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Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Jared Diamond's Collapse

John wrote a couple of months back about Jared Diamond's extremely popular book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive. A recent paper published in Energy and Environment by Benny Peiser strongly disagrees with Diamond on, well, just about everything. Here's the paper's abstract:
The decline and fall of Easter Island and its alleged self-destruction has become the poster child of a new environmentalist historiography, a school of thought that goes hand-in-hand with predictions of environmental disaster. Why did this exceptional civilisation crumble? What drove its population to extinction? These are some of the key questions Jared Diamond endeavours to answer in his new book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive. According to Diamond, the people of Easter Island destroyed their forest, degraded the island's topsoil, wiped out their plants and drove their animals to extinction. As a result of this self inflicted environmental devastation, its complex society collapsed, descending into civil war, cannibalism and self-destruction. While his theory of ecocide has become almost paradigmatic in environmental circles, a dark and gory secret hangs over the premise of Easter Island's self-destruction: an actual genocide terminated Rapa Nui's indigenous populace and its culture. Diamond, however, ignores and fails to address the true reasons behind Rapa Nui's collapse. Why has he turned the victims of cultural and physical extermination into the perpetrators of their own demise? This paper is a first attempt to address this disquieting quandary. It describes the foundation of Diamond's environmental revisionism and explains why it does not hold up to scientific scrutiny.
The whole paper is fascinating. What I hadn't realized is that there was a large indigenous population still living on Easter Island when the island was first discovered by Europeans. Then, one-hundred and fifty years after repeated contacts with Europeans, there were none left. Hmmmmm. Given the known atrocities committed by white men against native populations everywhere else in the world during that period, it's difficult for me to believe that the natives' contact with the Europeans had little or no negative consequences, yet that seems to be critical to Jared Diamond's fundamental claim that the natives killed themselves by the ecological disaster they created.

Another environmental doom and gloom prophet exposed? Maybe. It does, at least, make me wonder. I'm now interested in following this debate as it unfolds.

1 comment:

Joe said...

I'm with you in your suspicions of "Collapse." One of the reasons I loved "Guns, Germs & Steel" was that I felt Diamond managed to avoid the worst pitfalls of stitching together histories of the world from multiple academic disciplines--he generally didn't try to overinterpret evidence and pretty much stuck to a single, coherent thesis.

That's the very reason I was so disappointed when "Collapse" came out--in fact, I never read it. It seemed to me at the time he let the good reviews for "Guns" go to his head, and the effect of that was that he stopped reporting evidence and dwelt too much in the land of conjecture.

I look forward to you following this debate and hopefully reporting on it!