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.

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