Jared Diamond: Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (New York: Viking, 2005)
reviewed by by Richard Smith
For decades, environmentalists who warned of impending disasters were dismissed as extremists and alarmists. No more. Today, all the mainstream of scientific organizations, notable corporate CEOs, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and even the U.S. Pentagon are all calling for something to be done to avert the onrushing threat of global warming, among other dire threats.
Now Jared Diamond, Pulitzer Prize winning author of the 1997 best-seller Guns, Germs and Steel has given us a provocative and fascinating history lesson in what could happen, even to our technologically advanced society, should we fail to learn from and apply the lessons of past failed societies. In Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Diamond takes us on a sobering reality tour of six societies that committed ecological suicide in the hopes that we can learn from their failures in time to save ourselves. Diamond’s thesis is they collapsed largely because they either exhausted the natural resources on which they depended and failed to realize the need to change, or, inexplicably, refused to change and instead pursued “grim trajectories” toward social and economic disintegration and collapse.
Diamond points to other societies facing comparable circumstances that survived because they broke with previously tightly held social “core values.” They made the “correct” decisions about reversing long-term negative environmental trends and/or adapted to difficult or changed environmental conditions. In Diamond’s view, we moderns now stand on such a precipice with human survival as a species at risk because of our unsustainable consumption of resources. “For the first time in history, we face the risk of global decline. But we also are the first to enjoy the opportunity of learning quickly from developments in societies anywhere else in the world today, and from what has unfolded in societies at any time in the past.”
Collapse goes beyond an academic study in comparative history in that it seeks to bring additional intellectual ammunition to the side of environmental activists by popularizing the history of past societal collapses as a huge warning to those who control our future. But when Diamond addresses our current crisis and proposes recommendations for how we moderns might stave off collapse, he is severely handicapped by his reluctance to break with his own outmoded cultural “core values.” In particular, Diamond’s faith in the free market and the potential for reforming the market system before it destroys us is naïve and unfounded. Furthermore, his assumption that societies are “free to choose” to succeed or fail is dubious, since most modern societies are massively constrained by capitalist property relations, capitalist requirements for reproduction, and the lack of popular democratic control over the economy.
Diamond is struck by the perversity of so many societal collapses and by their often tenacious hold on established “core values” — even to the point of dooming themselves when salvation lay right at hand.
The Greenland Norse, for example, thought of themselves as dairy farmers, Christians, and Norse Europeans, and they scorned the pagan Inuit, even though the Inuit were superior colonizers of that harsh landscape. When it became too cold for cattle and the growing seasons began to shorten, they could have emulated Inuit ways and technologies, and made other lifestyle changes. But the medieval Greenland Norse would not adapt. Instead, “[t]he Norse starved in the presence of abundant unutilized food resources,” Diamond says. “In trying to carry on as Christian farmers, the Greenland Norse in effect were deciding that they were prepared to die as Christian farmers rather than live as Inuit.”
Diamond assigns responsibility for a society’s success or failure to the conscious decisions of its members — especially their willingness to examine their “core values” and choose which to discard and which to hold onto. In particular, “[r]eligious values tend to be especially deeply held and hence frequent causes of disastrous behavior.” Yet in his own historical narratives, Diamond shows that in most cases, “society” was in no position to freely “choose to fail or succeed.”
In analyzing societal responses to environmental crises, Diamond often brings in a neo-Marxist class conflict model to partially account for collapse (even though he never uses the term “class”). Easter’s systematic deforestation was, he explains, significantly driven by inter-ruling class “competition between clans and chiefs driving the erection of bigger statues requiring more wood, rope, and food” . “Easter Island chiefs .. . were trapped in a competitive spiral such that any chief … who put up smaller statues or monuments to spare the forests would have been scorned and lost his job” (my emphasis).
For all we know, Easter Islanders understood the suicidal logic of their systematic deforestation of the island. But Easter Island “society” — that is, ordinary Easter Islanders — were in no position to change policies dictated by their ruling chiefs.
Similarly, the Mayans faced various environmental difficulties, though none that were insurmountable. Again, given the brutal class divisions of Mayan society, it is safe to assume its peasant class had little or no say in ruling-class decisions about the future of the forest.
In sum, Diamond’s own telling of history shows that society’s fate was not “in society’s hands” but in the hands of a small elite of kings, chiefs and priests who shut the rest of society out of decision-making and systematically made the “wrong,” “shortsighted” decisions that doomed their societies. Furthermore, Diamond’s narratives reveal that very often even society’s rulers were not really free to choose, because these ruling classes were often “locked in a competitive spiral,” one that compelled them to make environmental decisions that benefited their immediate needs but were irrational from the standpoint of society’s long-term survival.
In drawing attention to the important role of social (class) structure and elite-mass (class) conflict, Diamond has opened a fruitful approach to understanding the dynamics of eco-social collapse. Indeed, it’s the most important history lesson in his book. But the problem is that when he turns to our modern predicament, he completely forgets his own lesson.
Capitalism and Collapse
In the last part of the book, Diamond turns to our current crisis and lists a dozen critical environmental problems that, he says, will doom our own society unless we solve them. We all know what the problems are, and we also all know, at least in broad terms, what we must do to solve them. So why aren’t we doing it? Why aren’t we “choosing to succeed?”
The short answer is that under capitalism, the choices we need to make are not up to “society” – and the ruling classes are incapable of making sustainable choices. Diamond relates some success stories — mostly those of small Pacific Island societies — where economic and environmental decisions were up to “society.”
But ours is not a “bottom-up” democratic society. In our capitalist society, ownership and control of the economy are largely in the hands of private corporations who pursue their own ends and don’t answer to society. So it seems curious, even perverse, that when Diamond turns to address our contemporary environmental crisis, he forgets his own lesson and presents no comparable exploration of contradictory (class) interests and (class) conflict in modern capitalist society. This is unfortunate because Diamond’s reluctance to discard his own pro-market “core values” prevents him from applying the same critical analysis to our own society that he so effectively deploys to analyze pre-modern societies.
This makes his book weakest in its concluding “What-do-we-do-now?” chapters on big business and the environment. For after stressing the need for urgent radical change to avert collapse, Diamond ignores the systemic problems of capitalism that stand in the way of that needed radical change and falls back on the standard tried-and-failed strategy of lobbying, consumer boycotts, eco labeling, green marketing, asking corporations to adopt benign “best practices,” and so on — the stock-in-trade strategy of the environmental lobbying industry that has proven so impotent to date against the global capitalist juggernaut of eco-destruction.
This is not at all to demean reforms. Lots of problems can be and have been significantly ameliorated and even solved without overturning the economic system. But despite significant victories here and there, the big problems — global warming, deforestation, overfishing, pollution, resource exhaustion, species extinction, and environmentally caused human health problems — are getting worse, because environmental reforms are always and everywhere subordinated to profit and growth.
The U.S., Britain and China all say that they will be happy to do anything to reduce emissions so long as these cuts do not “harm the economy,” “undermine our American way of life” (G.W. Bush) or slow growth.
Similarly, Britain’s born-again environmentalist, Prime Minister Tony Blair, told Parliament in September 2004:
“the world’s richest nations have a responsibility to lead the way” in the fight against our greatest environmental challenge — global warming. There is no doubt that the time to act is now. … It is now that timely action can avert disaster. It is now that with foresight and will such action can be taken without disturbing the essence of our way of life, by adjusting behavior, not altering it entirely.” (my emphasis)
Well what is “the essence of our way of life” under modern capitalism? It is not democracy or free speech but, rather, the unbridled pursuit of ever-more consumption and ever-higher “standards of living.”
In March 2005 the UN Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, compiled by 1360 scientists from 95 countries, concluded that humanity is now consuming and degrading almost two-thirds of the natural resources that support life on earth. The authors call this “a stark warning” for the entire world.
In effect, one species is now a hazard to the other 10 million or so on the planet, and to itself … Human activity is putting such a strain on the natural functions of Earth that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted.
And Americans lead the way in hogging this one-time blowout sale of the world’s natural resources. With just 4 percent of the world’s population and 2 percent of the world’s oil, we consume 25 percent of the world’s oil and produce more than 25 percent of all CO2 emissions. We use 50 million tons of paper annually — consuming 850 million trees (just for paper). The average American produces 864 kilograms of municipal waste per year, nearly three times the average produced by an Italian. And on and on.
Given these trends, how can humanity survive unless we very quickly and very drastically “disturb the essence of our way of life” — by massively cutting our consumption of forests, fossil fuels, water, minerals, etc., and halting the production of thousands of toxic chemicals, petrochemicals, pesticides, and other synthetic substances that are poisoning us? In short, if we want to survive, we are going to have to slow down the global economy, make less stuff, and re-engineer manufacturing to produce products to be durable and last, to make what we make differently, with different goals — for social need not profit. Unless we make such drastic changes, we are, indeed, heading for collapse.
Systemic Barriers to Limiting Growth
But how can we slow down the economy under capitalism? Insatiable growth is built into the system. Under capitalism, everyone finds it in his/her interest to maximize growth: Investor-owned corporations produce for the market in competition with other corporations producing for the same market. So they have no choice but to constantly seek ways to drive down costs, to innovate, to expand their markets, to find or invent new markets.
They are obliged, in the capitalist maxim, to “grow or die” — to increase profits or see their stock values fall as investors sell off their stock for higher returns elsewhere. Governments are similarly compelled to maximize growth to enlarge the tax base to meet the demands of rising populations to provide the employment that is key to maintaining social stability.
But capitalist governments don’t own the economy, even if some own a sizable state sector. Consequently, governments fall over themselves in competition to bribe corporations with tax breaks and subsidies, drive down the wages of their own workers, gut whatever environmental protection they still have, and so on in a disastrous planetary “race to the bottom.” Taken together, capitalists, workers, and governments are all — just like those Easter Islanders — ”trapped in a competitive spiral” of growth without end that is beyond our control.
The need to grow also explains why the entire patchwork of government regulation — all the pollution “costing” and “trading” schemes to reduce emissions of various pollutants that are promoted by business and governments as “win-win” responses to the environmental crisis — are designed, above all, to keep the economy growing.
Given these built-in requirements of capitalist reproduction, can we expect the lumber and paper industries to reinvent their business plans and explain to their stockholders that, “sorry but due to the threat of global warming, we need to save the forests, cut down fewer trees, decrease output, and therefore profit?” How long would such an environmentally responsible lumber company stay in business?
Or, given the immediate threat of fossil fuel combustion-driven global warming, what the world needs now is not just cleaner cars but fewer cars. Surely Ford and Toyota can make smaller and even more fuel-efficient hybrid cars. But can we really expect Ford or Toyota to strive to produce and sell fewer cars? They’re in business to make and sell as many cars as possible. So to ask the question is to answer it.
Systemic Barriers to Restructuring
Secondly, maintaining a habitable planet will also require massive global industrial restructuring to redirect investment from some industries, like fossil fuels, into others, especially renewable energy sources. It is all but impossible to imagine how such large-scale phase-outs and investment reallocations could be made when those sectors of the economy are in the hands of privately owned corporations. Diamond argues that the costs of environmental cleanup ought to be socialized and passed onto consumers. Well perhaps — if profits were also socialized and passed onto consumers.
Aside from the issue of who should pay, the scope of the problem we face is far beyond the capacity of any single corporation, or even whole industries. We don’t have a national, much less global energy company that could decide to phase out investments in fossil fuels, aggressively increase investments in renewable energies, and spread those huge but necessary costs over the whole society. Instead, what we have are many individual, privately owned energy corporations that are responsible to their shareholders and burdened with sunk capital in existing technology they can’t afford to scrap, human capital with expertise in fossil fuels, a global infrastructure to distribute fossil fuels, and so on.
The problem is the inherent logic of the system: Each corporation, acting rationally from the standpoint of its owners and employees seeking to maximize their own self-interest, makes individually rational capitalist decisions. But the result is that in the aggregate, these individually rational decisions are massively irrational, indeed ultimately catastrophic, and they are driving us down the road to collective suicide.
Plan or Die: We’re All in this Together
If capitalism can’t be reformed to subordinate profit to human survival, what alternative is there but to move to some sort of nationally and globally planned economy? Problems like climate change require the “visible hand” of direct planning. We need a globally enforced freeze on CO2 and other emissions, enforced reductions in energy usage, an enforced halt to forest destruction, enforced limits on auto production, chemical production, etc. Problems like climate change do not end at the factory smokestack or national borders, so they cannot be solved by individual corporations or individual nations. Such problems are by their nature interconnected and international and require concerted, united international action — international economic planning and international governance by a global citizenry. Call it socialism, economic democracy, or whatever.
(Of course one could imagine an entirely different outcome — eco-collapse could just as likely result in a statist or even globalized fascist Orwellian capitalist dystopia whose rulers would “manage” capitalist competition, direct production, and distribute profits as the Nazis did. We cannot doubt that there are powerful forces out there, and not only bizarre Christian fascists, who are hoping, if not planning, for just such a denouement.)
We need a national conversation — indeed a global “bottom-up” conversation — about rationing resources and limiting production and consumption. We need a national and planetary vote on whether the lumber companies should have the “right” to mow down the forests till they’re gone, on whether the fishing industry can fish the seas to extinction, on whether the auto oil industrial complex can burn the world’s fossil fuels until the ice caps melt, among other pressing issues. We in the economically advanced countries need to be need to be talking about imposing limits on consumption, about “how much is enough” given how much we already overconsume.
As for the underdeveloped countries, we need ways to help those peoples develop their economies in a way that present generations can achieve a life of sufficient material satisfaction without undermining the future for their children. Such profound transformations in the organization of production, distribution, and conservation of resources cannot be realized in an anarchic, unplanned market economy; they can only be realized in a democratically planned, or at least mostly planned economy.
I can already hear the objections about the perils of central planning, “state” this and “bureaucratic” that, and the threat to our freedom — especially the freedom to exploit, privatize, profit, and insatiably consume. The global community is going to have to sit down and talk and struggle collectively and vote on these issues and every other decision important to our collective survival.
It is far beyond the scope of this article to attempt to sketch out what a model of national and global democratic economic planning might look like. But there are plenty of pre-figurative examples in the spontaneous “from below” anti-privatization, anti-globalization democratic struggles that have burst out around the world from Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Brazil to South Africa, India and beyond, as well as in the huge meetings of the World Social Forum, which try to confront just such issues (though of course, unlike the un-elected WTO, the World Social Forum lacks any power whatsoever to enforce any policies).
The unifying slogan of these movements, “another world is possible,” is still fairly inchoate. Yet the instinctive drive of these struggles toward democratization from below is unmistakable, and hopeful. Implementing “bottom-up environmental management” (to borrow Diamond’s phrase) will take time, produce frustration and be “inefficient” by some measures. But the lessons of the Viking, Mayan, and Easter Island chiefs that Diamond so compellingly writes about apply directly to our modern corporate chiefs. And like those chiefs, our capitalist corporate leaders can’t help themselves, have no choice but to systematically make wrong, irrational and ultimately globally suicidal decisions about the economy and the environment.
So then, what other choice do we have than to consider a true ecosocialist alternative? If the capitalist economists have a better plan to save the humans, where is it?
Abridged, with the author’s permission, from an article published in the December 2005 issue of Capitalism Nature Socialism. To receive a PDF of the original article, email Richard Smith at email@example.com