Sunday, January 09, 2005

Jared Diamond's latest

Salon interviews Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, about his latest book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. It's history from an ecological perspective, looking at how the success of civilisations has been influenced by their environment. The Guardian also has an extract from the book (with topical lead-in about the tsunami), which points out the striking agreement between a list of countries facing serious environmental stress and those considered the world's "trouble spots" and breeding grounds for war, revolution and terrorism. And the link is fairly obvious when you think about it: serious environmental stress encourages political instability because

[w]hen people are desperate, undernourished, and without hope, they blame their governments, which they see as responsible for or unable to solve their problems. They try to emigrate at any cost. They fight each other over land. They kill each other. They start civil wars. They figure that they have nothing to lose, so they become terrorists, or they support or tolerate terrorism.

ObservatioNZ attacks this idea as "stuff and nonsense", but this relies on a crude equation of environmental stress with population density, with no conception of carrying capacities. At the same time, it needs to be pointed out that environmental stress is not the only story, and in fact a key focus of Diamond's book is on how societies react (or fail to react) to environmental problems.

Anyway, after GG&S, I'm going to have to buy this one too...


" needs to be pointed out that environmental stress is not the only story"

I like Amartya Sen's argument that there has never been a famine in a democracy.

Posted by Amanda : 1/10/2005 09:17:00 AM

I did think about carrying capacities - my point was that Afghanistan is in a similar climate zone to Pakistan, but that Pakistan supports a much higher population without the same degree of political instability. Same with Haiti/Barbados.

I didn't remember when I wrote the piece that Jared Diamond wrote "Guns Germs and Steel" - I'd have given him a bit more respect otherwise as I think it was a good book :-) I think maybe the environmental analysis works over an extended timeframe - in the short term historical randomness (like which European power's area of influence a country was in) seems to me to be more important.

Posted by Rich : 1/10/2005 10:57:00 AM

"I like Amartya Sen's argument that there has never been a famine in a democracy."

So do I, but it should be noted that Sen is using a very broad definition of "democracy". Crooked Timber has the details here.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 1/10/2005 12:09:00 PM


carrying capacity isn't solely a factor of environment - it's also a factor of technology and social organisation. And Pakistan is hardly stable - it's had, what, four coups since independence?

But like I said, it's not the only story.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 1/10/2005 12:38:00 PM