Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed came out this weekend.
In essence Diamond’s book consists of two parts. The first and lengthiest part (416 of 525 text pages) examines how several past societies — including the Mayans and Easter Island — met their doom. In every studied case deforestation and soil erosion played important roles. This part of the book could have been published on a stand-alone basis with the title How Poor and Backward Societies Suffer From Deforestation and Ill-Defined Property Rights. Specialists might carp that the material relies on secondary sources, but I found it to be stimulating and informative throughout.
The second part of the book is brief, and details major environmental problems faced today. This includes overpopulation, vanishing energy supplies, the loss of biodiversity, and so on. The material was well-presented but the overall level was not much above what you would find in a good magazine article.
The key to the "meta-book" is Diamond’s claim that part one — the history of deforestation — means we should worry more about part two, namely current environmental problems. The meta-book fails.
Yes we should worry about the environment today, but largely because of current data and analysis, not because of past history. If you look at the past, the single overwhelming fact is that all previous environmental problems, at the highest macro level, were overcome. We moved from the squalor of year 1000 to the mixed but impressive successes of 2005, a huge step forward. Environmental problems, however severe, did not prevent this progress. We may not arrive in 3005 with equal ease, but if you are a pessimist you should be concerned with the uniqueness of the contemporary world, not its similarities to the past.
Today’s world is indeed different. We are much wealthier, we have (partially) responsive democratic governments, reasonably effective government regulations, much higher population, an astonishing command over science, we are globally connected, and of course we use resources at a much higher clip. Whether you are an optimist or pessimist about modernity, the history of Greenland or the Pitcairn Islands should not much revise your priors about our future.
Here is Diamond’s recent NYT Op-Ed; Cafe Hayek has a negative reaction. Here is a quasi-review of the book from Matt Yglesias. Here is Alex on a fishy fact in the book. Here is my previous post on the book, which links to an interview with Diamond and a Malcolm Gladwell review.
The claim in the book I would most like to bet against:
"In the long run it is doubtful that Australia can even support its present population: the best estimate of a population sustainable at the present standard of living is 8 million people, less than half of the present population."