Patricia A. McAnany & Norman Yoffee “Questioning Collapse”

ISNB 978-0-521-73366-3. “Questioning Collapse – Human Resilience, Ecological Vulnerability and the Aftermath of Empire” edited by Patricia A. McAnany & Norman Yoffee was published by Cambridge University Press in 2010. The paperback is 374 pages long including a list of figures, list of contributors, preface, acknowledgements, introduction, fourteen chapters in four sections and an index. The title somewhat gives the game away as this is billed as the answer to Jared Diamond’s 1997 work “Guns, Germs and Steel” and his 2005 opus “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed”. We have not read the former as it is a work of history of little relevance to today’s globalised economy on the brink of its carbon constrained future. However, the second work has been read and was reviewed here. In “Collapse” Diamond walked us through the anthropological history of multiple cultures, from ancient times to modern days, and reviews how depletion of natural resource contributed to those societies’ collapse. This clearly is of interest to us at post-carbon living. Indeed that book is now quite celebrated to the point that it now appears on the syllabus to several University courses as well as being required-reading for the modern ecologist. However, all is not well in the halls of academia. On page 4 we read “Diamond is probably the best-known writer of anthropology even though he is not an anthropologist!” Zing.

The fifteen authors who contributed to “Questioning Collapse” are not happy at all. It seems Diamond has stepped on way too many toes on his way to the top and the “proper” anthropologists are fuming. It may well be that they have a point but we are slightly ham-strung in that, despite the name of this book, much of it doesn’t address Jared Diamond’s 2005 book. This can be quite confusing as it looks as if many of the authors treat the two books (separated by eight years) as if they are the same thing. For example you would be forgiven to think that chapters 4 (China) and 11 (Australia) solely addresses Diamond’s “Collapse”. They don’t because China and Australia are only dealt with in the modern context by Diamond in his later work. All these history lessons are irrelevant. Thus we sadly must dispense with large sections of “Questioning Collapse”. Unless you have read both Diamond’s books then there is often little point buying this book. Still, there is sufficient material for us to have a stab at reviewing it. It may well be that what we discover tells us a great deal about the intellectual honesty of the authors who contributed to this.

Our prime criticism is that all but one of the authors clearly haven’t read Diamond’s “Collapse”. We find this shocking. The evidence we have is that all but one of the authors completely ignores Diamond’s five-point framework where Diamond postulates that a society’s collapse depends upon such factors as environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbours, trading partners and response to environmental problems. Only on page 279 in Drexel G Woodson’s essay on Haiti, is this framework acknowledged. Even there it is dismissed as a “complication”. These points are far from “complications” – they are the entire thrust of Diamond’s book. How can these authors seek to criticise Diamond when they don’t address the points he raises? In fact this book constructs a straw man argument for the burning. The straw man is an unrecognisable version of Diamond’s “Collapse”. It has none of the subtlety or the caveats that Diamond worked so hard to inject into his grand sweep of history. His work is thoroughly researched and, although flawed, it deserves a slightly more grown up response than this.

Several of the authors take issue with Diamond’s definition of “collapse”. On page 177 Norman Yoffee tells us that “we can’t find any such collapse in Mesopotamia”. This is interesting because Mesopotamia is NOT a subject anywhere in Diamond’s “Collapse” whilst Yoffee himself goes on to tell us on page 180 that “Of course, there were various “collapses” in Mesopotamian states” – a point he repeats again on page 182: “there were several”. So there were collapses in ancient times but only as WE define them not as Diamond does? So what is going on here? Professional jealousy? Are the fifteen authors just a little miffed that Diamond is now famous and making shows for the National Geographic channel whilst they are blowing the dust off ancient texts in some god-forsaken library? It would seem so. It was nice to see that one of the editors, Norman Yoffee, noted this may well be how the work would be perceived. This from page 176 & 177: “Readers may think, oh, here’s a picky Mesopotamia specialist who spends is time pouring over clay tablets […] telling us that Professor Diamond, who sees the Big Picture, missed a few things when he wrote about Mesopotamia”. Well, we hate to agree with you Norman but that is exactly how this looks. Drexel G. Woodson adds on page 272: “Diamond bashing by social scientists who know the societies that Diamond covers better than he does is a vainglorious exercise. General readers may think that those social scientists are jealous of Diamond’s fame. In any case, bashing Diamond serves no constructive purpose in an intellectual market place where book sales trump quality of ideas.” Owe! He goes on to bash Diamond all the same. And Diamond’s crime?; “the pitfalls of privileging grand theory as “the” way to encompass social scientific knowledge about and understanding of some facet of the human spectacle.” This appears to tell us that “grand theories” suck (at least in the detail-obsessed minds of the social scientists).

Some of the authors’ views are worse than others. This is a genuinely mixed bag. Several chapters offer quite a meaningful critique. Here we should single out Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo for their work on Easter Island, and Michael Wilcox for his fresh insight into the fates of indigenous North American Indians. However these treasures are few and far between. The worst section is definitely Christopher Taylor’s lamentable chapter on Rwanda that provides no new contradictory evidence whatsoever to offset Diamond’s “neo-Malthusian” views. Diamond described the ethnic hatred that lead up to the genocide quite adequately. Taylor’s first-hand description of the inner workings of the society add nothing to Diamond’s description. Again, we have to ask if Taylor ever read Diamond’s “Collapse” or whether his anthropology chums sold him the straw man caricature?

Likewise most of the authors here take issue with Jared Diamond’s use of the word “choice” as in “choosing to collapse”. Diamond actually takes the last quarter of his book to explain how societies do NOT “choose” to collapse even if that is the outcome of their actions. This section of the Diamond book is clearly not one his many critics appear to have read. We can level this criticism specifically at J. R. McNeill who, on page 356 waxes lyrical about how the Greenland Norse culture lasted 450 years and how this is vastly longer than modern North American culture. He ignores the fact that this very point was made several times by Diamond in “Collapse”. Once again we can only conclude that McNeill didn’t actually read Diamond’s book. These mistakes are occasionally offset by the likes of David Cahill (who wrote the enlightening section on the end of the Incas even though this culture is never mentioned in Diamond’s “Collapse” – only the Aztec are) who wrote this on page 210: “The remarkable success of Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel in both public domain and within academe is little short of unique. […] Diamonds’ “bestsellerdom” across the academic-public divide has few nonfiction parallels… It is well written, engaging, even absorbing; whatever its demerits it is a wonderful guide on how to write for a range of audiences, without ever really […] “dumbing down”.” So it seems that the social scientists like how Diamond writes and the way he has popularised the subject. However they disagree with him about almost every detail in his version of history!

There is just one detail they do not disagree upon though. Despite “Diamond bashing” for 364 pages we are treated to a well constructed summary by (surprisingly) J.R. McNeill. Although he obviously fell for the straw man version of Diamond’s “Collapse” (that doesn’t exist) he goes on to present the exact same conclusions to Diamond’s. His argument is that, despite getting all the details wrong, the “grand theory” remains correct because the modern globalised world is unlike the past. We are in an undiscovered country. Hence this on page 364 & 365: “Fossil fuels […] represent an enormous subsidy, […] 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 feedstocks for pesticides and herbicides. They make nitrogenous fertilizers practical. And they power the vehicles that move crops to kitchens. They sustain us. But they also make us unsustainable. First and most obviously, they exist in limited supply. […] A time will come when all that is left is too difficult to extract at reasonable cost. […] Second, fossil fuels make our global society unsustainable because of climate change… […] Diamond is right to be concerned by that.” So, despite disagreeing about the historical examples it changes nothing. We can’t recommend this book unless you are a fan of history. However it still managed to be enlightening, even for us.

About post-carbon-man

A passionate advocate of a peaceful transition to a sustainable political-economy, Mark hails from a working class farming background. Today he is a Company Director and Chairman of the Low Carbon Chilterns Co-operative. Whilst at University (Engineering Masters) he was active in Conservative Student politics but has had no affiliation since. He has travelled widely on business covering the USA, Europe, Middle East and Central Asian Republics. In 2007 Mark founded Post-Carbon-Living and a year later co-founded Transition Town High Wycombe. He lives with is wife & daughter in a home they retrofitted to be carbon-neutral. Today he blogs about surviving politics on a shrinking planet and is passionate in his rejection of Nationalism.

Comments are closed.