Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive

Jared Diamond

Allan Lane, £20

During the sixteenth century, the Spanish conquerors rounded up a group of Aztec priests and gave them two choices: to convert or to die. The priests responded that if their gods were dead, as alleged by the Jesuit priests, then they too would rather die. The Spaniards obliged, burning them alive while unleashing war dogs on their followers. The Aztecs had many faults; some of which no doubt contributed to their downfall. But there is little doubt colonialism played a major role in the eradication of their culture and civilisation.

Jared Diamond is not too bothered with the role played by European conquests or colonialism in the disappearance of societies like the Aztec and Maya, the Australian Aborigines or Native Americans. His sole focus is the environment. And he has amassed a formidable amount of evidence to suggest degradation of the environment has played a major role in precipitating societal collapse throughout history.

The inhabitants of Easter Island used all their forests in erecting enormous, enigmatic stone statues. Without wood to build boats, they were unable to fish in deep water. Fish dropped off their diet, and they found themselves marooned on their island. Finally, cannibalism sealed their fate. Even the recent genocide in Rwanda has an environmental basis. Polluted rivers, over-farmed land, deforestation and high population density – all lead to falling per capita food production and famine. So, it is hardly surprising that the Hutus killed not only the Tutsi but other Hutus as well!

We are offered similar analysis of a number of other societies, including the Inca, the Anasazi culture of the south-western United States and the Greenland of the Viking era. The analysis leads Diamond to identify five factors that produce environmental collapse: the inability to understand or prevent environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbours, loss of trade and political inflexibility. Each of these factors, argues Diamond, can lead to disintegration. But normally two or three will combine to trigger a chain reaction that finally leads to collapse.

The people who chose to die with some style, invoking all five factors, were the Norse of Greenland. And Diamond dissects their case in minute detail. Initially, the Norse colonisation of Greenland was quite successful. They brought sophisticated European technology with them, including iron-smelting, metal working and dairy farming, and successfully tamed the land. But Greenland was not the lush, farmland of southern Norway. Cattle could not survive the harsh winter of Greenland; and the cows consumed an enormous amount of agricultural resources. Using wood for heat and fuel also had its disadvantages. Soon, Greenland was stripped of its trees, and the soil depleted of nutrients.

The Norse refused to learn from the Inuit, the traditional people of Greenland. Their contempt for the Inuit was evident from the label they used to describe them: skraelings or ‘wretches’. Not surprisingly, they looked down on the Inuit practice of burning seal blubber for heat and light and could not be bothered to learn the difficult art of hunting ringed seals. Worse: to totally distinguish themselves from the Inuit, they refused to eat fish. They traded not with the Inuit but with Norway, exchanging tusks and hides not for the much needed wood and iron but religious artefacts. Insisting on maintaining their identity and lifestyle as European Christians, the Norse starved to death in the midst of plenty.

Diamond goes out of his way to emphasise the objectivity of his analysis. But that does not stop it from being both, one-dimensional and deterministic. He is firmly based on the venerable tradition of environmental determinism that has been a major trend in American cultural anthropology. The cases he examines are all too familiar and he follows the old familiar tradition of acknowledging social factors only to neglect them in concern for the environmental picture. Maya civilisation, for example, disintegrated not due to environmental causes, but because of uncontrolled, protracted warfare. By 250AD, which is commonly regarded as the Classic period of Maya civilization, skirmishes between competing city-states had escalated into full-fledged, vicious wars that turned once proud cities into ghost towns. Environmental degradation emerged only as one consequence of these perpetual wars.

Moreover, Diamond’s thesis insists on writing the Maya out of history. The Mayan cities of Palenque and Chichen Itza certainly emptied, returning to the jungle to be found only centuries later by archaeologists. But the Maya are alive and well. Indeed, in recent years the Mayan people of Chiapas in Mexico have been making the news. Their campaign of resistance, publicised and supported worldwide through their website, aims to preserve their traditional lifestyle, complete with the very ecology that Diamond blames for the collapse of their civilization. To drive from the tourist haven of Cancun to the ancient site of Chichen Itza is to pass village after village making a living from the land as their ancestors did. So what was it that collapsed? And what scale of values determined the disappearance of monumental stone built cities should disqualify a people form having a continuous and modern existence? How could Maya civilization have collapsed and ended when the Maya still exist and Mayan is the spoken language of the entire Yucatan region of Mexico? It is an affront deeply resented by the Maya of today who have little doubt some deterministic force beyond their environment is at work. Indeed, recent evidence suggests Mayan environmental ethics is far superior to the modern counterpart that is playing havoc with the ecology of South America.

The point is not that the environment determines but that people choose. Easter Islanders chose ceremonial meaning that sustained the complex clan of their social order. They invested all their effort in their social system which they selected over environmental prudence. The Maya reverted to a sustainable ecological system, one that sustains them still, having chosen to forgo an unsustainable political system. But no civilization chose to be subjugated, dispossessed, enslaved, oppressed, marginalized and made into inferiors or even nonentities scratching a living around the margins of a colonial order not of their making. That is an environmental hazard that is not worked into Diamond’s deterministic schema.

Diamond is also very selective with his case studies. He chooses to ignore the collapse of those societies and civilisations which do not fit his neat thesis. What, for example, caused the collapse of Egyptian, Persian, Roman and the Byzantine societies? What does the study of the ruins of these great civilisations tell us? Can we attribute their fall simply to environmental causes? Diamond is silent here because it would be laughable to suggest that deforestation or soil erosion led to their collapse. They demand much more complex analysis - involving social, cultural and political dimensions – and therefore fail as simplistic cautionary tales that can be offered as one dimensional timely warning of impending doom.

The genocide in Rwanda, for example, has much more to do with the imposition of an artificially created nation state on tribal peoples than environmental damage. The notion of the state with its impersonal institutions and emphasis on geographical boundaries, that turns one tribe into a permanent out-of-power minority, that destroys the indigenous social fabric of traditional kinship, villages and communities, that replaces organic structures with alienating state institutions such as bureaucracy and the military, has played havoc with African societies. The fragile state structure, the crisis of legitimacy and ruthless economic underdevelopment reduced Rwanda to ruins. It was this process that transformed Rwanda from an environmentally sound society into a basket case, led to mutual hatred amongst tribes and the eventual genocide. Rwanda is certainly a lesson for the future, as Diamond suggests, but the lesson is much more than environmental husbandry. The modern nation state and the economics of misdevelopment could not accommodate the sophisticated modus viviendi the cattle keeping Tutsi and agriculturalist Hutu had sustained over centuries. Yet in seeking a just reconciliation in the aftermath of genocide it is the traditional system to which Rwanda is resorting. Gacaca (pronounced gachacha) courts, village level moot courts, where the community as a whole participates in evaluating the crime and determining the punishment are being used to ensure the enormous cases are resolved.

Diamond’s main case study, the Norse settlement in Greenland, also has somewhat different lessons. The conflict between the Norse and the Inuit was a clash between modernity and tradition. The Norse despised the traditional culture of Inuit, which had deep roots in their environment. They perished because of their modern lifestyle and hubris, which lead to their refusal to learn from a non-western culture. The contemporary lesson is that suppression of life-enhancing non-western tradition, and oppressive westernised modernity, would lead us to the same fate.

In fact, Diamond refuses to go where his own analysis is taking him. Instead, he draws parallels with Easter Island and gives us a metaphor for the future: earth is today’s Easter Island and faces the same fate. This is a classic con trick. By arguing that we are all in the same boat, it suggests that we are all equally responsible for the mess and that ultimately it is the responsibility of the victims of modernity and western consumerism to do something about it. Indeed, Diamond places the responsibility squarely on non-western folks. It is the ‘over populated’ and ‘politically stressed’ counties of Africa and Asia, including China, where desperation and under-nourishment is located. It is the people of these countries who are fighting over land, killing each other, and becoming terrorists. So it is these countries that need to pull themselves together for all our sakes.

Not a word about the fact that the West in general, and America, in particular also needs to change radically. Instead, we have a long list of ‘irrational’ reasons why ‘we’ – some sort of amorphous entity – are not changing. We prefer short-term gratification to long term interests. We are lacking the concept of ‘intergenerational justice’. We are in a state of denial. Well, we may be. But the core values that have brought us to this state of affairs are not shared by us all. They are the preserve of a specific materialistic mind set, one that has outlawed the very idea of the sacred, and is deeply embedded in a consumerist, self-destructive, irrational life-style. But this lifestyle, as three recent American presidents – Bush senior, Clinton, and Bush junior – have made clear, is ‘non negotiable’. Yet, it is this very mindset and lifestyle that must return to sanity.

Despite its scholarly pretensions, Collapse is an ideological tract. The main purpose of its hackneyed arguments and skewed analysis is to preserve the domination of American lifestyle. The real mystery is that Diamond has the gall to trumpet such academic twaddle.

Ziauddin Sardar’s Desperately Seeking Paradise: Journeys of a Sceptical Muslim is published by Granta, £16.99

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