The Rise and Fall of Civilisation

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Review of 'Collapse', Jared Diamond, Penguin £20

Many readers of Socialist Review will be familiar with Guns, Germs and Steel, Diamond's previous work. By use of a strictly materialist analysis, he demonstrated that there is nothing intrinsically superior in the European psyche to explain the development of modern capitalism and imperialism in Europe, but that it was contingent on the availability of domesticable crops and animals, and raw material, combined with accidents of geography and climate.

In Collapse Diamond uses a similar materialist approach to examine the collapse of a number of prehistoric societies, environmental problems in a number of contemporary areas, and by extrapolation the potential for societal collapse of major capitalist countries across the globe. He makes it clear that he doesn't see the collapse of the US (where he lives) as imminent, but in the context of the demise of previous empires he explores the possibility.

Diamond firstly gives a definition of collapse. He then identifies five major factors, some or all of which contribute to the collapse - environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbours, friendly trading partners and the society's conservatism (how they respond to the effects of the other factors).

The book's organisation is somewhat confusing, starting with modern Montana, then the ancient societies, then a tour of modern examples. Finally there are chapters on the practical lessons. The book's strengths lie in the painstaking gathering of diverse scientific data on the life and death of the ancient examples. Diamond draws together the work of scientists (both physical and social) to build a compelling explanation of why the various civilisations collapsed, contracted or died out, while others survived. The extent of research is breathtaking and the explanations are accessible. Similarly, the analysis of some of the modern examples is powerful.

However, Diamond is no Marxist. His analysis of Rwanda is based upon the work of the 18th century thinker Thomas Malthus, who argued that human population (growing exponentially) will exceed the available food supply (growing linearly). Thus Diamond argues that it was population pressure that led to Rwanda's genocide. His analysis of the island of Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic) is that the environmental attitudes of the dictators of the two countries determined the outcome, and that therefore Duvalier was bad (he was), but Trujillo was less bad (not so).

There are more problems with the final section. The book's subtitle ('How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive') implies that those choices are rational, and made collectively by a consensus of equals. Because Diamond eschews any class analysis (other than that the rich were normally the last to die in failed societies) he cannot satisfactorily explain irrational decisions. Furthermore, he gives examples of some modern capitalists acting for the general good (eg some oil companies not destroying the environment to extract oil), while ignoring the wider issues of the power of large multinationals to frame the debate and emphasis of research to protect their markets. His formula for putting consumer pressure on such companies is wholly inadequate and idealistic in the extreme. Diamond also accepts a lot of common sense at face value, leading him to gloss over some of today's major issues, and to dismiss many of the solutions and explanations that socialists would propose.

I seem to be criticising a lot, but actually I think that this is a useful book because it highlights some of the long term environmental damage that our rulers and their parasitic system are imposing on the planet.