JARED DIAMOND — COLLAPSE — 2005–2011
This book is a long collection of cases of civilizations or countries that failed, how they failed, what were the causes of their failing (plus a few success stories). This insistence on failing makes it very pessimistic in many ways. But the second characteristic is that the book does not explore the past for itself, but it is exploring the past to draw lessons for the present. The basic assumption is thus that the present world is on the brink of failing or collapsing. That takes a lot of value from the book because then the cases are understood as being illustrations if not arguments for the importance of climate change in human history, and the importance of environmental sustainability. And actually, we are brought to thinking that some cases have been over-exploited in that direction; The main shortcoming is that at times the book is retrospective. It does not try to understand what happened in the past, but it looks at it with a modern vision, a modern interpretation, something that is anachronistic in the past situations that are concerned.
That’s why he gives the conclusions in the opening prologue. We are going to start with them, I mean to list them, not discuss them. Then we will consider a few cases, hence a few chapters.
He starts with giving the TWELVE causes of collapse that he also calls threats. A first group of eight that I number here, though they are not in the book:
1- deforestation and habitat destruction;
2- soil problem (erosion, salinization, and soil fertility losses);
3- water management problems;
6- effects of introduced species on native species;
7- human population growth;
8- increased per capita impact of people. (page 6, my numbering).
To these he adds four new ones (understood as from the present):
9- human-caused climate change;
10- the buildup of toxic chemicals in the environment;
11- energy shortages;
12- full human utilization of the Earth’s photosynthetic capacity. (page 7, my numbering)
He can then consider our present and list four modern advantages:
1- our powerful technology (i.e., its beneficial effects);
3- modern medicine;
4- greater knowledge of past societies and of distant modern societies. (page 8, my numbering)
And to complete this listing he gives four modern risks:
1- our potent technology (i.e., its unintended destructive effects);
2- globalization (such that now a collapse even in remote Somalia affects the U.S. and Europe);
3- the dependence of millions (and, soon, billions) of us on modern medicine for our survival;
4- our much larger human population. (page 8, my numbering)
Without discussing these elements, we can shift to his next listing of his
“five-point framework of possible contributing factors that I now consider in trying to understand any putative environmental collapse. Four of those sets of factors — 1- environmental damage, 2- climate change; 3- hostile neighbors; and 4- friendly trade partners — may or may not prove significant for a particular society. The fifth set of factors — 5- the society’s responses to its environmental problems — always proves significant. (page 11, my numbering)
He then examines them separately and it is interesting to see the longer phrasing he uses.
1- The first set of factors involves damage that people inadvertently inflict on their environment (page 11, my numbering);
2- The next consideration in my five-point framework is climate change, a term that today we tend to associate with global warming caused by humans (page 12, my numbering);
3- The third consideration is hostile neighbors (page 13, my numbering);
4- The fourth set of factors is the converse of the third set: decreased support by friendly neighbors (page 14, my numbering);
5- The last set of factors in my five-point framework involves the ubiquitous question of the society’s responses to its problems (page 14, my numbering).
He then explains that his method is a comparative method, meaning that he will systematically compare crises in various societies to understand each one. And he gives his conclusion straight away:
“Globalization . . . lies at the heart of the strongest reasons both for pessimism and for optimism about our ability to solve our current environmental problems . . . For the first time in history, we face the risk of a 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.” (page 23–24)
That is my introduction, but it is the author’s conclusions, that I did not discuss at all, given in his prologue to the book. That is not very scientific and in the book it is clear that there is no real diachrony, historicity, phylogeny of anything, but simply the synchronic study of cases with no real phylogenetic approach of each case within the general phylogeny of humanity, and this succession of synchronic studies is transferred in in the book’s conclusive chapters onto the present in the last part of the book on “Practical Lessons” which only target the possible political decisions humanity has to take to face, confront and fight in order to solve the climate challenge of today. The point is each case requires so much discussion that the practical lessons are nothing but preaching from a preacher who has interpreted the past or present, old or recent cases in his sole perspective of supporting if not validating his own political position for today’s world. I can stop there and let you discover that political statement of his that as a historian I do not even want to discuss: politics is not history.
But I would like now to look at a few old cases in detail because they deserve that kind of care.
Montana used to be rich and now it is one of the poorest states in the USA. Human beings, in fact only white human beings, rushed to Montana when the gold rush started sometime at the end of the 19th century. Gold plus some other mining ruined the country and the landscape, poisoned the rivers and arsenic went down into the soil and even the water tables. After that in the US they love frame houses and for that, they need a great quantity of lumber and so they started cutting down the big and old trees and deforestation started and has been going on since that time with no respite, even still today. Did they replant trees? Maybe, maybe not. For sure they turned a lot of that land into pastures and started raising cows and who knows what else. Overgrazing was the next stage and the field they cultivated for the cows of course, and other animals of the type, were over-cultivated. No fallow but a lot of fertilizer, chemical for a good part. When all that produced a real economic crisis, then the big and beautiful landscapes attracted the rich who had vacation houses built with lawns and swimming pools and they had to have a lot of water.
Unluckily the water resources are limited, and this water was overused by the rich residents, most of them temporary, three months a year at best. And they needed electricity and they needed heating, and they needed energy and fuel and they used wood of course and some diesel too and air pollution started. And we must not forget that forest-land is prone to forest-fires caused naturally by storms and lightning. That is natural pollution to which you add human pollution and you have the present problem that requires strict decisions. But now Montanans are ripped apart by their dual ideology. On one hand pro-individual rights and anti-government regulations, and on the other hand their pride in their quality of life that is escaping through the chimney and exhaust pipes. So, they then start requiring the government, local, state and federal, to do something but they do not want the state to meddle with their business and local authorities cannot do anything since the rich temporary residents and the farmers who both pay a lot of taxes are the polluters. You cannot send them to hell, and you cannot impose rules on them. And there is the dilemma of this state. Conservative like hell, they vote for the most conservative Republicans, but they see their quality of life being erased, day after day, and Republicans are getting rid of all protective measures taken by Democratic Obama.
Jared Diamond is nice in a way because he gives a poignant and pathetic picture of this dilemma, but never ever does he starts showing or saying that this is the result of American history, the conquest of the West. Watch the series “Deadwood” and you will have a nice picture of what free uncontrolled and unlimited enterprise can produce in any environment. Montana of course, even if Deadwood is in South, Dakota: they lived the same ordeal that has the color of gold.
I will skip Easter island because he only considers the Polynesian migration and population. The real mystery in this southern Pacific Ocean is how the Australian Aborigines reached Australia, then reached Madagascar, then New Zealand but the New Zealand government has put all archaeology and other stuff proving there were inhabitants there before the Maoris in a big locked up safe in some unreachable shielded and reinforced crypt somewhere till 2063. Why did these Aborigines stop like that after such big voyages? Of course, they did not and from island to island they jumped to Chile. Have you heard of Monte Verde? If not get some information on this archaeological site. This old migration, before the peak of the Ice Age (19,000 BCE), brought Homo Sapiens to South America. They moved north. We today have a whole set of archaeological facts and data telling us this population moved north and encountered somewhere in northern Mexico and the south-west USA the other population that had arrived from Siberia, a lot earlier than presumably assumed in the USA for a long time. Now it is proved it reached Alaska 25,000 years ago, in 23,000 BCE or so. But DNA leads to a great problem because these old human remains in Alaska do not match with northern Canadian Indians, by the way, which ones, the Dorset or the Inuit? But no match either with the famous Clovis dated 15,000 BCE. So, the self-imposed desolation of Easter Island and its Polynesian inhabitants is not that interesting: deforestation, overgrazing, over-cultivating, then volcanic earth that is volatile or nearly and the wind took it away when it was denuded and the Island became a bare piece of volcanic rock. The same mistake as in Montana in many ways, though something like 7 or 8,000 years ago.
The Maya are a rare case, but Jared Diamond misses many points. He never asks where these Maya were coming from and what language they spoke before they became the Mayas, started building monuments, palaces, and pyramids and started writing in stone, on paper, on pottery and plates, etc. In fact, he is not interested in that phylogenic approach. He has his own idea to follow.
The Maya became the Maya that we know because they managed to shift from wild maize that can scatter its seeds and reproduce itself by itself to the maize, we know today that cannot sow its own seeds without the hand of man. This modern, highly productive maize is genetically connected to the wild types in the jungle, in Mexico and around in Mesoamerica, but no one can explain how the mutation was produced, meaning we cannot reproduce it. This new maize — attributed to a god by the Maya of course, the Maize God — gave them plenty of food though they had to discover that they had to boil it with ashes to make it digestible. Once again that is a tremendous invention. I tend to believe the Maya did not invent these two inventions but just took advantage of them, though they might have been part of the process. But who really devised them and where? No extraterrestrials please and no divine revelation pretty please.
If he had started with this tremendous genetic manipulation, he then would have been surprised by the fact that the agriculture of the Maya was extremely primitive, backward. They just slashed and burnt forest patches to cultivate without any fertilizer, no rotation of crops, no real fallow, except when the patch of land is exhausted, they abandon it to itself and move to another patch of the forest while the old patch is reinvaded by the forest and regenerated naturally. They had no draught animals, no plow, no metal tools, and no fertilizer since they had no animals like the lamas the Incas had, for one example. They had not really developed any systematic irrigation. They had very little terracing on slopes and hillsides, hence they had a lot of erosion, and the only water they had was rain, the water from the rivers they had to carry in a way or another without draught animals nor wheels, and water from cenotes, natural sinkholes full of water, but they used these cenotes as sacrificial places and hundreds or thousands of bodies were rotting at the bottom. The water could not be drunk for sure, but could it be used for the fields? And how could they get it since the sinkholes were deep and they had no wheels, hence no pulleys. Jared Diamond does not explain that and does not come to the simple question. Maize is the mark of tremendous inventive creativity and after that nothing. That’s a real mystery about the Maya.
He does not insist enough on the second side of the creative originality of the Maya: their writing system, one of the most elaborate writing systems in the world, even more complex than the Egyptian Hieroglyphs. They were writing everywhere and particularly in paper books, the paper being bark-paper. Unluckily a crazy Spaniard, a Bishop mind you, had them all burned as diabolical and satanic. Only four are still in existence. Such backward agriculture and at the same time such a tremendous writing system and mythology. We know slightly the latter because memory has enabled some people later on, after the Spanish conquest to write down the oral traditions of the Maya and then to translate these oral traditions into Spanish. Jared Diamond does not speak of that the way he should. Maize brought demographic expansion that became overpopulation due to the backward or not advanced agriculture. And that is the real problem. In spite of systematic genocide, ethnocide and ecocide imposed onto the Maya by the colonial forces, and partly by the Maya themselves, the Maya are still there, with their languages and their cultures. They have not disappeared. Their civilization collapsed but not the people, the languages, the cultures. So, what happened in this apparently fateful triad:
[1- brilliant maize] — [2- backward agriculture] — [3- brilliant writing system, art and mythology].
The causes of the end of the Maya civilization are known: overpopulation, recursive and recurring droughts, lack of draught animal reducing a community centered on a city to a few miles around and no possible transportation of heavy loads or information and central decisions, hence there could not be any wide political organization. At best some loose federations of a few cities within a rather small territory. The main cause for me is the blood culture that created some kind of absolute submission. Jared Diamond, page 172 gives details about how captives were tortured, but that’s the small side of things. Human sacrifices were common and frequent: war-prisoners, for sure, but also slaves, orphans, handicapped children, and probably other types too. If that was not enough to reduce the population (these sacrificees were mostly if not all men and the Maya were apparently puritans as for adultery and promiscuity), they also practiced self-sacrifice and the most common in the four Codices we have was piercing your own penis with a sacrificial stone-knife which was a radical means of contraception, and from what we know about their medicine they had some unguents to treat the possible infection of this form of self-sacrifice. This obsession — perfectly represented in the Tzolk’in calendar, the ritualistic calendar of the Maya — to shed blood to and for the gods must have created a mental atmosphere close to despair. Archaeology has not revealed any form of rebellion against this blood-thirsty system and religion, but that could explain the vanishing of these Maya from the cities, away from the priests and the lords. The droughts, the bad and backward management of the agricultural environment, the hunger maybe famine that resulted from this situation may have made the Maya run away and take refuge where they could in the forest or far away. And anyway, that’s the time when the Aztec arrived, and things changed for the Maya who became feudalistically controlled by these Aztec who were even thirstier for blood than the Maya.
Jared Diamond conclusion lacks any empathy and is cold. Six conclusions (page 176–177)
1- Population growth outstripping available resources;
2- Mismatch between population and resources…: deforestation, hillside erosion, … an anthropogenic drought resulting from deforestation, …the struggle to prevent bracken ferns from overrunning the fields;
3- Increased fighting … no man’s land between principalities where it was now unsafe to farm;
4- Climate change;
5- The Maya kings and nobles did not heed long-term problems, insofar as they perceived them;
6- Parallel between the Maya case and previous cases like Easter Island. The passivity of Maya kings in the face of the real big threats to their societies.
As you can see there is no capture of the religion, culture and mythology for the masses, I mean simple people seen as a collective body. I would say that these people suffered a trauma in a way or another that made them servile and submissive, and yet they disappeared from the cities one day and in each case suddenly. The Maya today have transferred the Christian patterns into the old Maya mythology. Their main god (Kukulkan) and their mythological Hero Twins who had to go through sacrifice to be reborn and renewed fit quite well with the crucifixion of Jesus and all the saints and martyrs you can imagine, not to speak of famous Christian pairs: Jesus-John-the-Baptist; Jesus and his brother James (both sacrificed, one by crucifixion, the other by stoning), etc. Kukulkan will come back one day from the east. The two Hero Twins are the second generation of twins (think of Jesus being the second generation of miraculous impregnation since his grandmother Ann went through the process too). The first generation was sacrificed by the Underworld’s Lords, though one managed to impregnate from the branch where his head had been impaled the daughter of some Underworld Lord, and she will give birth to the Hero Twins who will defeat the Underworld Lords with plain tricks and treachery. There is a tremendous amount of thinking and research to do on this theme. But what I say is that Jared Diamond reduced the subject to a rhetorical argument in his political project.
I would now like to consider the case of the Vikings, not those in Europe, not those in the north Atlantic islands including Iceland, not those in Vinland in Canada but mostly those in Greenland.
The Vikings nearly ruined Iceland by overgrazing on land that could not stand bareness in front of the winds and the harsh climate. If Iceland still exists it is because they shifted from cows and sheep to fish. They are fishing enormously and exporting it to the world. At the same time, and Jared Diamond does not say it, they have kept a position that is totally “aloof” in the world’s financial sphere. In other words, they are some kind of tax haven or investment haven, not in Iceland but wherever it may prosper in the world. That’s why they are not a member of the European Union and why they refused to tie themselves up to the EU after the financial crisis of 2008. But to go back to the Vikings who settled in Iceland, they made it a catastrophe. They went on to Greenland, the Vinland episode is too short to be meaningful except on the side (revealing the colonialist imperialistic attitude of the Vikings), and there they revealed a state of mind and a project that was sooner or later suicidal. As for this suicidal management of their colonies Jared Diamond is clear, even cruel.
They introduced a European style society in Greenland, pure and simple. They kept their European dressing code strictly though it was not adapted to their new environment. They built European houses in stone, lumber and “turf,” the latter because they did not have enough lumber and stone. To use turf was an absurdity: as we are going to see turf was the basis of their survival since it fed the cattle and eventually fed the people. To use it to build houses, and even as some fuel to heat their houses and cook, was a crazy idea. They built farms on the pattern and model of European farms. They raised cows and sheep. The cows had to be kept indoors some 8 to 9 months a year and they had to be fed with hay which had to be harvested at the short end of the short summer period (end of August and beginning of September). These cows provided them with milk, cheese, butter, and meat. The sheep provided them with milk, cheese, wool, and meat. But to raise herds with only four to five months of open pasture, and closer to four most of the time, with low sunshine and very low temperature, plus total indoors lock-up the rest of the time due to polar night and cold, snow and ice, is a miracle if it succeeds. In spite of this difficult way of life these Vikings built many and enormous churches, even a cathedral with stone, turf again and lumber again. They deforested the area completely and had to go to Labrador in Canada and get their lumber there with their ships that were aging of course and little by little falling apart. There came a time when they could not get any lumber at all.
That dependence on lumber was a catastrophe in itself and it is amazing they did not capture the possibility of some collaboration with the Labrador Indians. When they tried to settle in Vinland, they found it natural to kill Indians who of course found it natural to defend themselves. That’s the main problem that is not studied enough by Jared Diamond. These Vikings are dependent on another element that is not material but spiritual and mental: their brand of Lutheranism that makes them believe they are the only humans on earth and that the natives that they call “skraelings” (“wretched” if not even worse) are not human. They refuse to have contact with them, to establish any, if not commercial at least bartering, connection. They were in contact with Dorset Indians first, in Greenland, before the Inuit arrived and wiped the Dorset out. But the contacts were inexistent really: no exchange, no physical contact, no interbreeding, not even any Christian preaching to convert them. It is clear, though not said by the author, they considered them as pagans, barbarians and soul-less, hence not deserving any attempt to save their souls, not worth salvation, definitely not worth imitating in their hunting or fishing practices since these were definitely diabolical witchcraft. And that was the Vikings’ doom.
All their tools were made with metal, but they could find no metal in Greenland, apart from a meteorite. They had to import it and to import it they had to have ship-relations with the motherland and to export something worth it. The only thing they could export was ivory: the tusks of some sea-mammals they could hunt further north. That took their best men in the best farming season to go up north in the summer to hunt these walruses. That was probably the main problem when ships became scarce because Norway got unified under the King of Denmark and then lost a lot of interest in Greenland. At the end they did not have a bishop anymore, they could not ordain priests any more and the last fifty or more years they were totally abandoned.
The summer being short, the herds in the pastures overgrazed them and the pastures did not have any time to regrow before the winter. Little by little the pastures became very poor and nearly useless, particularly to produce hay for the winter. Some sections had to be fenced to enable them to produce the hay that was so much needed. But in such a situation they should have reduced the number of cows and sheep and they should have looked for alternative solutions. But Jared Diamond asserts that archaeology has proved that they did not eat any fish. They did not learn how to hunt seals, particularly ringed seal that lived under the ice in the winter with some small opening for them to come and breathe regularly. The Vikings did not learn anything from the natives, and they did not even try to imitate them. Since the walrus hunting ground was rather far away from the settlements and since they did not have any sleigh-dogs or sleighs, I wonder how they could transport the meat of the walrus. They probably got the tusks, the hide and maybe a little bit of the meat but the rest was left to rot on the spot which must have shocked the natives when they found out the Vikings had been around on the hunting ground. In the same line, they did not hunt whales though the natives did with a very special technique. To do it these natives had special kayaks and the simple technique to harpoon the whales and attach to them inflated bladders that tired them when they tried to go down under the water, and the bladders were tracking devices. The Vikings did not learn and did not imitate.
The worst shortcoming is the fact that they did not learn how to build kayaks which would have made them very agile on the sea. The technique is rather delicate since a kayak is like a piece of clothing built and sewn to the measurements of the person concerned: size customization has to be perfect. Only women in the native communities know how to do it. How could the Vikings learn? How could the Vikings establish a commercial relationship and what could they give in exchange for a customized kayak? A team of kayaked hunters would have brought up so much more food that they would have been able to cut on the number of cows, reduce the overgrazing of pastures, get more hay, guarantee their survival. A question has to be asked and Jared Diamond is by far too cautious about it. These Vikings must have considered these natives were devilish beings, not monsters but creatures from hell. And they sure were living in such an ideology. Jared Diamond reports but circumstantially how one man was burnt alive because he had used witchcraft to seduce a young lady who became completely insane afterward, and we do not have to wonder if it was because of the witchcraft-trickery or because of the trauma she went through to be forced to watch the one she loved burnt at the stake. Imagine the howling. This reveals the rivalry there must have been among the various groups, families in these two settlements of at the most 5,000 and 1,000 people. Jared Diamond gives another incident that reveals a lot, and he alludes to it twice: an Inuit was captured and was submitted to torture with a knife to experiment what happened when he was superficially cut. He did not bleed as long as his life was not in danger but when he was wounded so that he would die of this wound then he bled. For them, the natives were at best animals and at worst devils, and probably both.
So, the reference to climate change is for me ideological. In Greenland the weather was always variable, changing from one year to the next, unstable hence unpredictable. The phrase “climate change” has taken a very different meaning today in politics, and I insist, in politics. The case of Greenland is typical, but the case of the Maya was the same. The weather has always been unstable, and the instability is cyclical. The point is the cycles are difficult to predict because they are capricious. European monasteries that received agricultural goods from the villages, as some kind of yearly tithe, have kept a record of these vegetables and fruit and it reveals a cyclical change of sixty to eighty years from cold products to warm products. No one is able to explain this cyclical phenomenon. In those days it was God’s will. Today we should try to find out but how can we study the intensity of sunlight, the activity at the surface of the sun. There is no record of, such things and core samples of ice can tell a lot but not the real cause of such cyclical phenomena. Jared Diamond makes the mistake of not wondering if the “climate change” and I would prefer here the “cyclical weather instability” had any regularity and could in any way be foreseen if not predicted.
Neil Diamond’s four conclusions on the Greenland Vikings are not coping with the real stakes.
1- Even by today’s standards [my emphasis: totally anachronic], the achievement of the Medieval Norse in developing a complex mix of activities that permitted them to feed themselves for 450 years is impressive and not all suicidal; [They could have done so much better if they had been open-minded and not Europe-centered and deeply racist] (page 274)
2- The Norse did not enter Greenland with their minds a blank slate. . . Shared language, religion, and culture bound them to Norway. [and of course, it is not politically correct to indicate their religion was a fundamentalist version of Lutheranism amplified by the trauma of being cut away from the motherland, the mother church and the mother security.] (page 274–275)
3- The Norse, like other medieval European Christians, scorned pagan non-European peoples. [How nicely said: they rejected as diabolical these beings that were not human, did not have any souls, did not have any divine dimension, and were only animals from hell.] (page 275)
4- Power in Norse Greenland was concentrated at the top, in the hands of the chiefs and clergy. [So, let’s say it: they were a feudal society deeply animated with hatred from one family to the next, from one clan to the next, able to kill one another on the spot under any kind of anger or jealousy: Jared Diamond gives quite a few examples, and when the worst comes then the chiefs and clergy are normally the last to die. Since these settlements disappeared at the time of the Black Death and a few ships came by when that Black Death was raging in Europe, transported by rats who loved getting on ships, that’s the only element Jared Diamond does not take into account: Had this Black Death reached Greenland which would mean at least 50% of the population would have died and the rest could not have been able to take care of themselves and would have died of hunger as Jared Diamond suggest on the basis of archaeological remnants of cattle, sheep, etc. found in the deserted settlements.] (page 275)
The conclusion for me is that the book is deeply political and anachronic. “Illegal immigrants from poor countries pour into the overcrowded lifeboats represented by rich countries.” (page 273) This is a picture that would please President Trump. Unluckily for Jared Diamond, the biggest migration in modern times is from Africa and the Middle East to Europe, and in this case the overcrowded lifeboats are real lifeboats, not metaphorical, and they end up sinking in the middle of the Mediterranean. We do not know for sure how many thousands if not tens of thousands of such immigrants have died in the Mediterranean. So his America-centered scenario is not valid in Europe and it is so US-centered that a few hundreds or thousands of peaceful walking refugees are seen as a plague with the “lifeboats” that allude in this context to Europe and many other situations, and the few hundreds or thousands who reach the US border are not even comparable to those who die on the way to other refuges like Europe. But anyway, that has nothing to do with the subject at stake here which is the failure and collapse of the Vikings in Greenland. But to close I will give a last quotation showing how haphazard and rhetorical Jared Diamond can be:
“It seems to me that the collapse of Eastern Settlement must have been sudden rather than gentle, like the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union and of Western Settlement.” (page 272)
What on earth does the Soviet Union have to do in this Viking collapse in Greenland? Can we compare what is incomparable?
Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU