Monday, June 06, 2005

A Review of Jared Diamond's book, "Collapse"

"Collapse -- How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed" by Jared Diamond
(New York: Viking, 2005) US$29.95 ($19.77

Review by Richard Kew

I bought Jared Diamond's latest book because, as you know, I am a bit of an eco-nut, but didn't get from it what I had expected. Diamond is a gifted polymath who teaches geography at UCLA, has won the Pulitzer Prize, and seems to know everything about the world. He is also one of those talented individuals who can gather a huge quantity of information and organize it in a manner that is digestible to ordinary mortals like you and me.

I was intrigued that someone had even thought that societies might succeed and societies might fail, and I have been gradually working through this 515-page piece for several months now. I have found myself chewing on a host of fascinating chunks of information about everything from the Norse settlement of Iceland and Greenland, to the problems of mining in Montana, to the felling of trees on Easter Island, and the perillous delicacy of the Australian ecosystem, and the effect of current agricultural practices and mining upon it.

What Diamond does is provide a huge array of case studies of societies that have gotten themselves into trouble and have either declined precipitously or have disappeared altogether. He has concentrated on how they have used and abused their environment. This is not a book written by a tree-hugger on a crusade, but a meticulous scholar who wants us to consider what there is to learn from failing societies, as we put unprecedented strains on our own ecosystem at a time when the fabric of the whole world is increasingly interwoven.

However he opens with a caveat that "we shouldn't be so naive as to think that study of the past will yield simple solutions, directly transferable to our societies today. We differ from past societies in some respects that put us at lower risk than them... we also differ from past societies in some respects that put us at greater risk than them..." (Page 8). Yet it is wise to understand past collapses because we are prone to do the same kind of things, and follow the same kind of ideas that contributed to the demise of earlier peoples.

I said as I launched into this review that I did not get from this book what I had expected. I went looking for further insights into my understanding of the environment, and came away with a much better understanding of the nature of decision-making. These societies got into trouble because they were situated within fragile ecosystems, and over long or short periods there were significant failures in group decison-making with the result that problems accumulated until they were insurmountable.

It was as I pondered his insights into decison-making while I mowed my lawn on Saturday afternoon, that I realized that the continuous thread running through the last thirty years of my ministry has been that I have worked in fragile church or church-related ecosystems. My "speciality," if there is such a thing, has been start-up and clean-up. In the one you are working with nothing to make something, and with the other you are working with the outcome of an accumulation of failures in and effort to turn around what surely is (or looks like becoming) a disaster before it gives up the ghost completely.

Unlike a significant proportion of other Anglican clergy I have not spent much of my ministry living in a world of established budgets, buildings that are paid for or have been there for generations, and in some cases endowment monies that pay well and help cushion blows. My ministry has been in successive circumstances to define what the task is that needs to be done, then to chart a course to get there. This process requires gathering and weighing information and the careful making of decisions. It also requires the willingness to take calculated risks with the realization that if we make too many wrong moves then the whole enterprise could be in jeopardy.

In the sort of work I have done there have been very few safety nets. Money has always been in short supply, and we have been very much at the mercy of the external "climate." I recognize that the sort of ministry I have had has been very much the exception in the last 30-40 years, but in these present unsettled times, and with the secularization, moral, and spiritual ferment taking place in society, in the days ahead this is going to be very much the norm. Thus Diamond has a lot to say to us.

One of the points that shines clearly from the pages of Diamond's book is that the more fragile the ecosystem in which a society is established, the more dependent it is on appropriate decision-making. Diamond recognizes that there are four basic areas in which decision-making fails:

* The failure to anticipate a problem before it arrives.
* The failure to perceive a problem when it has arrived.
* That having become aware of the problem, the failure to try and solve it.
* That they might set out to solve the problem -- but because of inadequate information, wrong approaches, etc., they fail.

A classic example of failure to anticipate was the introduction of rabbits and foxes by British settlers in Australia. "These rate as two of the most disasterous examples of impacts of alien species on an environment to which they are not native" (page 421), and Diamond spends a number of pages spelling out the expense to environment and in dollars to the Australian people of these critters within such a dry and fragile setting as that continent.

In the category of failure to perceive a problem when it has arrived, Diamond comes up with two concepts that are particularly helpful. One is what he describes as "creeping normalcy" and the other is "landscape amnesia." The first is slow trends that get missed because they are concealed within noisy fluctuations so that year-to-year change is so gradual that we miss what actually is going on.

"Landscape amnesia" is illustrated by his experience of spending summers in the Big Hole Basin in Montana as a teenager and remembering the backdrop of glaciers and snowfields on the tops of the surrounding mountains. He returned 42 years later and that white crown of snow and ice was gone. Those who had lived there had been so conditioned by this gradual dwindling of the summer snow that they hardly noticed it, but not someone who had been away for more than four decades. Here was more evidence of global warming.

Then there are a whole variety of ways in which problems are not dealt with when they are perceived, from the sense that someone is crying "Wolf!" to a crowd psychology that blinds people to realities, and then to outright psychological denial. Added to this is delay and footdragging. Take the example of Dusky Seaside Sparrow in Florida, a species whose habitat dwindled to such an extent that in the 1980s it faced extinction. By buying the remaining habitat the US Fish and Wildlife Service could have guaranteed it continuity and developed a breeding program. By the time the political dickering was over, it was too late, so a species was lost forever and ecological diversity further threatened.

Then, "Throughout recorded history, actions or inactions by self-absorbed kinds, chiefs, and politicians have been a regular cause of society collapse... As (Barbara) Tuchman put it succinctly, 'Chielf among the forces affecting political folloy is lust for power, named by Tacitus as "the most flagrant of all passions."'" (Page 431).

A couple of pages later Diamond suggests that "Perhaps a crux of success or failure as a society is to know which core values to hold on to, and which ones to discard and replace with new values, when times change... Societies and individuals that succeed may be those that have the courage to take those difficult decisions, and that have the luck to win their gamples" (Page 433-434).

Yet even if a society or culture has "anticipated, perceived, or tried to solve a problem, it may still fail for obvious possible reasons: the problem may be beyond our present capacity to solve, a solution may exist but be prohibitatively expensive, or our efforts may be too little and too late" (Page 436).

I have merely hop, skipped, and jumped around some of the most helpful material I have read for a long time about decision-making, because of lack of space. However, it does not require the brains of a rocket scientist to transfer what Diamond is teaching about the environment into the life of a congregation, a Christian organization, a seminary, a new ministry, a failing parish, a new mission, or a denomination that is in trouble. I have found myself as a result of reading Diamond looking back on the various successes and failures of my ministry and asking what part decision-making contributed to the outcomes.

If you are up for some meaty summer reading outside the realm of church-related subjects, then "Collapse" by Jared Diamond is a good buy. I noticed yesterday that it is still on the New York Times Best Seller list for Non-Fiction.

1 comment:

E.A. said...

One of the biggest (but not so subtle) forms of "landscape amnesia" is the acceptance of giant, looming wind turbines on formerly scenic landscapes. It's one of the major tragedies of the 21st century from an aesthetic standpoint. Who'd have ever thought rural skyscrapers would be rationalized as "clean and green?"

I think it's a serious moral issue that needs to make daily headlines. In Europe they are well aware of it and many are rebelling. I hope the U.S. never reaches their relative density of turbines but it's bad enough already.