Guns, germs and collapse- part 2

As promised, part 2 of the Diamond-linked book reviews.

Questioning Collapse:

This constitutes a refutation, or a reply at least, to Jared Diamond’s books ‘Collapse’ and (to a lesser extent) ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ (GGS). It’s a very different format from those works: a collection of essays by different authors, mostly anthropologists, archaeologists or historians, sandwiched between brief summary pieces from the editors, Patricia McAnany and Norman Yoffee. Each essay focusses on one of the societies discussed in the aforementioned books, exploring them in more detail and questioning Diamond’s interpretation in some way.

It’s a much less engaging read, at least for the non-specialist. In many respects, it falls uncomfortably between two stools. There are too many differences in tone, style and intent between this book and Diamonds’ works— and indeed, between individual essays within the book— to make for a satisfying dialogue.

For the book to engage with Diamond’s ideas on the level, it needs to speak the same language. It doesn’t— or at least, not consistently. Despite the stated intention to be accessible to the layperson, some of the essays are densely-written and academic. Others less so, making for an awkward crunching of intellectual gears moving from one essay to the next. Different authors question Diamond to different degrees, some allowing him credit for seeing ‘the big picture’, while criticising him for a simplistic understanding of their particular topic/society of interest (an apt subtitle for QC would be ‘It’s more complicated than that!’— more on the actual subtitle below), but others don’t allow him even that. In some essays the tone is conciliatory, in others polemical.

The hardest blows are landed against Collapse, with GGS mostly emerging unscathed. We learn that archaeological digs show no evidence for a population collapse following the Polynesian settlement and development of Easter Island. Humans didn’t fell the forest— rats did (or at least they ate the tree seeds so the forest couldn’t grow). In Greenland, there is plenty of evidence that the Norse ate lots of fish, and little evidence for conflict with the Inuit (as proposed in Collapse). Rwandan society was a powder keg of rivalries before the massacre, tracing back to colonial and precolonial times— notions of kingship and the colonial legacy of favouritism towards Tutsis were powerful enough drivers for disaster, without needing to invoke overpopulation or environmental degradation. And so on.

The point that the arguments made in Collapse and GGS are, to some extent, contradictory to each other, is well made; GGS describes a deterministic situation where the speed of human development is driven by biological and geographical factors, while Collapse proposes that societies can ‘choose to fail or succeed’ in the way they set their long term priorities and make their environmental policies (although I doubt that Diamond’s idea of societies ‘making choices’ is as literal as McAnany and Yoffee seem to suggest). The broader point being made about Collapse is to do with semantics: what is collapse, what is choice, and how do you define success or failure of a society? The authors of QC argue that by using an imprecise set of definitions, and selecting his example societies carefully (and without due attention to up-to-date scholarly research), Diamond distorts the evidence in support of his worldview.

And of course they’re right. Some of the criticism is compelling and even moving: the Native Americans of Chaco Canyon, for example, hardly amount to a failed society (they can only be portrayed as such because their more recent history was obliterated by the European settlers of the present day US Southwest). So yes, it often is more complicated than that. It doesn’t mean that the worldview is wrong, however. It’s a little dismaying to see just how much QC neatly deflects the points made in Collapse and GGS without actually addressing them. Perhaps humans didn’t cut down the last tree on Easter Island— but if they imported the non-native rats that ate the nuts so the forest stopped growing, it almost amounts to the same thing. Perhaps Easter Island’s population didn’t collapse— but a society that no can no longer muster the resources to erect large statues or make ocean going canoes would still be qualitatively different from one that could, even if numerically, the population remained the same.

In short it’s the usual problem: social scientists and natural scientists talking past each other. (Diamond, it turns out, trained as a biologist before poking his nose into everything else.) It’s true that Collapse might have benefited from more detailed and accurate exposition of the history, anthropology and archaeology of the societies it discusses. Unfortunately ‘Questioning Collapse’, a book written to critique Diamond’s theories on the influence of biological and environmental factors on society, hardly mentions these factors at all.

Resilience thinking:

I’m slipping in a mention of this book by Walker and Salt. It is referenced in QC and elaborates on the closest thing there is to a unifying theme/alternate hypothesis in that book (QC’s actual subtitle is ‘Human Resilience, Ecological Vulnerability, and the Aftermath of Empire’.

In the brief consolidating chapters in QC, an alternative vision to Diamond’s is sketched out. Societies didn’t collapse in the face of environmental pressures: either the pressures weren’t there, or they weren’t important, and in any case the societies didn’t collapse, they simply transformed. Humans are ‘resilient’, which means they can resist and adapt to changes, environmental or otherwise, without need for Diamond’s doom-laden societal collapses.

Except that, when you go and read Walker and Salt’s book, it says something rather different (or at least, it says rather more): actually, something that neatly integrates Diamond’s ideas with the ‘social/cultural factors are important’ thrust of QC.

Resilience thinking serves as a concise introduction to the idea of ‘social-ecological resilience’: that is, natural and human systems have a property called ‘resilience’ that describes how well they can resist and adapt to disturbances. This property is determined by various characteristics: diversity, modularity, tightness of feedbacks etc. [It’s worth noting that ‘resilience’ is a word used in numerous other contexts: there’s also psychological resilience, economic resilience, community resilience, disaster resilience, network resilience and so on, with often overlapping but distinct meanings. It’s a fashionable idea— and I think probably an important one, as long as different disciplines can agree to what extent they are talking about the same thing.]

An important concept introduced in Resilience Thinking is the notion of ‘fast’ and ‘slow’ variables. Most examples in the book concern ecosystems (whether ‘natural’ or managed by humans), but it is proposed that they also apply to social systems. In human society, the fast variables would be the ones that change rapidly: perhaps changes in wealth, employment or health driven by short term processes, such as business cycles, government policies, and external events such as wars or weather. These changes may be rapid and extreme for the individuals and groups concerned. Underlying these ‘fast variables’ are the ‘slow variables’, determined by the more gradual processes that shape the social and physical landscape upon which the rapid changes occur: perhaps changing environmental conditions, or small but incremental changes in population characteristics (wealth or life expectancy) driven by slower social or cultural forces. Individuals and groups might not notice such tiny incremental changes, but over time, they would profoundly alter the shape of society. A resilient society may tolerate extreme changes in fast variables, only to collapse abruptly when a critical threshold is reached by a gradually shifting slow variable.

In his books, Diamond is talking about the slow variables (and only a subset of them— the environmental ones). He is selective in his examples, and sometimes ignores inconvenient detail, but at least he is open about his hypothesis and (mostly) clear in his assumptions. QC, on the other hand, discusses a melange of fast and slow cultural, social and historical variables, with no clear unifying theme or ‘big idea’ other than ‘humans are resilient’. QC does a good job of providing background detail on the societies discussed in Diamond’s books, and in correcting inaccuracies in the social, historical and cultural context: mostly fast-variable stuff. Ironically, though, the ecological resilience theory referenced in QC actually seems to provide a better conceptual framework for the ideas in Diamond’s books. In particular, the idea of critical thresholds in social-ecological systems supports Collapse’s stark warning message: change your ways— address the slow variables— or face collapse yourselves.


2 Responses to “Guns, germs and collapse- part 2”

  1. nathan Says:

    Although I don’t have much useful to add, I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed reading these two posts, certainly plenty of material for thought here…

    Seems to me that there are two sides to some examples of collapse – the environmental degradation/climate change/overpopulation that is often the root cause of collapse, and the social response that tips a society over the edge. JD perhaps places too much emphasis on environmental effects; anthropologists generally concentrate on the social response and mistake it for the root cause of collapse.

    Whatever holes can be found in JD’s work, it still serves its purpose, which is to draw attention to a fairly obvious conclusion – that resource depletion leads to societal harm unless preventative steps are taken.

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