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.

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