Friends and colleagues keep sending me links to critiques of Jared Diamond’s book ‘Collapse’.
Following is a link to a short essay by Ronald Bailey that goes beyond Diamond’s book and discusses what makes a successful society and also a longer piece by Kendra Okonski on Diamond’s chapter on Montana (Chapter 1).
Ronald Bailey titled his essay ‘Under the Spell of Malthus’ and commented that:
“Why is Puerto Rico so much better off than its neighbors? In a word, institutions. Diamond vaguely recognizes the importance of social and political institutions, but his analysis doesn’t go much deeper than arguing that Haitian dictators have been more rapacious than Dominican dictators. In fact, the last two centuries have shown that the more a country adheres to the rule of law, protects private property, reduces bureaucratic corruption, nurtures a free press, permits free markets, engages in trade, and allows democratic politics, the less likely it is to suffer from the Malthusian horrors of plagues, famines, and civil wars. What Haiti and Rwanda have in common is not just dense populations but shattered social and political institutions. What the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Puerto Rico have in common are not only dense populations, but adequately effective social and political institutions.
…As ecology teaches us, the simplest ecosystems are often the most fragile. Similarly, our modern globally interconnected economy that can draw upon a wide array of resources is far more stable and robust than either the fragile pre-modern or the marginally modern societies cited by Diamond. It’s worth noting that in 1800, when the vast majority of people on the planet were farmers, the global average GDP per capita, adjusted for inflation, was about $600.
Diamond adheres to the orthodox Malthusian claims that human population growth is exponential while “improvements in food production add rather than multiply; this breakthrough increases wheat yields by 25%, that breakthrough increases yields an additional 20%, etc.” But just looking at the history of the 20th century, it is very clear that increases in food production have been exponential too; in fact, food production has been increasing faster than human population growth. Since 1961 world grain production has tripled, while world population has doubled. Consequently, per capita global food production increased by 25 percent between 1961 and 2004, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
“I have not met anyone,” Diamond writes, “who seriously argues that the world could support 12 times its current impact, although an increase of that factor would result from all Third World inhabitants adopting first world living standards.” But increasing human numbers and wealth do not translate automatically into more impact on the natural world. The British demographer Angus Maddison calculates that world GDP increased in real dollars from $2 trillion in 1900 to $37 trillion in 2001, while global per capita income rose from $1,300 annually to more than $6,000. This 18-fold increase in output was not achieved just by doing more and more of the same old things. Most of the increase was achieved through technological innovation: using better recipes to manipulate less physical stuff to give us more services.
…The only way to solve the allegedly impending global ecological crisis, according to Diamond, is “long-term planning, and a willingness to reconsider core values.” Although vague about whom he would put in charge of global planning, Diamond evinces throughout Collapse an alarming affection for authoritarian rulers who issue top-down orders restraining their citizens’ use of resources.”
In Collapse Jared Diamond suggests Montana is in as big a mess as Australia. But Kendra Okonski, a Montana native who now lives in England, disagrees. She argues that Diamond has got it wrong and that he doesn’t understand Montana’s history, forests or anything else. Kendra’s essay titled ‘Montana: On the Verge of Collapse?’ has just been published by PERC, the Property and Environment Research Center.
My critique titled ‘Australia’s Environment Undergoing Renewal Not Collapse’ published by Energy and Environment, recently made it into Wikipedia.