20 May 2010

Collapse -- The Review

The problem with reading a 500+ pp book is that you have to write a review that "gets it all in."

But here we go.

Jared Diamond's Collapse (2005) is an excellent book and worth reading. That's particularly true because of the subtitle: "How societies choose to fail or survive."

Every day on this blog, I talk about economics and politics. I talk about things that we are choosing to do, not the things that Nature does to us, but what we do once Nature has moved. That makes this book particularly relevant.

Right, so we get: Wait, I see that the wikipedia article summarizes the book. Great. Go see that for thesis and structure.

The main point is that humans -- in terms of population -- have often overwhelmed their environment, until an end of abundance (get it?) leads to collapse. Well, he doesn't say "end of abundance" (in those words), but that's the jist.

Diamond makes the point that this need not happen. We can change our habits to head off the collapse. My favorite example of voluntary destruction took place in Greenland, where the Norse settlers (vikings!) kept to their sheep and cows, ignoring the fish and seals that were nearby. They starved (turning to cannibalism in the end) while the Inuit nearby just cruised along. Strange that they preferred to die like Norsemen than live, but that's what some people do, when they stick to old habits, like...
  • Driving cars everywhere
  • Water lawns in the desert
  • Eating meat
  • Overfishing
  • Diverting streams
You see the point, or was I too subtle?

Here's another obvious one. The inhabitants in Chaco Canyon (present day New Mexico) left because of a drought, but they were vulnerable because they pushed the water resources to the limit, to the point where there was no safety margin left. Sound familiar?

Some people killed in the Rwandan genocide were killed for land (Hutu-Hutu killings), and that was because the land resources were too meager for the population.

Australians over-exploited their land because they paid prices that were proportionate to land of a similar productivity in England. The trouble was that their new land was NOT that productive. Given their purchase prices, they had to work the land hard (high sheep density, etc.), which led to it deteriorating rapidly. They should have paid less -- in proportion to real and sustainable productivity -- and they wouldn't have depleted it.

Today, "80 percent of Australian agricultural profits come from 0.8% of Australia's land" (p 413). That number is astonishing. If true (James? James! Tell us!), it implies that 99 percent of Aussie agriculture is losing money. I reckon that if half of that shut down, the other half might make a profit...

"Of the 80 claims of `for every tree felled, two are planted' [by wood companies] 77 were unsubstantiated, 3 could be partially substantiated, and nearly all were withdrawn when challenged" (pp 472-3). That was for wood being marketed in the US. China, Burma, Indonesia, Malaysia? Fuggetaboutit!

Australia (in the chapter is called "mining Australia") has a deforestation problem, but they cut trees, grind them into chips and export those to Japan, which has PLENTY of forests. The Japanaese process Aussie chips into paper that they sell back to Australia at a 2500% markup. I'd call that neo-colonialism, but I'd be wrong. It's Aussie government policy that allows plantation farming. Like this place I saw in western Victoria:

The best way to get change is to hit the company in their PR. Want to end "Blood diamonds"? Boycott DeBeers, not Sierra Leone. Want to stop deforestation? Boycott Ikea, not Indonesia. DeBeers and Ikea have done a LOT more to protect market share than these corrupt governments (of corrupt people) will ever do. Thank god for market power!

We, 7 billion humans, are NOT going to achieve First World living standards. There will NOT be a SUV in every driveway, a flat screen on every-wall and a porterhouse steak on every barbie. The earth's resources (and environment!) are not sufficient. Things will cost more (resources) or run out (environment) before we get to that standard. Time to go for smaller is better in developed countries and population control in developing countries.

Bottom Line: I give this book FIVE STARS. I recommend that anyone interested in sustainability, environment, resources, food, and/or public policy read it. Everyone else should as well. We need to understand patterns of failure and prevent them from happening to us. We're already in the middle of many failures, but it's never too late to stop failing.


  1. That figure is probably true. Remember Australia in huuuuge! With a small amount of highly productive (>1%, most likely irrigated land), a larger amount of broad acre agriculture (20%ish) and a huge amount of desert (79%ish).

    But I would not imply too much from that figure about the state of Australian agriculture for two reasons.

    (1) This figure implies that the 0.8% is 'best practice' which is misleading. Most irrigators got their water for free and are not paying the entirety of their costs (inc environmental costs). Their 'profitability' is a compromised figure in that sense.

    (2) the remaining 20% of agricultural profits probably come from about 20% of the land. These farms are broad acre cropping, unimproved pasture grazing, etc. These can be profitable if the land is cheap, which it is.

  2. You know, there's a long history of people being wrong by predicting the end of prosperity and growth. I'm not saying you're wrong, but your confidence does seem a little outsized.

    "Collapse" is almost ironic at this particular time. Diamond is fretting about Easter Islanders and Vikings in Greenland right at the moment when there is an actual, existential threat to a good chunk of Western civilization -- which of course has nothing to do with deforestation or farming. Talk about straining at gnats!

  3. JWT emails: "Collapse had the same effect on me, but fortunately it's passed. However, it seems quite clear that there is not enough for everybody. So we should be thinking about the geopolitical dimensions of this problem BEFORE we go to war with China."

  4. For reference, "Collapse" is not a new book. I got my paper back copy in 2005.

    It is a very good book though as is Diamond's "Guns, Germs, and Steel", which answers the question 'Why did Europeans overrun Samoa and not Samoans overrun Europe?' The answer has to do with cultivatable grains and geography.

  5. @Outsider -- yes, I agree that the doomsters are often wrong, but I also see some truth; read this. Besides that, it's always good to worry about -- and counteract -- the downside.

    @Eric -- good points.

  6. Ack! Global warming?! There's at least as long a history of predicting ecological disaster.

    Say, what's your over-under as to whether we'll still be talking about global warming in 10 years? More than 20%? This too shall pass.

  7. @Outsider -- so I'm not so good at betting terminology. Percent chance that it's worse than IPCC consensus now? 2/3rds, vs 1/3 that it's better. Like subprime mortgages, we haven't even begun to discuss the big problems. (I'd use the proportion underwater iceberg analogy, but that would be too ironic :)

  8. What are the big problems that aren't being discussed, in your mind? I think that's an interesting comment, mostly because I have exactly the opposite sense: we've spent a bunch of time and energy on purely theoretical problems far in the future at the expense of actual problems here and now.

  9. Okay, my comment is basically incoherent. Sorry. Hopefully the point can be seen anyway: wringing our hands about global warming is largely a waste.

  10. If we had known Hitler would instigate a world war and cause millions upon millions of deaths, we'd have nipped him and his Nazi movement in the bud when we had the chance.

    The chance to nip global warming/climate change in the bud is a window closing up fast, and it may already be closed or too late to prevent the predicted cataclysms. We are being lousy ancestors to our descendants who will inherit this legacy of denial started in earnest by the Reagan Administration.

    Go visit Glacier National Park and deny the warming. It's almost time to rename it "Used to be Glacier National Park". That's not theoretical, that's a melted fact. Same goes for Greenland's ice sheet and every other glaciated site on earth. Your argument is moot. In ten years there will be cries of "Woulda, shoulda, coulda!! And a lot of cursing. You are too diplomatic with these naysayers, David. Tell them to pull their dunderheads out of their asses!

  11. I totally disagree. In fact, given what we knew at the time, killing Hitler would have been absurd -- though not as absurd as trying to generate large amounts of energy with wind. It's super easy to identify calamities that, if they came to pass, would lead to the end of the world. The hard part is deciding which ones are actually worth doing something about. That requires grown-up thinking, not lazy chicken-little thinking like you're suggesting, Anonymous.

    Is Earth warming?

    Can we do anything about it?

    Is the expected harm greater than the cost of mitigation (assuming mitigation is possible)?

    At least the last two are in serious doubt. By the way, one of my most peevish pet peeves is the argument that we're somehow screwing our descendants by not undertaking to make ourselves poorer right now. A rich world can afford to deal with environmental problems, a poor one can't -- or won't, the difference is irrelevant.

    And therein lies the reason we can do nothing about global warming, even assuming it's happening, it's man-made, and we should want to. The benefit/cost may be greater than one in the rich and oh-so-sensitive West (maybe), but it certainly isn't from the perspective of the Chinese or Indians. That coal is getting burned whether we like it or not. The only question is whether we make ourselves poor in a quixotic effort to placate Gaia in the mean time.

    That's the grown-up thinking I'm talking about. Face reality, my friend, all the environmental guilt in the world won't change those facts.

    In fact, let's make a rule. Nobody can mention reducing global warming unless his plan includes India and China. Okay? Come up with a way to get the Chinese to go green and then we can talk. Not until then.


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