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20210613 – Qestioning Collapse

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MAIN IDEA:

The main idea of this book is to give voice to real specialists and scientists working in ecology, archeology, and history to respond to popular, but often unfounded and speculative narratives that twist history so to scare people out of their wits by future ecological, climate, population, and other disasters that will be inevitable if people not immediately change their ways. The title of this book refers to Jared Diamond’s book “Collapse” – a very popular representation of genre: “you and your children are going to die tomorrow from hunger / overpopulation / global cooling / global warming / climate change… if you would not agree to live in misery without energy and transportation right now because such catastrophes happened before.” These real scientists and specialists explain what they know about events in the past used currently to scare people and generally present much more reasonable and realistic picture that demonstrate human ability to handle successfully all kinds of potential dangers either ecological, or climatic, or societal.   

DETAILS:

1 Why We Question Collapse and Study Human Resilience, Ecological

Vulnerability, and the Aftermath of Empire
This is very nice explanation of reasons for this book and here is authors’ summary:” When closely examined, the overriding human story is one of survival and regeneration. Certainly, crises existed, political forms changed, and landscapes were altered, but rarely did societies collapse in an absolute and apocalyptic sense. Even the examples of societal collapse often touted in the media – Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Norse Greenland, Puebloan U.S. Southwest, and the Maya Lowlands – are also cases of societal resilience when examined carefully, as authors do in the chapters in this book. Popular writers’ tendency to approach the past in terms of a series of societal failures or collapses – while understandable in terms of providing drama and mystery – falls apart in light of the information and fresh perspectives presented in this book.” … “The notion of resilience, instead of collapse, is relevant to the chapters of this book because, on close inspection of archaeological evidence, documentary records, or both, it becomes clear that human resilience is the rule rather than the exception.

They also provide map of areas under discussion in this book:”

Part I. Human Resilience and Ecological Vulnerability
2 Ecological Catastrophe, Collapse, and the Myth of “Ecocide” on Rapa Nui

(Easter Island)
This chapter is about “Collapse” of generally isolated society supposedly due to stupidity of its people who used all trees to manufacture and transport idols leading to ecological disaster. Here is how author characterize what really happened:” It is essential to disentangle environmental changes in Rapa Nui from a population collapse that resulted from European contact. Such contact brought Old World diseases and slave trading. Contrary to today’s popular narratives, ancient deforestation was not the cause of population collapse. If we are to apply a modern term to the tragedy of Rapa Nui, it is not ecocide, but genocide.”

Authors proceed to discuss real ecology of the island, types of trees that exists, reasons for deforestation that in reality linked not to the human stupidity, but rather to rat’s population that arrived around 1200 and changed ecology by feeding on palm seeds. The deforestation led to expansion of grasslands and humans successfully adjusted and seems to be doing well. They could not however adjust to conquest by other humans, which did cause humanitarian disaster.  Here is quite explanatory population graph:

3 Did the Medieval Norse Society in Greenland Really Fail?
This chapter is about small society on the island with very unfriendly climate that nevertheless lasted from 982 c.e. until the end of fifteen century. Author of this chapter points out very obvious, but somehow missed point that society that endured for more than 500 years could not be called failed. Author discusses in details relations between Norse and Inuit, which sometimes were hostile and sometimes cooperative. Author then describes evidence of successful adjustment to environment, but notes that eventual cooling was a factor, but not exclusive for Norse moving away. Since Norse maintained active connection with Europe, the emigration was a viable solution for increasing difficulties. Therefore, it was not collapse, but rather relocation to better pastures away from cold Island.

4 Calamities without Collapse: Environment, Economy, and Society in

China, ca. 1800-1949
This chapter is about China’s 100 years of humiliation, but it could not be called collapse by any means. It was rather lack of advancement that put China into position far behind European countries in XIX and XX centuries. The chapter reviews both geographical and institutional situation and finds that part of the problem was fast growth of population that was not handled well because none of 4 measures that could help handle this were successfully applied. These measures are:

  1. Deliberate population control
  2. Increased rural nonagricultural employment
  3. Urbanization
  4. Increasing cultivated area, either through conquest or by reclaiming unfarmed land within current borders.

The biggest civil war in history – Taiping Rebellion that killed around 20 million people did not help to solve these problems, but rather delayed return to normalcy. Similarly foreign invasion of WWII and following on communist takeover were not helpful either. China obviously did not collapse and it is not going to, but, despite rapid development over the last 30 years based on some limited openness to capitalism, massive Western wealth and knowledge transfer resulting in China’s economic growth the disastrous problems could reoccur as long as communists are in power and therefore country’s economy and overall life is still subject to catastrophic top-down decisions by functionaries isolated from consequences of their decisions.  Specifically, author concentrates on environmental impact of massive industrial development.

Part II. Surviving Collapse: Studies of Societal Regeneration
5 Marketing Conquest and the Vanishing Indian: An Indigenous Response

to Jared Diamond’s Archaeology of the American Southwest
This chapter is presented by writer of Amerindian descent who quite convincingly demonstrates that local population had been successful in managing ecology of its environment and, contrary to opinion of “collapse” promoters, it did not fail until conquest by Europeans who had no clue about local environment, but had plenty of power to impose unworkable solutions. Here is the main point of argument:” My criticisms are not simply of Jared Diamond himself, but of those who explain global inequalities and poverty among the have-nots – who have no cargo – as inevitable and portray have-nots as powerless victims of impersonal forces. As a reader, I cannot be held responsible for military encounters 500 years ago. But as an archaeologist I am responsible for understanding how the work I create can take on a life of its own and be interpreted as a collective explanation for Indigenous “failures” – failures that seem to justify colonization and the replacement and removal of Indian Peoples.”

6 Bellicose Rulers and Climatological Peril? Retrofitting Twenty-First-Century Woes on Eighth-Century Maya Society
Authors of this chapter systematically reviewed all scenarios that supposedly led to “collapse” of Maya society:

  1. Escalating warfare
  2. Out-of-control population growth
  3. Environmental degradation
  4. Drought
  5. Effectiveness of divine rulership
  6. Changes in spheres of trade and influence.

They pretty much conclude that none of this was something extraordinary and anywhere beyond similar events in European or Asian history. They make important point that there is no evidence of sudden collapse and plenty of evidence of slow history change not that different from changes that occurred elsewhere and that Maya people still around in their millions. They also warn that:” The past can inform us and often guide us toward a better future, but the mirror of ancient Maya society should not be refracted in hopes of inducing change in the contemporary world, no matter how badly change might be needed.”

7 Collapse in Ancient Mesopotamia: What Happened, What Didn’t
This chapter is direct response to Jared Diamond three claims about Mesopotamia:

  1. Collapse due to the drought cycles
  2. Salinization
  3. Soil nutrient exhaustion

As others in this book author of this chapter states:” Let me anticipate my conclusion: if collapse, in Diamond’s words, is “a dramatic decrease in human population and/or political/economic/social complexity, over a considerable area, for an extended time,” we can’t find any such collapse in Mesopotamia or, indeed, anywhere else among ancient states!” Author then proceeds to describe Assyrian history, which does not show any sudden collapse, and notes that this people, as great many other ancient people are still around.

Part III. Societies in the Aftermath of Empire
8 Advanced Andeans and Backward Europeans: Structure and Agency in

the Collapse of the Inca Empire
This chapter is about Spanish conquest of Inca Empire. As usual the legend of a few hundred conquistadors overcoming an Empire with millions of people is greatly inaccurate. In reality there was an ongoing civil war and Spaniards just benefited from it by aligning with some groups against others. Moreover, conquest was not a momentous event, but the process lasting for decades when areas under control of different powers changed hands. A very interesting fact is that during this process the mixing of people occurred, so by the time of complete establishment of Spanish rule lots of people were descendants of both: Incas and Spaniards. Author goes into great many details of what Diamond got wrong with one of them being highly representative: believe that Incas were illiterate. By now it is well established fact that they had knotted cord recording of information, meaning they just had different technology, which does not mean it was inferior.  Even germs were not as devastating as usually perceived:” Germs also cut a swathe through highland populations, though demographic recovery there came sooner. Be that as it may, indigenous population numbers did not recover until the eighteenth century, in contrast to Mexico, where indigenous populations had recovered by the early sixteenth century despite epidemic-driven demographic decline having been even more devastating than in the Andes. In both Mexico and the Andes, the invasion of germs had run its course by 1600, or at least swept aside European and native Andean alike.” The final and very important point author makes in his verdict, which provides much more realistic picture than usually presented:” colonial hegemony depends on collaborating elites in order to control and exploit indigenous underclasses. During the three centuries after Cajamarca, an Inca nobility in the old capital of Cuzco provided unconditional support for the Crown of Castile.”

9 Rwandan Genocide: Toward an Explanation in Which History and

Culture Matter
This chapter is about contemporary event of genocide, which Diamond presented as consequence of Malthusian fight for arable land. Author of this chapter spent decades in Rwanda and presents somewhat different picture of cultural, ethnic, and political struggle for dominance. True it had roots in colonial politics when Tutsi were elite collaborating with colonial powers and then after being overthrown by Hutu revolution in 1962 become persecuted minority. The genocide in Rwanda was result of these complex politico-cultural developments not that different from developments in Germany in 1930s or Russia in 1920s that produced similar mass murder, but in none of these cases it was result of Malthusian food fight. 

10 “Failed” States, Societal “Collapse,” and Ecological “Disaster”: A Haitian

Lesson on Grand Theory
This chapter is provided by specialist in Haiti and once again demonstrates inapplicability of environmental determinism to real live developments. Similarly to Diamond author uses comparison of Haiti and Dominican Republic to “illustrate the pitfalls of privileging grand theory as “the” way to encompass social scientific knowledge about and understanding of some facet of the human spectacle. Doing so denies anthropologists, as well as policymakers and the general public, an opportunity to explore connections among culture, history, and ecology.” Here is framework for comparison:

Author then goes through each point demonstrating that:” Diamond’s comparison deploys questionable descriptive and analytical maneuvers. Factual errors about historical events, cultural attributes, or socioeconomic and political processes, although numerous and alarming to specialists, need not detain us. More important is Diamond’s penchant for reporting decontextualized facts and extrapolating their significance.”

At the end of article author concludes:” “Failed” state, societal “collapse,” and ecological “disaster” may be serviceable concepts for grand theory as well as catchy terms for media coverage. Are they useful for understanding Haiti’s compound crisis, its many and many-sided problems? No, if one considers failure, collapse, and disaster fixed and incontrovertible end points. No, if one contends that Haitians, leaders and followers, “chose” crisis and problems. No, if the concepts and terms are deemed self-explanatory and treated as rationales for inaction or for humanitarian assistance as the only form that action may take. But yes, if the concepts and terms prompt careful, methodologically sound investigation of Haitian realities, present and past. In Haiti, as elsewhere, these realities include how the facts about one nation-state are forged in the crucible of struggles, within that nation-state and in its relations with other nation-states, over the proper uses of power to achieve and sustain prosperity.”

11 The Power of the Past: Environment, Aborigines, Archaeology, and a

Sustainable Australian Society
This chapter about Australia mostly corroborate criticism of previous chapters. Probably the most interesting part is about Tasmania where according to Diamond’s narrative based on colonial records isolated people lost knowledge and skills they possessed before and where on the brink of extinction. Author claims that:” Fortunately our stock of both archaeological and historical evidence about the first forty-five years of European occupation of Tasmania further strengthens the argument against regression, which was a provocative idea about the consequences of isolation that had flowed from early research in the 1970s. These ideas have now been comprehensively refuted or at the very least seriously questioned.”

12 Excusing the Haves and Blaming the Have-Nots in the Telling of

History

Authors of this chapter also reject Diamond’s approach and stress that:” Anthropology urges us – and helps us – to examine our own taken-for-granted ideas about why and how people act: our ideas about human nature, about the causes and objectives of human action, about the ways people intend one thing to follow from another, about how and why people engage in collective action. We must recognize that not everyone in the world has the same objectives as (many) contemporary Americans, wanting and seeking the same sorts of things as we do. This is to say, we must be aware of historical and cultural context.”  They dig a bit into history of Papua New Guinea and specifically people who prompted Diamond’s book and stress difference in values and approaches to the problems of people with different cultural background, which makes great many of assumptions invalid.

Part IV. Reflections on Sustainability
13 Sustainable Survival
The final chapter kind of summarizes Jared Diamond’s thesis of projecting variety of historical “collapses” into our current situation in search of support for alarmist movements whether they are “climate change”, “population bomb” or whatever else people come up with to get money and power by scaring others out of their wits. Author also very briefly summarizes responses to this thesis from real scientists, which studied history and in some cases actually observed referred “collapses”, demonstrating quite clearly that in reality it was quite different and in most cases “collapses” where just “changes” with which humans normally quite capable of handling.  Here is conclusion, stated around fossil fuels, that I think very appropriate:” Fossil fuels function as an Ethiopian highland for the modern world: they represent an enormous subsidy, not from a distant place, but from a distant time, the carboniferous era. They make it possible for 6.5 billion people to eat. Fossil fuels are the fertilizer of modern agriculture. They pump up groundwater and power tractors. They serve as the feedstocks for pesticides and herbicides. They make nitrogenous fertilizers practical. And they power the vehicles that move crops to kitchens. They sustain us. ..

Our ways are radically unsustainable. Diamond is right to be concerned by that. He is right to prefer hope to despair, and admirable in that he has used his fame to draw attention to issues of sustainability. But he is, as often as not, wrong in his judgments about successes and failures among societies of the past.”

MY TAKE ON IT:

I am really glad that a number of real scientists and historians found courage to publish this book convincingly demonstrating something that I strongly believe in: humans are quite capable to handle infinite variety of challenges by accommodating to changing environment using their big brains. They do it not by creating religions and making sacrifices but rather finding technological solutions and sometimes making accommodations such as relocation from places with deteriorating ecology to places better fit for human life. There is huge number of such changes in human history from invention of clothing and use of fire to creating sewer systems that allow huge number of people to live in very limited city spaces and inventing elevators that allow situate people on the top of each other on hundreds of floors. The change is inevitable and will probably never stop, but it should be done calmly with effective cost/benefit analysis, and without panic, hysterical pronunciations, and massive use of government power.  One should always be aware that there are con people and politicians who try to create panic and fear in order to increase their wealth and power to extent that would be absolutely impossible to achieve without scaring people. 


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