increasingly incapable of addressing local issues, no matter how dedicated they are.

Diamond’s analysis makes it clear that all collapses have a major social and economic factor, which can be politely described as over-consumption by the elite. More directly, he identifies religious, political and other elites who ostensibly make some contribution to coherence and even economic development, but in fact whose “take” of the major goods produced and imported by the society concerned diminish its ability to meet its population’s needs.

This argument is an old one, but one that has been largely ignored.   Jane Jacobs’ seminal book “Cities and the Wealth of Nations” in 1984 pointed out that economic success – one measure of the longevity of a society – is related to how the society uses its surpluses.  If the surplus is used for increased consumption, the economy fails.  If the surplus is used for import substitution, the economy continues to thrive.

We now have a whole new environmental elite developing; those making policy and distributing billions in attempting to address environmental problems.  Their key task is to make sure the majority of funds get spent on real work, and not on creating another empire, with wonderful career paths, and generous travel, super and other perks.  The empire building has been going on for years and is getting worse.  In the landcare area, farmers complain about the flood of funds at the top becoming just a trickle at the farm gate.  Others complain about bureaucrats bolstering their careers by taking ideas developed by volunteer community groups.  It would be ironic, but not surprising to Diamond or his readers, if the efforts of this new elite contributed more to a collapse than to avoiding or ameliorating it.