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.

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