Collapse: It’s the End of the World As We Know It and I Feel Fine

One of my favorite parts of Jarrod Diamond’s book, Collapse, was the final section where he takes on many of the most commonly heard one liner arguments against any impending collapse:

“The environment has to be balanced against the economy”Diamond says that this is exactly backwards; I agree. Environmental problems are very costly, but our system has tended toward the habit of externalizing certain problems and not accounting for them in the costs of production or sale
“Technology will solve our problems” I’ve spent significant time on this blog talking about this argument in particular. New technology both creates and solves problems. Some technologies succeed and others don’t. Successes take decades to phase in. Diamond says, “Advances in technology just increase our ability to do things which may be either for the better or the worse. All of our current problems are unintended negative consequences of our existing technology.” He uses the example of CFCs which are still being phased out globally even while they have been illegal in the First World for decades. The impact of what is already present in the atmosphere will last for decades longer. CFCs solved a previous problem of dangerous chemicals that were used in refrigerators and other appliances. Predicting the future and the consequences of new technologies seems a risky place to put your faith.

“If we exhaust one resource, we can always just switch to some other resource meeting the same need”This involves many of the same problems mentioned concerning new technologies. There will likely be unforeseen difficulties and transition time involved in switching to new resources including secondary infrastructure needed to support these technologies. Renewable energy technologies will certainly have a role in an energy economy not based on fossil fuels, but predicting what that looks like and what the unintended consequences will be is difficult. It also distracts us from the changes in energy consumption that must be made to make life on this planet possible for everyone.

“There really isn’t a world food problem there is already enough food.We only need to solve the transportation problem of distributing that food to places that need it.” or “The world’s food problem is already being solved by the Green Revolution with its new high yield varieties of rice and other crops, or else it will be solved by genetically modified crops.” Probably because this is my specific area of interest, I thought Diamond unfairly lumped these arguments together. The first statement is true in a global sense, and I think it’s important to recognize that we continue to focus on production issues without dealing with the problem of distribution. However, Diamond clarifies his point by saying, “First world citizens show no interest in eating less so that Third world citizens could eat more.” This points out the connection between population pressures and the issue of whether or not there is enough. It also is a reminder that, though global production will continue to be high for a while, the problem of hunger has local and regional causes, and will need local and regional solutions.
In terms of the second part Diamond points out that the primary four GM crops are soybean, corn, canola and cotton, none of which is eaten directly by humans. The majority of these crops are sold to wealthy farmers in North America. Notice that there has been little work or interest in developing GMO cassava, millet or sorghum which would actually benefit farmers in the tropics, where the majority of the world’s poor live.

“As measured by common sense human indicators like human lifespan, health and wealth conditions have actually been getting better for decades” or “Just look around you the grass is still green, there’s plenty of food in the supermarkets, clean water still flows from the taps and there’s absolutely no sign of imminent collapse.” This is the view from the top. Diamond also points out that lifespan is not a sufficient indicator. An increasing fraction of the population is at the poverty level in the US. He uses the analogy of a bank account. It’s not just the size of the bank account that matters, but the direction of cash flow. If you have $5,000 in the bank that looks great. If you realize that you’ve been spending $200 a month above your income, then you realize that you only have 2 years before you will be broke unless something changes. Our prosperity is based on spending down our environmental capital. One major lesson to draw from the decline of the Maya and Anasazi: “A society’s steep decline may begin only a decade or two after the society reaches its peak numbers, wealth and power.”

“The population crisis is already solving itself, because the rate of increase of the world’s population is decreasing such that the world population such that the population will level off at less than double its present level.”The problem is not just population, but also per capita human impact. Even if population growth suddenly stopped this year at 7billion we would already be at an unsustainable level based on the per capita impact of our rates of consumption. If the poor in developing countries achieve their aspirations of similar rates of consumption, the problem of population will be moot. I still believe that population growth is a significant part of the equation that is not adequately considered or understood, but I also agree that even with population growth slowing or declining we will continue to face problems of overconsumption of our resources.

“The world can accommodate human population growth indefinitely. The more people the better, because more people mean more inventions and ultimately more wealth.”Diamond seemed to think this was kind of a silly argument, but offered a comparison between two top ten lists. Top Ten countries in population: China, India, US, Indonesia, Brasil, Pakistan, Russia, Japan, Bangladesh and Nigeria. Top Ten countries with highest affluence above $20,000 per capita: Switzerland, Luxembourg, Finland, Japan, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Canada and Nouru. Only country on both lists is Japan. The lists would seem to indicate the opposite; the higher the population of a country the higher rate of poverty. Population growth rate is the difference between the two lists.

“Environmental concerns are a luxury affordable just by affluent First world yuppies who have no business telling desperate Third world citizens what they should be doing.”I sometimes have this sentiment, but for different reasons as I explored in the series on development. Diamond points out that the Third world is more aware of and understands how environmental problems affect them. These issues affect everyone on the planet and disproportionately affect the poorest of the poor, who make their living from the land and live closer to the effects of environmental degradation and climate change.

“We’re managing just fine despite all those environmental problems which really don’t concern them because the problems fall mainly on Third world people.”The rich are not immune. However, this does point out how easy it is for the wealthy and powerful to keep themselves insulated from the effects of their decisions. This was often the case in the examples of collapses where the rich and powerful acted in their own interest to preserve status and power rather than prevent the coming collapse, even when it seems obvious. Diamond points out that the rich and powerful in collapsing societies buy themselves the privilege of being the last to starve or die.

“If those environmental problems become desperate it will be at some time off in the future after I die and I can’t take them seriously.”– The twelve problems that Diamond lists (eight present in historical collapses and four new ones that we face) will become acute during the lives of young adults today. If we do so many things to plan for the future of our young people (insurance, saving, education, etc.), it makes no sense to ignore the very world that they will live in. It’s also important to recognize that these issues are not as far off as we would like to think they are.

“There are big differences between modern society and those past societies of Easter Islanders, Maya and Anasazi who collapsed so that we can’t straightforwardly apply lessons from the past.”The risks are increased rather than decreased in our current situation, because of globalization and the scale of environmental damage. Diamond also imagines asking an ecologist, “Which overseas countries are facing problems over environmental stress, overpopulation or both?” The ecologist lists Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Burundi, Haiti, Indonesia, Iraq, Madagascar, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, The Phillipines, Rwanda, Solomon Islands and Somalia plus others. Then he imagines asking a politician, “Which countries are the world’s worst trouble spots?” He then lists the same countries. Such collapses have happened and are happening right now. We are seeing the influence of the five factors Diamond lists in countries as we speak. These things are happening before our eyes, even if we decide to ignore them and say that what happened to those ancient societies can’t happen to us.

Any other thoughts about these arguments or other one-liners that you hear often?


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