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Jared Diamond's Collapse [Mar. 7th, 2010|12:06 pm]

A solid book providing a lot of information on previous social collapses such as Easter Island, the Greenland Norse, as well as the Maya. It draws together a number of common threads from the various collapses(and some success stories) rather than considering them individually. It does some work towards pointing out the ominous warning signs for modern day societies individually, as well the whole world generally. Alright, now that the praise is out of the way, I want to talk about the details and conclusions that annoyed/angered me.

First, the book is already showing its age in some areas, even though it's less than five years old. What I'm referring to is Diamond's attitude that corporations are ultimately blameless for the problems they cause: they are rational actors required by "fiduciary responsibility" to promote their economic interests, above ecological considerations when the two contradict. He then assigns government and society the job of policing these corporations in order to make sure that some modicum of environmental protection is maintained: corporations are blameless for acting in a self-interested manner when they are not forced to do otherwise. The biggest problem is that he undermines his own conclusions in his various examples of extractive industries. His explanation of the strict social and environmental responsibility that the Chevron corporation accepted in Papua New Guinea, and the claim that their increasingly "clean" reputation subsequently won them a major contract in the North Sea from the Norwegian government point out that it is good economic sense to cultivate a socially and environmentally progressive reputation. Along the same line, my first thought when he brought up the "fiduciary responsibility" idea was something along the lines of "the Keystone club (of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce) would like to have a word with you". The idea that businesses are compelled to exclusively consider themselves as profit generators is preposterous.
Then there is the hard rock mining industry. Reading through the passages about these guys, I get a sense that Diamond is a bit wary, as if he realizes that the way they do business completely undermines his previous pro-business stance. To summarize the basic American model, they offer a contract to a state to mine out a deposit of valuable mineral X. These include an estimate for cleanup costs, but these are always lowballed, frequently to the tune of one tenth of the actual amount. The states frequently do no have the personnel available to project cleanup costs themselves, so they go with it. The company goes in, mines using whatever methods it likes, and stores the wastes behind shoddily constructed dams, if they are stored at all. Then, when the mining is done and the state comes asking the company to pay the agreed (and insufficient) cleanup costs, the company uses all of the political dirty tricks it can to keep from paying, and as a last resort gives bonuses to the senior executives before declaring bankruptcy. Two things to note here. First, Diamond's claim of "fiduciary responsibility" does include the caveat that they use legal means to obtain profits. And while I do not mean that all business pressure on government is illegal, not all of it is legal, either. Second, at the point where the corporation is declaring bankruptcy to avoid a cost it projected, we can again remove any talk of fiduciary responsibility: any stockholder is, at that point, completely screwed by the self-enriching actions of the executives.
In short, businesses are bound by the same moral considerations as any other institution, and should not rely on others to force them to adapt their behavior to changing environmental conditions, but instead take proactive steps to ingratiate themselves to the world they live in, both environmental and social.

A much more trivial concern is that this book spends way too much time talking about Jared Diamond: I now think I can trace his life path pretty clearly for the numerous anecdotes that he supplies about where he lived when, and what societies he visited as part of his earlier ethnographic work. While I do support disclosure of previous personal experience as they influence various conclusions, Collapse takes it way past the point of moderation and into the realm of egomania: neither his childhood home, favorite baseball team, or his kids' summer jobs are really relevant to the book. This also is what starts the book off, as he talk about how much he loves his SW Montana summer home before explaining the environmental challenges facing the state. That chapter also ends with the most worthless section of the book, which is the life stories and attitudes to their present crises of four Montana friends. These could have been worthwhile if Diamond had taken some time to deconstruct them, to explain what attitudes were and were not constructive, but he apparently has so much respect that he lets them stand by themselves, which makes them just a bunch of dead weight.

A third issue, and perhaps the most trivial gripe yet, is that the big examples of successful environmental leadership policies he provides are undemocratic dictators, most notably the Dominican president Joaquin Balaguer. I don't have a problem with using him as an example, I have a problem that there isn't a democratic counterpart. Diamond acknowledges that his audience is most first worlders that live in democratic societies, but he doesn't provide a good example of environmental foresight carried out by a democratic society, other than an offhand mention of the Dutch(and not an individual leader but rather the entire Dutch polis) in the final chapter. Furthermore, while Diamond acknowledges that this information might motivate people to action, his snips that in the bud by relegating that information to the "further readings" section, which I and probably most of his audience will not read, leaving the discussion as academic.

Alright, that's it. Hope you enjoyed it.