Thursday, 13 September 2007

All Fall Down: Jared Diamond and Ran Prieur

Not long ago, I finally got around to reading Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. I can see why it has attracted such acclaim - and yet I couldn't help feeling slightly short-changed. Then, last week (via Laura and Tim), I discovered another writer who thinks deeply and practically about the fall of civilisations, past and present. His essays helped bring into focus my disappointment with Diamond's book.

Let's get the praise out of the way first! I learned a great deal from the descriptive material in Collapse. The chapters on Easter Island and Norse Greenland are fascinating - as are the modern case studies on countries such as Rwanda and the Dominican Republic/Haiti. It was also a relief to read a popular non-fiction book which isn't flogging a single Theory of Everything (a trend Will Davies was decrying recently). In fact, I could pick out several theoretical strands in Collapse, and the two which get most emphasis from Diamond are both valid and important. To paraphrase*:

  • Critical to the survival or extinction of groups of humans living in a particular place are the choices they make about their way of life - and how those choices interact with ecological factors.
  • Where an elite has become isolated from the sources of its material wealth, people are less likely to make timely changes to their way of life which might avert ecological disaster.

So far, so much to agree with. So why do I feel short-changed?

Let's start with the ending. Having illustrated how quickly societies can tumble from their peak of material wealth to catastrophic collapse, and suggested that this scenario may be playing out today on a global scale, Diamond leaves us with a picture of the forces of good and evil in a race to the finish - and, buried in the 'Further Reading' section, a rather feeble list of positive actions and ways that consumers can put pressure on big business to save the world.

What is missing here is any sense of just how different our ways of life would have to be to escape the kind of collapse that may already be underway. Having conjured such powerful scenes of ancient worlds and how they fell apart, Diamond's imagination seems to desert him.

I would trace this back to some of the book's background assumptions - assumptions which prevent Diamond achieving any real perspective on our current way of living. The kind of perspective I'm referring to is not the lidless vision of a satellite looking down on the earth - but that sense of our own strangeness which comes from sitting quietly with others who do not see the world as we do, until we begin to glimpse ourselves through their eyes. This may be through direct contact with people who live very differently to us, or through a deep and sensitive familiarity with the writings of other eras.

Despite his best intentions and the thoroughness of his research, Diamond lacks this kind of perspective - and so he tends to read others through our ways of approaching reality. Consider, for example, the book's subtitle: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. What if approaching life in terms of "failure" and "success" is actually part of the ways of thinking which are accelerating us towards collapse?

That is certainly what Ran Prieur reckons. A section of his essay How to Survive the Crash and Save the Earth is headed 'You are here to help':

We are trained to think of ourselves as here to "succeed," to build wealth and status and walls around ourselves, to get what we desire, to win in games where winning is given meaning by others losing. It is a simple and profound shift to think of ourselves instead as here to help -- to serve the greatest good that we can perceive in whatever way is right in front of us...

In the real world, being here to help is easier and less stressful, because you will frequently be in a situation where you can't win, but you will almost never be in a situation where there's nothing you can do to help. Being here to win only makes sense in an artificial world rigged so you can win all the time. Thousands of years ago only kings were in that position, and they reacted by massacring all enemies and bathing in blood. Now, through a perfect conjunction of Empire and oil energy, we just put the entire American middle class in that position for 50 years. No one should be surprised that we're so stupid, selfish, cowardly, and irresponsible...

Where Diamond sees us caught up in a horse race between the environmental movement and the forces of destruction, Prieur suggests we walk away from the winner-takes-all mentality. Instead, start learning skills and adapting in preparation for what happens when our current ways of living become impossible. Easily said! But I'm more convinced by his approach than by one which can't imagine any alternative to the perpetuation - through some magic of "sustainability" - of the status quo.

I could go on at greater length about the other assumptions and vaguenesses constraining Diamond's imagination - or about Prieur's clearer-sighted visions of how our civilisation might collapse, and of the possibilities on the far side of such a collapse. But you'd be better off reading his latest essay, How to Save Civilisation.

To give you a taste, here's the closing paragraph - which made me think of my low-tech, computer-recycling friends at Access Space:

I don't think we'll have any technology in 2100 that can't be done in 2050 in a garage -- or in a network of garages and scrap collections. If there's anything we want to save, we need to begin adapting it now so it can be done on that level, bottom to top. Garage industry doesn't have to profit or die. It doesn't require wage laborers who will quit when money no longer buys food. Technology will be carried through industrial collapse by dedicated amateurs, and then, whether the next world is stable or unstable, they will plant the seeds of a new tech system... which is very likely to make another epic mistake.

* I should probably add that I wrote this several months after reading Collapse, without a copy to hand. Apologies, therefore, for the lack of close reference to the text. On the other hand, with such a large and wide-ranging book, perhaps there's something to be said for focusing on those elements which stick in the mind at such a distance?


arcolaura said...

Much appreciate your comments, Dougald - I too was disappointed with Collapse, but couldn't put my finger on why.

SimplyTim said...


My reading glasses broke yesterday but I was just able to get through this post. Will read it again next week when I get my "eyes" back again.


Dougald Hine said...

Thanks, Laura! I realised as I was writing that I had too much to say for a blog post - and by the time I published it, I was feeling frustrated, since I didn't have time to develop it into a fuller essay. So I'm glad it was appreciated nonetheless. And Tim, apologies if its length strained your eyes unnecessarily...!

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