Swans Commentary » swans.com April 19, 2010  



The Collapse Of Jared Diamond


by Louis Proyect


Book Review



Questioning Collapse: Human Resilience, Ecological Vulnerability, and the Aftermath of Empire, Edited by Patricia A. McAnany and Norman Yoffee, Cambridge University Press, 2010, ISBN 978-0-521-73366-3, 372 pages.


(Swans - April 19, 2010)   There are few professors with a higher profile than Jared Diamond, whose 1997 Guns, Germs and Steel (referred to hereafter as G, G & S) enjoyed blockbuster bestseller status and whose appearances on PBS have made him an instantly recognizable figure. With his avuncular beard, Diamond is the perfect figure to explain to middle-class television audiences why some people are on top and others are on the bottom. As the PBS Web site on G, G & S puts it, he will answer "Why were Europeans the ones to conquer so much of our planet?"

The way he answers this question has convinced some people on the left that he is "one of us" since it rejects the kind of racism that 19th century defenders of Empire espoused. Diamond says that it is not in the white man's genes that he rules over people of color. Instead it is only a geographical accident that Europe and the United States became hegemons. If, for example, the Incas had access to horses rather than the llama, they might have become major world powers. While it is arguably a mark of progress that the intelligentsia no longer considers people of color to be closer to the apes than to homo sapiens, the net effect of Diamond's grand narrative is to relieve the privileged men and women of the imperialist societies of any sense of responsibility for the suffering of the system's victims. After reading G, G & S, they might say to themselves: There, but for the grace of geography, go I.

In 2005, Diamond came out with Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, another ambitious book geared to a mass audience. Long associated with the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, Diamond was finally getting around to answering another Big Question now that he had settled the issue of why the U.S. and Western Europe ruled the world. This time he would analyze why some societies suffered ecological collapse, a problem that is also very much on the mind of the PBS audience and all other solid middle-class people worrying about their future. After all, what good would it do to sit on top of the world when it was facing environmental destruction?

As was the case with G, G & S, Collapse was universally regarded as a prophetic and progressive manifesto. But unlike the earlier book, this one was less deterministic. Geography had little to do with, for example, the failure of the Haitians to succeed as the Dominicans did on the very same island of Hispaniola. How could one part of the island be an ecological disaster while the other half was a virtual Garden of Eden? The answer could be found in the choices made by the people themselves. While the Incas could not be blamed for lacking horses, the Haitians could be blamed for deforestation -- or so it would seem.

In 2009, Diamond's reputation suffered a major blow when investigative reporter Rhonda Shearer revealed that an article he had written for the New Yorker Magazine (a venue very much in line with the middle-class tastes of PBS viewers) about tribal wars in Papua New Guinea was filled with falsehoods.

The article, titled Vengeance Is Ours: What can tribal societies tell us about our need to get even?, represented highland native Daniel Wemp as a bloodthirsty warrior who bragged about clubbing a rival so mercilessly that the rest of his life would be spent in a wheelchair. After looking into the story with a skeptic's eye, Shearer contacted Wemp, who denied taking part in a vendetta. Further investigation revealed that the "victim" was walking about without any major disability. Facing legal action by Wemp, Diamond and the magazine defended themselves by saying that he was only reporting what Wemp had told him. So much for the much-vaunted fact-checking department of the prestigious magazine and for Diamond's scientific methods.

As important as this case was, there had not yet been a rebuttal to G, G & S or Collapse from within the academy. While the first book still awaits a rejoinder, we can be grateful for the publication of Questioning Collapse: Human Resilience, Ecological Vulnerability, and the Aftermath of Empire, a collection of articles that originated as contributions to a 2007 seminar in Arizona hosted by the Amerind Foundation. Bringing together specialists from the regions discussed in Collapse, the book reveals Diamond's scholarship to be tendentious and largely superficial.

Given the academic background of the contributors, it should not come as a surprise that the tone of the articles is collegial, perhaps too much so. For example, Drexel Woodson, writing to correct the record on Haiti, includes this advice: "Diamond bashing by social scientists who know the societies that Diamond covers better than he does is a vainglorious exercise." Perhaps speaking only for myself, I would have enjoyed some bashing from those quarters but was still grateful for the scholarly correctives.

In general, the approach of the authors is to put the ostensible collapse into historical context, something that is utterly lacking in Diamond's treatment. One of the more impressive record-correcting exercises is Terry L. Hunt and Carl P. Lipo's Ecological Catastrophe, Collapse, and the Myth of "Ecocide" on Rapa Nui (Easter Island). In Collapse, Diamond judged Easter Island as one of the more egregious examples of "ecocide" in human history, a product of the folly of the island's rulers whose decision to construct huge statues led to deforestation and collapse. By chopping down huge palm trees that were used to transport the stones used in statue construction, the islanders were effectively sealing their doom. Not only did the settlers chop down trees, they hunted the native fauna to extinction. The net result was a loss of habitat that led to a steep population decline.

Diamond was not the first observer to call attention to deforestation on Easter Island. In 1786, a French explorer named La Pérouse also attributed the loss of habitat to the "imprudence of their ancestors for their present unfortunate situation."

Referring to research about Easter Island by scientists equipped with the latest technologies, the authors maintain that the deforestation had nothing to do with transporting statues. Instead, it was an accident of nature related to the arrival of rats in the canoes of the earliest settlers. Given the lack of native predators, the rats had a field day and consumed the palm nuts until the trees were no longer reproducing themselves at a sustainable rate. The settlers also chopped down trees to make a space for agriculture, but the idea that giant statues had anything to do with the island's collapse is as much of a fiction as Diamond's New Yorker article.

Unfortunately, Diamond is much more interested in ecocide than genocide. If people interested him half as much as palm trees, he might have said a word or two about the precipitous decline in population that occurred after the island was discovered by Europeans in 1722. Indeed, despite deforestation there is evidence that the island's population grew between 1250 and 1650, the period when deforestation was taking place -- leaving aside the question of its cause. As was the case when Europeans arrived in the New World, a native population was unable to resist diseases such as smallpox and died in massive numbers. Of course, Diamond would approach such a disaster with his customary Olympian detachment and write it off as an accident of history.

While all the articles pretty much follow the narrowly circumscribed path as the one on Easter Island, there is one that adopts the Grand Narrative that Jared Diamond has made a specialty of and beats him at his own game. I am referring to the final article, Sustainable Survival by J.R. McNeill, who describes himself in a footnote thusly: "Unlike most historians, I have no real geographic specialization and prefer -- like Jared Diamond -- to hunt for large patterns in the human past."

And one of those "large patterns" ignored by Diamond is colonialism. The greatest flaw in Collapse is that it does not bother to look at the impact of one country on another. By treating countries in isolation from one another, it becomes much easier to turn the "losers" into examples of individual failing. So when Haiti is victimized throughout the 19th century for having the temerity to break with slavery, this hardly enters into Diamond's moral calculus.

This is not to speak of the "winners" in Collapse, who are countries that somehow have the foresight not to cut down their forests -- one of them being Japan under the Shogunate. The feudal lords, whatever their other faults, understood that forests were necessary for society to reproduce itself. McNeill, however, connects the dotted lines between Japan and other countries essential to its survival:

Diamond also judges Tokugawa Japan a success story, because the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1867) found a way out of an "environmental and population crisis" after the mid-seventeenth century, the chief symptom of which was deforestation and timber shortage. The Tokugawa managed to impose forest conservation. Ordinary Japanese found ways to lower birth rates and achieve population stability (via delayed marriage, abortion, and infanticide). And both state and society took the opportunity presented by a militarily weak population in Hokkaido, the Ainu, to expand their resource base considerably through conquest, expropriation, and near-genocide. The Japanese success came at a considerable price, to the Ainu, to young Japanese unable to marry, and to still younger Japanese who fell victim to infanticide. Indeed, if seen from the point of view of the Ainu, the whole thing might appear something other than a success. But in any case, the success lasted only from the mid-seventeenth century to the late nineteenth century, about 200 years. By the 1890s Japanese society seemed to its leaders desperately short of resources, in need of new lands for its growing population, which put it on a course of imperial expansion into Korea, Taiwan, and soon Manchuria, China, and the Pacific.

If there is one piece missing from the puzzle in Questioning Collapse, it is Diamond's prescriptions for avoiding ecological disaster. Given the authors' rather narrowly focused investigations into the regions they are specialists in, it is not surprising that they had little to say about Diamond's policy recommendations, which to put it bluntly are a recipe for disaster.

Echoing the shady connections of his benefactors at PBS, who never met an oil company whose advertisements they would turn down (some refer to PBS as the Petroleum Broadcasting System), the conclusion to Collapse consists of praise to "enlightened capitalists" who are helping to preserve the environment, among whom Chevron ranks second to none. Since Chevron is a major donor to Diamond's World Wildlife Fund, it is no surprise that he would look benignly at them even though they are presently fighting with every means at their disposal to avoid paying damages to the mostly indigenous people of Ecuador whose water and land was contaminated by Texaco oil spills (Texaco was acquired by Chevron in 2001, including all its past liabilities.)

On December 5, 2009, Jared Diamond wrote an op-ed piece in The New York Times titled Will Big Business Save the Earth? that answers the question in the affirmative, citing Chevron, Coca-Cola, and Walmart as companies whose executives have "embraced environmental concerns." Diamond has the brass to say, "Not even in any national park have I seen such rigorous environmental protection as I encountered in five visits to new Chevron-managed oil fields in Papua New Guinea."

In my own series of articles on Collapse that did not hold back from "bashing" the UCLA professor [ed. See appended links], I took a somewhat different view of the company's presence in Papua New Guinea, which I cite in conclusion:

In an article titled Drilling Papua New Guinea: Chevron Comes to Lake Kutubu that appeared in the March 1996 Multinational Monitor, Project Underground executive director Danny Kennedy describes a less than beneficent impact of development on the local population.

According to Kennedy, a human blockade on the pipeline construction site was broken up by a riot squad flown into the area on company choppers on May 1992. Apparently Chevron is very resourceful when it comes to shuttling in troops on company assets. The indigenous people felt that they were not being properly compensated for Chevron's land grab. (Of course, the birds might have been less upset. This is in keeping with WWF's preference for virgin forest as opposed to pesky human beings.) Sasoro Hewago, a leader of the local Fasu clan, told The Wall Street Journal in June 1992 that "The people say problems have come here because Chevron has come here, and so it is Chevron that must take care of them. ... If we're not satisfied there will be no oil. We have pledged to die. ..."

Eighteen months later he seemed worn down by constant confrontations with the oil giant. He confessed, "You must chew before you swallow. My people have been exposed to Western civilization for five years, and are expected to deal with it. We are like we are in a dream and when, one day, we wake up it will be gone. We're choking."

The 5,000 supposed local beneficiaries of the project, members of the Fasu, Foe, and Kikori clans became increasingly unhappy after oil began being shipped in late 1992. In December 1993, 60 Foe men were arrested for protesting over inadequate royalty payments and were carried off in Chevron helicopters to a nearby jail. Once again Diamond's favorite capitalist corporation was relying on helicopters to deal with the restless natives.

In December 1995, confrontations deepened further. Indigenous people threatened to blow up the pipeline, prompting Chevron to remove non-essential staff. Although Chevron eventually placated them with handouts, there is little doubt that a culture of dependency was created. Few of them actually work for Chevron but rely on the dole. When Chevron exhausts the local oil supplies, it is doubtful that native Papuans will be able to fend for themselves.

According to Kennedy, "the mining and petroleum sector is based on the degradation of natural capital and produces few human-made assets for PNG. It employs less than 2 percent of the population and does not add value to the raw materials. And in those boom years, the national government ran up an enormous foreign debt, causing it to bow to the strictures of a major structural adjustment program administered by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, in conjunction with its old colonial master Australia, in order to avert a cash-flow crisis."

Even Diamond's beloved birds seem less chipper than portrayed in Collapse. Stephen Feld, a University of Texas expert on birds in the local rainforests, states that much of the area game has been scared away by air traffic, especially by Chevron's omnipresent helicopters.

Even the handouts create problems. With 90 percent of royalties going to the Fasu and only 10 percent to the Foe, rivalries have developed. This pattern can also be seen with the Navaho and Hopi in New Mexico, who have been played off against each other by a coal company.

But here's the clincher. Kennedy reports that the World Wildlife Fund has a $3 million contract with Chevron to implement an "Integrated Conservation and Development Project" for the oil project area. The oil giant saw its ties with WWF as critical to its long term interests. A virtual conspiracy existed, according to Kennedy:

A leaked 1993 confidential evaluation of the potential impacts of a Kutubu oil spill and the clean-up capacity of the joint venture, written after a practice exercise conducted by the joint-venture partners, expressed concern "as to whether a policy exists to control media and interest groups (Greenpeace) at Kopi area should a spill of this magnitude occur." Other documents concluded that the joint venture partners could rest easy, however, because "WWF will act as a buffer for the joint venture against environmentally damaging activities in the region, and against international environmental criticism."

Finally, despite Diamond's assurances that Chevron has learned the painful lessons of oil spills, there is evidence that it has minimized the risk of exactly such a threat in its Papua New Guinea showcase. Before Chevron started piping oil, a tanker ran aground on pipe over the Kikori River bed. Environmental management experts Michael Kondolf and Richard Chaney concluded:

We are particularly concerned about potential impacts of catastrophic oil spills from pipeline breakage. Given the proximity to active faulting and subduction, and given the nature of deltaic sediments, pipeline failure at multiple points can be expected due to seismic shaking and liquefaction.

Kennedy writes:

These dangers were graphically demonstrated in May 1993, when several sections of the riverbed underlying 110 kilometers of pipeline shifted and threatened to rupture. When divers checked the pipeline's condition, they found more than one kilometer of pipe unsupported. Workers involved said that such a freespan could easily have flexed in the strong tidal currents of this stretch of the Kikori River until the pipe broke. The loss of any crude would likely be an ecological disaster, because Chevron would at best be able to clean up 25 percent of any spill, according to the company's own oil-spill evaluation.

If Chevron in Papua New Guinea is supposed to be a model for enlightened corporate management, then perhaps the fate of the earth is that which befell the Mayans and Easter Islanders. Contrary to Jared Diamond, the best hope for humanity is in the youth who threw a cream pie in the face of the Chevron CEO, and the indigenous people of Nigeria, Papua New Guinea, and elsewhere who are resisting the incursions of mining and drilling companies. With their efforts and the efforts of working people in the industrialized world, a global struggle against capitalism has the potential to remove the greatest obstacle to environmental sustainability: the private ownership of the means of production.


More on ecology and Jared Diamond by Louis Proyect (external links):


Jared Diamond on tribal warfare in New Guinea

Jared Diamond's Collapse, part one

Jared Diamond's Collapse, part two

Jared Diamond's Collapse, part three

Jared Diamond's Collapse, conclusion


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Published April 19, 2010