Friday, March 31, 2017


Perhaps I should say something about the student protest at Middlebury College, since it has been in the national news recently. In case you didn't hear about it, on March 2 the conservative writer, Charles Murray, who had been invited to speak by a group of students, had his appearance disrupted by protesters, and his party was accosted by students while leaving the campus. The female Middlebury professor who was to have questioned him during the discussion had her hair pulled and was hospitalized, and students jumped on the car.

I probably don't share many of Murray's ideas, though there may be some agreement between them and those of the genetic determinists with whom I sympathize. Primarily I think that this was a deplorable violation of free speech, like the one mentioned earlier involving Smith College students and Wendy Kaminer. In this instance the physical violence got somewhat more attention. It shows that political correctness can induce people to dismiss ideas without even knowing what they are, which was apparent from comments made by protesters and sympathetic faculty members. Fortunately, the college formally came out against the protesters.

There isn't really much of interest here, but it shows how narrow-minded students can be and perhaps echoes the ideas of Sherry Turkle, who has noted how young gadget-users live in an alternate reality in which they are unable to engage in traditional communication. However, this sort of protest is also reminiscent of protests of the 1960's, in which students engaged in a form of groupthink without always truly understanding the issues. From my point of view, it is an example of the bubble atmosphere that can develop on college campuses – especially at small liberal arts colleges – and mainly demonstrates that privileged upper-middle-class students think that they know more than they actually do. In this instance they wasted a lot of people's time, including their own, made a big fuss, and no one in Middlebury, including them, is any the wiser about Charles Murray's views or whether the protest was justified. To me, this episode is about the sociology of educational institutions in the U.S., many of which function more as status-granters than as places of learning. Apparently, as part of the educational package, the students get to pretend that they are college radicals. I doubt that this experience will enhance their intellectual discernment as adults.

In other news, I have been spending time on ancestry research and just received my DNA results. had caused some confusion for me by saying that my sister had no British genes, even though our father was British and his ancestors lived there for hundreds of years and had English surnames. This prompted me to take the same test to see whether I would get the same results. I did, and found that the confusion comes from the way defines ethnicity. Apparently, in order to be British, your ancestors have to have lived there thousands of years ago. Since that doesn't include the Anglo-Saxons or Normans, there aren't many British people in Britain, especially in Southern England. Our English genes fall into an amorphous group that includes Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Luxembourg and Liechtenstein, which in turn overlaps with a Mediterranean group that includes Italy and Greece. We also have West Asian genes from our Armenian ancestors. I found this information less useful than the large online database they've assembled, which has made it easy to find many of my English ancestors.

I've lined up a couple more books to read and will start commenting on one of them soon.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Collapse VI

The last section of the book, "Practical Lessons" covers a mishmash of ideas. Chapter 14 lists some of the psychological failings of the people in the collapsed societies discussed earlier, including failure to anticipate, failure to perceive, rational bad behavior (of a subset of the population) and disastrous values. This chapter had a lot of potential, but I found it disappointing, because it stuck to the obvious. Chapter 15 describes in detail how some businesses have been able to behave like responsible citizens, though that usually occurs only when actual events have shown that the cost of irresponsible exploitation of resources outweighs the cost of additional safety measures and precautions, for instance, when a large oil spill occurs. In the case of hardrock mining, there is usually so little profit in the business to begin with that it is cheaper for businesses to lobby for lax regulations than it is to operate in an environmentally responsible fashion, in which case they would simply lose money. Diamond emphasizes how consumers play a role in this, because, even though they may not understand the economics of the oil or mining industries, they are more cognizant of oil because they buy it at the retail level, whereas the end use of most mining products remains a mystery to them. They are willing to pay for oil because they are aware of how they use it, whereas mining products often become invisible components of consumer products. Responsible stewardship of the environment comes at a cost, and ultimately it is consumers who decide by buying or not buying certain products; they usually aren't willing to pay any premium for consumer products, because, according to Diamond, they don't often understand the environmental costs. Where hardrock mining is concerned, the costs of environmental responsibility are considerably higher than those of most other natural resources. Diamond also notes that self-regulation within some industries, such as forest products, has been comparatively successful.

The final chapter, 16, includes a somewhat redundant list of what Diamond thinks are the twelve most serious trouble spots related to sustaining the environment. Here are the first sentences or so that he has written for each item on the list:

1. At an accelerating rate, we are destroying the natural habitats or else converting them to human-made habitats, such as cities and villages, farmlands and pastures, roads and golf courses.

2. Wild foods, especially fish and to a lesser extent shellfish, contribute a large fraction of the protein consumed by humans.... [T]he great majority of valuable fisheries either have collapsed or are in steep decline. 

3. A significant fraction of wild species, populations, and genetic diversity has already been lost, and at present rates a large fraction of what remains will be lost within the next half-century.

4. Soils and farmland used for growing crops are being carried away by water and wind erosion at rates between 10 and 40 times the rates of soil formation, and between 500 and 10,000 times soil erosion rates on forested land.

5. The world's major energy sources, especially for industrial societies, are fossil fuels: oil, natural gas, and coal. While there has been much discussion about how many big oil and gas fields remain to be discovered, and while coal reserves are believed to be large, the prevalent view is that known and likely reserves of readily accessible oil and gas will last for a few more decades.

6. Most of the world's freshwater in rivers and lakes is already being utilized for irrigation, domestic and industrial water, and in situ uses such as boat transportation corridors, fisheries, and recreation.

7. It might at first seem that the supply of sunlight is infinite, so one might reason that the Earth's capacity to grow crops and wild plants is also infinite. Within the last 20 years, it has been appreciated that this is not the case....

8. The chemical industry and many other industries manufacture or release into the air, soil, oceans, lakes and rivers many toxic chemicals....

9. The term "alien species" refers to species that we transfer, intentionally or inadvertently, from a place where they are native to a place where they are not native. Some alien species are obviously valuable to us as crops, domestic animals, and landscaping. But others devastate populations of native species with which they come into contact....

10. Human activities produce gases that escape into the atmosphere, where they either damage the protective ozone layer (as do formerly widespread refrigerator coolants) or else act as greenhouse gases that absorb sunlight and thereby lead to global warming.

11. The world's human population is growing. More people require more food, space, water, energy and other resources. 

12. What really counts is not the number of people alone, but their impact on the environment.... [O]ur numbers pose problems insofar as we consume resources and generate wastes.... But low-impact people are becoming high-impact people....

Following this list, Diamond refutes, effectively I think, some of the common criticisms that have been brought against the arguments that he makes. He then attempts to finish on a positive note by mentioning that some societies of the past, such as the success stories described in the book, were able to overcome similar problems when they confronted them, and that we may be able to as well.

Because of its scope and completeness, this is by far the best book I've read on environmental issues. In books by E.O. Wilson, such as The Diversity of Life and Half-Earth, the perspective is that of a naturalist more than that of one specifically concerned with the future of mankind. Similarly, in The Sixth Extinction Elizabeth Kolbert looks at the environmental consequences of human activities without paying as much attention to the specific causes. Al Gore's popular documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, which came out the year following Collapse, covers only one aspect of the twelve mentioned by Diamond. Global warming is an important issue, but in itself is probably survivable, and though the film played an important role in raising environmental awareness, compared to Collapse it barely scratches the surface. Diamond makes it clear that if we don't deal effectively with the issues that he raises we may all die, as did those in some of his historical examples.

Although it seems that somewhere in Collapse one is likely to find at least a passing comment on every issue relevant to human survival vis-à-vis environmental damage, Diamond, disappointingly to me, does not present specific strategies for solving the problems, and he more or less leaves it up to mankind to solve them on their own. For example, he recognizes that corporations may or may not behave responsibly but are driven primarily by financial motives, and that the public can pressure them in the right direction, but he also notes that some of the environmental issues are not understood by the public: how could corporate malfeasance be corrected in those instances? As I have argued in previous posts, many of the problems that we are currently facing are the result of the combination of economic competition under capitalism with inferior governance under existing democratic political models. It would be difficult to deal with environmental problems at that level, but, since that is where the problems actually originate, it may be the appropriate place to look.

I think that economic competition tends to cause a vicious cycle from which it becomes increasingly difficult to escape. For example, for someone like me, who prefers a rural environment with a low population density and doesn't care about money, how can I realistically expect to live that way in the current world? If you live in an unspoiled environment with its natural resources more or less intact, in order to retain those resources you need defense measures of one kind or another. Under current global conditions, in the absence of a suitable defense, sooner or later corporations, other nations or perhaps refugees would arrive on the scene and alter the environment for the worse. In other words, in order to protect my sustainable environment, I would need an economic base large enough to support an army or some other deterrent, which contradicts the very idea of the society that I envision. Similarly, economically weak countries may be forced by external economic pressures to modernize their economies, if only for their own protection. Even developed countries with declining populations face pressure to increase their fertility rates in order to ensure that they have sufficient workers to keep their economies strong in the future. Capitalism in the absence of an effective world government forces regions of the world into defensive postures, with economic forces driving events in a way that roughly mimics warfare.

The other problematic component underlying environmental risk, incompetent governance, has hardly diminished since Diamond wrote the book. The collapse in Syria is flooding Europe with refugees, conditions in South Sudan have deteriorated and ISIL is at large. These kinds of situations are predictable within Diamond's framework, because political instability is often associated with environmental destruction. However, one may also question how well the developed nations are dealing with increasing environmental pressures. It may be a little too early to assess the populist movements in Europe and the U.S., but at first glance they may be related to the sustainability of economic growth, which is at least partly related to environmental health. The high standard of living in the developed world comes at a high environmental cost, and the lower end of the income spectrum has been experiencing a reduced standard of living in recent years. Although a collapse does not seem imminent in the developed world, some of the early patterns of political instability may be falling into place. Recently, the two most striking examples have been the victories of Brexit and Donald Trump, which, to me, are clear indications of the inherent incompetence of democratic electorates. Both votes were for isolationism and protection from foreigners and demonstrate a poor understanding of global economics.

The election of Donald Trump is a good example of the incompetence of a democratic electorate. From his few weeks in office it has become apparent that, not only does he not understand any of the serious issues facing the U.S., including those raised by Diamond, but he isn't even interested in them and is unlikely to do anything about them. This encourages me to withdraw into my futuristic mode of thinking, in which complex issues such as those raised in Collapse become the province of AI or AI-assisted humans rather than the poor decision-making process of the voting public or the incompetent people whom they elect.

Diamond is correct that all of the problems brought up in his book can be solved, but he isn't exactly creating a new paradigm. I am a much stronger proponent of population control than he is, but that may be because I am not affected by the pressures of political correctness. Looking into the future, I wonder whether there is any advantage to a world population of seven billion people, in which the majority lead imperiled lives, compared to a world population of one billion or fewer people, in which all lead unimperiled lives. There are painless ways to make that transition without producing inequality or diminishing the richness of human experience. This obvious option is not receiving any public discussion.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Collapse V

After Rwanda, Diamond provides a lucid short history of the island of Hispaniola, which now comprises Haiti and the Dominican Republic. When Columbus arrived in 1492 it was inhabited by about 500,000 Arawak Indians. The Spaniards wanted the gold there and enslaved them to mine it for them. By 1519, with poor living conditions and smallpox, the Arawak population had been reduced to about 3,000. This is the kind of disgusting fact that was completely omitted from history books when I was growing up. At that point the Spaniards began to import slaves from Africa, and they also developed sugar plantations, which were lucrative for some time. By the end of the sixteenth century Spanish influence in the region was in decline, and French pirates, traders and adventurers formed a separate settlement on the western part of the island. In 1795, Spain ceded its portion of the island to France, but France withdrew from the island in 1804, at the time of the Louisiana Purchase. Initially Haiti was the major power on the island, but the former slaves, who killed or forced out the white plantation owners, became small farmers and gradually damaged their land. Spanish settlers continued to move to the eastern part of the island, which once again became a Spanish colony. Thereafter, Haiti had primarily a Creole-speaking black population and the Dominican Republic had a Spanish-speaking white population with a more European outlook.

The Dominican Republic had some natural advantages with respect to sustainability. Positioned on the eastern end of the island, which has mountains in the center and weather systems moving from the east, it gets more rain than Haiti and has rivers suitable for hydroelectric power. Although both countries have been led by brutal, corrupt dictators for decades, the dictators in the Dominican Republic were able to enrich themselves even more by establishing a variety of industries from which to pocket money. They eventually figured out that deforestation was not in their interest, and the Dominican Republic is now far more wooded than Haiti.

Both countries are extremely poor compared to developed countries, but Haiti significantly more so. At the time this book was published in 2005, Diamond thought the outlook was especially bleak for Haiti, and that was before the earthquake of 2010.

 As if I wanted more information, the next chapter covers China, which is familiar to me because it is in the news all of the time. Obviously there are pollution and sustainability issues there, with its large population and high rate of economic growth. I didn't think Diamond had much new to tell me here, but the problems associated with China are so large in scale and complexity that I don't see how anyone could sum them up properly in one chapter.

The final chapter before the long-awaited conclusions covers Australia, and I found it somewhat more interesting. According to Diamond, Australia is ill-suited for a large population because its land is infertile, and not much will grow there. Apparently Australia's lack of volcanic activity or glaciation has left its soil unusually infertile and unproductive compared to agricultural regions elsewhere in the world. Furthermore, breezes from the Indian Ocean have deposited salt on the surface for millennia, making it even more unsuitable for crops. The poor soil has been made worse by improper watering techniques, which have drawn up more salt from beneath the surface. The inappropriate promotion of the grazing of domesticated animals and the introduction of rabbits have made farming difficult in some regions, and irregular droughts make some regions undesirable for sustained agricultural use. The infertile soil also makes fishing in rivers and coastal waters comparatively unproductive, since water is dependent on land nutrients for the support of aquatic organisms. Australia also faces economic challenges because of its distance from other developed markets, and it has until recently maintained a handicapping identity with Britain and Ireland at the exclusion of much closer markets in Asia. From a pollution standpoint, mining is the dominant force.

I have been spending a lot of time on this book because I find it important. Hopefully I haven't bored you to death by describing it as I go. There are still over a hundred pages left, in which Diamond will argue his conclusions. I expect to read that shortly and then wrap up my comments in a few days on my next post.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Collapse IV

I'm taking my time on Collapse because it is rich in detail and I would like to acquire a good understanding of it. If you will recall, one of the main reasons why I have this blog is that it allows me to ruminate over subjects for as long as I wish, without the distractions and annoyances that one routinely encounters on the Internet.

After Greenland, Diamond switches to some success stories. In the New Guinea highlands people have been living sustainably ever since they first arrived – about 46,000 years ago. The interior is close to the equator, and at the higher elevation rain and soil provide a suitable environment for crop growth. The natives have been practicing plant domestication for about 7000 years. Diamond stresses the local nature of their decision-making, and how, through trial and error, they found plants suitable for cultivation, soil enrichment methods and locally appropriate irrigation techniques. They need wood for multiple purposes and long ago recognized the problems associated with deforestation. To prevent it they identified a species of casuarina tree that they cultivate in groves to meet their needs. Diamond seems to like the fact that decisions are made at the individual level, based on common sense and experience, and that in this instance the natives are so finely attuned to their environment that they can manage it better than agriculturally trained Westerners. The knowledge they've accumulated over thousands of years is passed from one generation to the next. However, recent developments such as public health measures, new crops and declines in war and infanticide are currently causing unsustainable population growth.

Another success story is the small South Pacific island of Tikopia. The natural conditions for sustainability are somewhat better than those of Easter Island, and the natives have independently developed techniques to keep it so. Like the New Guinea highlanders, they cultivate the land responsibly. Because they have lived through many cycles of food shortage, they are keenly aware of the importance of population control:

Tikopia parents feel that it is wrong for them to continue to give birth to children of their own once their eldest son has reached marriageable age, or to have more children than a number variously given as four children, or one boy and a girl, or one boy and one or two girls.

Of traditional Tikopia's seven methods of population regulation, the simplest was contraception by coitus interruptus. Another method was abortion, induced by pressing the belly, or placing hot stones on the belly, of a pregnant woman near term. Alternatively, infanticide was carried out by burying alive, smothering, or turning a newborn infant on its face. Younger sons of families poor in land remained celibate, and many among the resulting surplus of marriageable women also remained celibate rather than enter into polygamous marriages. (Celibacy on Tikopia means not having children, and does not preclude having sex by coitus interruptus and then resorting to abortion or infanticide if necessary.) Still another method was suicide, of which there were seven known cases by hanging (six men and one woman) and 12 (all of them women) by swimming out to sea between 1929 and 1952. Much commoner than such explicit suicide was "virtual suicide" by setting out on dangerous overseas voyages, which claimed the lives of 81 men and three women between 1929 and 1952.

The seventh method consisted of one clan killing or driving off the island another clan during a major food shortage. After the arrival of Europeans, the population began to grow above historical levels, and instead of these population control methods, Tikopia's chiefs now simply limit the number of residents to 1115, which was sustainable in the past. The option to live somewhere else may have replaced the traditional methods of population control.

The remainder of the positive chapter focuses on Japan, which identified its deforestation problem in the seventeenth century. From that time onward the shogun strictly regulated forestry practices in a top-down, authoritarian system, which has worked up to the present. Other countries, such as France and Germany, have followed suit and similarly manage their forests at the federal level.

The next section of the book discusses modern calamities. The first chapter covers the Rwandan genocide of 1994 in some detail. Rwanda is in a region well-suited to growing agricultural crops, but is hampered by a low rate of food production and a high rate of population growth. Diamond goes to great pains to avoid coming across as a Malthusian reductionist who sees the situation deterministically, but that seems to me to be the primary dynamic. To be sure, ethnic tensions and political opportunism were significant factors, but they may have been less significant if the population had been well-fed to begin with. Because of overcrowding, civil life had been contentious for several years, with farms too small to support families and few job opportunities off the farms. Judging from who killed whom, the Hutu-Tutsi enmity was only part of the picture. Hutus killed not just Tutsis, but other Hutus and Pygmies. Moreover, the Hutus and Tutsis had lived together and intermarried. From reading this chapter, it seems to me that the Rwandan genocide might more accurately be called a spontaneous, violent population reduction caused by political opportunism in conjunction with oppressive survival conditions related to malnourishment and overpopulation. Unfortunately, the genocide did not permanently solve the population problem, since no systemic change was made, and the population is still booming.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Collapse III

The next few chapters of the book cover the Anasazi in the American Southwest, the Mayans in Mexico and Central America and the Viking settlements in the North Atlantic. In the case of the Anasazi, the collapse had multiple causes according to Diamond. Those included environmental destruction, climate change, breakdowns in internal trade and political dysfunction. The Mayan collapse was much larger than any of the others considered so far in the book and affected at least five million people. Diamond identifies five strands to this collapse: Malthusian overpopulation and food shortages, deforestation and erosion, fighting, climate change and political failure to solve the other four problems, which he thinks were solvable.

Far more space is devoted to the Vikings, in part because they had several settlements and different outcomes in each settlement. The Viking expansion began in about 800 A.D. with a succession of raids on countries near Norway, Sweden and Denmark. Eventually, the easy pickings ended when the victims took stronger measures to defend themselves, and the Vikings thereafter established permanent residence in several locations, including Russia, Normandy, England, Ireland and the Faeroe, Shetland and Orkney Islands. Over time they were absorbed by the local populations and lost all of their connections with their homelands.

The Norwegian ventures far out into the Atlantic became progressively less successful. On Iceland they interbred with the Celtic inhabitants and attempted to replicate farm life in Norway. The island is volcanic and the soil is more sensitive than that of Norway. Soon they had deforested it, and the volcanic soil was eroded away by the grazing of cattle and sheep. In this case the settlers were able to survive by turning to fishing for sustenance, and they increasingly relied on trade with Norway to support their economy, which has remained healthy up to the present.

Conditions in Greenland were far less favorable. Its climate is colder and more variable than that of Iceland or Norway, and raising cattle and sheep there is a significant challenge, since that damages what little agricultural land there is. Often a cold or foggy summer meant that there would not be enough hay to feed the cows during the winter. Apparently their cows were tiny – only four feet tall. They also faced the mini-ice-age which struck Europe during medieval times and were further isolated when the bubonic plague killed half of the population in Norway. Although life there would have been difficult for anyone, Diamond faults the Norse for inflexibly adhering to familiar European practices which didn't fit their immediate circumstances. For reasons which aren't clear, they didn't consume much fish, which was one of the most abundant food sources in the region. They preferred beef and venison, which became delicacies. By that time the Vikings had converted to Christianity, which caused the Greenlanders to allocate their scarce resources inappropriately. They built a cathedral, and their priests and upper class lived luxuriously. Furthermore, they failed to learn from the Inuit, whom they ran into in the latter part of their stay in Greenland. The Inuit were far more skilled than they were at hunting some of the local species and could survive without wooden buildings and metal weapons or tools. Their kayaks were engineering marvels which gave them access to a wide hunting range. They could have helped the Norse hunt different prey or obtain walrus tusks, which were extremely valuable in Europe before elephant tusks became available. However, the Norse paid little attention to the Inuit and seemed to think that they were animals: they killed one to see how much it would bleed. In some sense they were successful in that they managed to survive there for 450 years, but in the end they all starved to death.

The Norse in Greenland made westward trips to North America and attempted to start a settlement in Newfoundland. However, as was the case with the Inuit, they had little interest in the Native Americans and created a hostile environment by killing them on contact. Thus, although they returned occasionally to obtain wood, their North American settlements were abandoned because they became unsafe for habitation. Diamond points out that it was not until 1492, with the arrival of Columbus, that Europeans began to trade with Native Americans and take advantage of them in the pursuit of their own goals.

I am enjoying Diamond's methodology and the vast resources that he has available, of which he is discussing only a small part. This is a daunting topic that covers several unfamiliar cultures over hundreds of years each. Although it is a long book, I am hoping that the lessons he draws at the end will make the effort worthwhile. So far I am finding little with which to disagree in his theories. My only complaint is that he does not consider the idea that the Inuit may, besides their particular skills, have a selective advantage living in the Arctic region because of the physical characteristics of their bodies, which may have made them better adapted to cold climates than the Norwegians. Apparently such thoughts are still considered to be racist nonsense on college campuses.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Collapse II

Although I'm not exactly speeding through this book, I am finding it interesting and informative. The next chapters cover four islands in eastern Polynesia. I was particularly interested in Easter Island, because I read Kon-Tiki, by Thor Heyerdahl, many years ago. With its unusual statues, Easter Island has long been the subject of fanciful speculation. Now, after years of painstaking archaeological and anthropological research, a much more accurate picture of the island's history has emerged, and this is a testament to the value of the plodding work of scientists.

It appears that Polynesians first arrived at Easter Island in about 900 A.D. They were skilled at island-hopping, and ordinarily they would travel between islands after they had settled on a new one. However, in this case, because of the island's remote location, they had little or no contact with outsiders until 1722, when Europeans discovered it. At that time the population was estimated to have been about 2,000. Research indicates that there had been wide fluctuations in the population over time. Once there may have been 15,000 inhabitants. After several bouts of introduced smallpox and the kidnapping of islanders by Peruvian slave-traders, the population was reduced to 111 in 1872.

Within the scheme of this book, Easter Island is of special interest, because it provides an example of a culturally homogeneous group with ample natural resources, a suitable climate and no external threats which nevertheless failed. If the Polynesians who landed there had maintained an appropriate order they could have flourished indefinitely without the interference of outsiders. The island's physical features and climate were not as favorable as those of some other Polynesian islands but still produced a hospitable environment. The social order seems to have been based on ancestor worship, with the island divided into a pie in which each slice represented a clan associated with particular ancestors. The ancestors were worshiped in the form of the large statues that the islanders produced. These statues consumed a considerable portion of their labor and resources and contributed to the eventual deforestation of the island. As conditions worsened, apparently they built larger and larger statues and bases, which probably accelerated the collapse. In the end, there wasn't much left to eat, and they resorted to cannibalism and rats for meat. The evidence indicates that the forest was once thick with large trees, and that those trees were at least in part cut down for use in moving the statues from the quarry where they were carved to their final positions.

Diamond isn't doing much theorizing in these sections of the book and is postponing that until later chapters. However, he hints that the large statues conferred social status not unlike the trophy homes in the Bitterroot Valley and among his wealthy neighbors in Los Angeles. With my limited knowledge, I am inclined to think that the Easter Islanders' lack of contact with the outside world may have had an effect similar to that of a person who is socially isolated for a long period of time and begins to adopt ideas of questionable merit or becomes delusional due to the absence of critical feedback. Although at one time the islanders may have constituted a cohesive group, the need for individuals to differentiate themselves probably contributed to unnecessary rivalry between and within clans that ultimately led to social disintegration. Also, this may be an example of human nature in which, under certain circumstances, people tend to double down on bad ideas or false statements when challenged. Thus, when the statues didn't seem to be working their magic, the islanders built bigger ones, and when Donald Trump is publicly accused of lying, he simply tells a bigger lie. My inference here is that humans are not well-suited to an Eden-like existence, and sooner or later conditions tend to worsen even in the absence of harmful external pressures. Diamond suggests that Easter Island may be an early example of the kind of dystopian future that we may have to look forward to and will probably elaborate on that later in the book.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Collapse I

I've finally started to read Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, by Jared Diamond, and will comment on it as I go. Diamond is a clear and methodical writer, and I am finding his perspective appealing and somewhat similar to my own. In this book he examines in detail the life histories of societies that developed and eventually collapsed for one reason or another. There is an unusual open-mindedness about it because he doesn't hesitate to compare contemporary, well-understood cultures with ancient cultures about which little is known.

The first culture discussed in detail is located in the Bitterroot Valley of southwestern Montana. Diamond knows the most about this one, because he has been vacationing there since the 1950's and has lifelong friends who live there permanently. It is not exactly a collapsed society, but it has undergone changes over the years and now bears little resemblance to what it once was. Diamond's knowledge of various fields comes in handy for a book like this, because such knowledge is necessary for a full understanding of what has transpired. He knows history, geography, geology, mining, forestry, agriculture, climate change, environmental reclamation, sociology and economics fairly well, and this gives the book a broader perspective than most writers would be able to pull off. Furthermore, he knows and loves the people there and can understand their points of view even when he disagrees with them. Instead of the gratuitous insertion of local color that most science writers resort to, he fills several pages with his friends' descriptions of their lives in their own words. This way, Diamond's narrative has a very human quality, which is fine with me, though at heart I identify more closely with the style of E.O. Wilson, who clearly maintains a biological perspective even when writing about humans. Where Diamond might emphasize the struggle of settlers in a harsh environment, Wilson might be more inclined to portray the settlers as an invasive species, which is probably a more appropriate method if you view the environment as an ecosystem.

The region was settled by farmers and ranchers, but the dry climate and cool temperatures were not optimal for those purposes. Improper farming practices could damage the soil by raising its salt content, and it was a hard life for the early settlers. Forest products were also at a disadvantage, because trees grow more slowly there than in other areas. Earlier practices of cutting down all of the large trees made forest management more difficult, since the tall trees are the only ones that can withstand fires. In the past, fires would consume the underbrush and the tall trees would survive, but now a fire can destroy an entire forest. Mining, particularly copper mining, was the major local industry, but has died off due to competition from other parts of the world. Waste residues from mines have been partially cleaned up, but in some cases the pollution from a mine costs so much to remove that there may have been no economic advantage to opening the mine in the first place if you include the cleanup costs. Besides this pollution, the availability of clean water has been hampered by global warming, which is rapidly melting the glaciers to the north.

With the mines gone, most lumber coming from Canada and farming and ranching practically dead in the region, the locals are generally poor. Because farm work is so hard, not many of the children born there stick around, and many farms are being sold. Diamond has one friend who operates a large, modern dairy, but it remains to be seen whether it will be financially viable in the future. The main change in the local economy has been the influx of wealthy, conservative Californians who build trophy homes there and stick around for a few weeks a year. Some of them live in a large, gated community and hardly interact with the locals at all. They avoid paying Montana taxes by living there less than half the year. This has put further pressure on farmers by driving up land prices, and they are increasingly working in the tourist industry. The main asset of the region is now its physical beauty, which attracts tourists.

The local culture has taken a complex turn. The natives tend to be anti-government rural conservatives who despise the federal government even though they are net recipients of federal benefits. They don't want to pay for anything, including forest management, environmental cleanup and failing dams. They have nothing in common with the Californian conservatives except enjoyment of the outdoors and tax avoidance. The public schools are so underfunded that none of the Californians send their children to school in Montana.

The book so far has been of much interest to me, because the events described in Montana have a lot in common with historical events in Vermont, where I currently live. Vermont was first a source of masts for British ships before the American Revolution and was later settled by farmers. Most of the forests were cut down, and farming did not prove to be viable for the majority. Many of the farmers left the state, and some of them probably ended up in Montana. There wasn't much mining here, but there were large marble and granite industries, which have mostly died off. A major difference would be the existence of textile mills here during the nineteenth century, but those are long gone now. Like the Bitterroot Valley, Vermont's economy depends heavily on tourism. In this case many of the tourists live in nearby states and the ones who decide to move here are not necessarily wealthy. There are a few trophy houses, but many of the outsiders who move here, Bernie Sanders for example, become highly engaged with the state and its government, unlike most of the Californians in Montana. Vermont's proximity to Montreal and Boston makes it less physically isolated than the Bitterroot Valley, and even though both have become tourist destinations, Vermont's tourist industry is probably more sustainable, because it doesn't depend on a few rich people flying in in private jets.