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World History

The Crash of Civilizations

Reviewed by Robert D. Kaplan
Sunday, January 9, 2005; Page BW03


How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

By Jared Diamond

A massive deforestation stripped much of Easter Island where building hundreds of statues such as these took priority. (Michael Barnes)

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Viking. 575 pp. $29.95

In a world that celebrates live journalism, we are increasingly in need of big-picture authors like Jared Diamond, who think historically and spatially -- across an array of disciplines -- to make sense of events that journalists may seem to be covering in depth, but in fact aren't. He did this so well in Guns, Germs, and Steel, which has been a huge bestseller since its publication in 1997, that one might think Diamond would have little more to say about the vast sweep of human history. Think again. In his extraordinarily panoramic Collapse, he moves his wide lens to yet another telling phenomenon: failed nations, of both the distant and the recent past.

Take the 1994 slaughter in Rwanda, which produced the third-largest body count of any genocide since the 1950s, topped only by Bangladesh in 1971 and Cambodia in the mid-'70s. According to the media, liberal intellectuals and Hollywood, the Hutu militias' mass murder of Tutsi civilians was the consequence of evil men manipulating ethnic hatreds, while the United Nations and the United States stood by and did nothing. As Collapse indicates, that interpretation is accurate and places the moral responsibility squarely where it belongs. Nevertheless, it is far from complete.

In perhaps the wisest and most all-encompassing short summary of why genocide occurred in Rwanda, Diamond observes that pre-genocide Rwanda had a population density approaching that of Holland, supported by Stone Age agriculture: In the years preceding the genocide, Rwanda suffered a precipitous decline in per capita food production because of drought and overworked soil, which in turn caused massive deforestation. The upshot was dramatically rising levels of theft and violence perpetrated by landless and hungry young men. Diamond quotes a French scholar on East Africa, Gerard Prunier: "The decision to kill was of course made by politicians, for political reasons. But at least part of the reason why it was carried out so thoroughly by the ordinary rank-and-file peasants . . . was feeling that there were too many people on too little land, and that with a reduction in their numbers, there would be more for the survivors."

Diamond adds that such a partial explanation should be respected as such and not dismissed out of hand as an excuse for genocide, as moralists have been wont to do. By not reducing Rwanda to a cut-and-dried morality tale, and by including environmental factors that can be usefully employed as early-warning systems to prevent future genocides, Diamond has provided a truly enlightened vision of what happened there. He has the intellectual bravery to say that, in this case, the much-abused late 18th-century philosopher Thomas Malthus was right: "population and environmental problems created by non-sustainable resource use will ultimately get solved . . . if not by pleasant means . . . then by unpleasant" ones.

Rwanda forms but a strand in Diamond's complex historical web of how human communities either master their environments or become victims of them. A professor of geography at UCLA, Diamond rightly states that his book "doesn't preach environmental determinism." Still, he extracts a plethora of environmental explanations for why things have turned out as they have. Collapse, like Guns, Germs, and Steel -- which was about how Western civilizations developed the technologies and immunities that allowed them to dominate the world -- is the work of an academic superstar in the mode of Samuel P. Huntington and David S. Landes. He takes a lifetime of research and, in normal English (free of academic jargon), leads the reader painstakingly where the media and intellectual journals have often refused to go. For example, while recent media reports correctly describe a decline in the rate of world population growth, the more crucial short-term truth is that there will be a continued rise in the population of poor young males for a few years yet in some of the most political unstable countries, as children born in the last decade reach their teens and twenties. Diamond's book makes one think of connections like these. Or take the December 2004 tsunami that devastated parts of South Asia. Because humans are living in environmentally fragile zones where they have never before been in such concentrated numbers, the normal occurrence of earthquakes and other natural events the environment has faced since time immemorial is poised to wreak considerable havoc in the new century. In other words, while the urban elite intelligentsia focuses on abstract ideas, nature and demography will be driving history.

In an exploration of why medieval societies such as the Mayans in central America, the Anasazis in the American southwest, the Polynesians on Easter Island and the Norse in Greenland all ultimately became extinct, of why the Inuit in the Arctic and Polynesians on Tikopia managed to survive, and of why places like Montana's Bitterroot Valley and the Dominican Republic have had happier destinies than Rwanda and Haiti, Diamond brings balance to a debate that went from one extreme at the beginning of the 20th century to another at that century's end. Partly because of the corruption of Darwin's theory of evolution by Nazi eugenics, post-Holocaust intellectuals have tended to avoid explanations of human behavior rooted in environmental, ethnic, cultural or demographic causes. Occasionally, this reaches the point where, say, no differences are perceived between Swedes and Iraqis; that, after all, would be racism and essentialism, as each group is merely a mass of similarly exalted individuals in a global meeting hall. By avoiding both extremes, Diamond, a geographer in the old 19th-century sense of the word, sheds light on what the media have often left in darkness.

The most incisive portion of Collapse deals with the Dominican Republic and Haiti, two countries sharing the Caribbean island of Hispaniola -- the former a modestly developing society and the latter a complete social failure. From the air, the border between the two countries is clear: The western, Haitian portion is pale, brown and largely denuded of tree cover, while the Dominican side is lush and green. The visual image telescopes hundreds of years of differing environments, cultures and histories. Because, as Diamond explains, the rains come to Hispaniola from the east, the eastern, Dominican side of the island supports higher rates of plant growth. Moreover, because the eastern side has the highest mountains, whose rivers flow east, the Dominican side gets even more water from the run-off, leading to thicker, more nutrient-rich soils. Haiti's mountains aren't as high, but they cover more of its land mass, thus drastically reducing the area for agriculture. Since Haiti was a prized colony of France, large numbers of slaves were imported there, increasing the population while overworking the available farmland. Spain, by contrast, treated the Dominican side with benign neglect: a demographic blessing in disguise, it later turned out. Another advantage for the eastern part of the island was that the Spanish speakers there were more culturally receptive to European immigrants and investors than were the Creole speakers in the west.

Finally, Diamond clarifies the difference between the dictators in the Dominican Republic and those in Haiti, thereby avoiding the journalistic cliché of labeling all dictators bad and all democrats good (for the differences between one dictator and another are often greater than those between a dictator and a democrat). To wit, the Dominican strongman Rafael Trujillo and his successor, Joaquín Balaguer, may have been personally cruel and corrupt, but they also developed an industrial economy, a modern state and a system of environmental safeguards. By contrast, Haiti's dictators -- Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude, or "Baby Doc" -- did nothing but exploit their subjects for personal gain. The result is two countries that sit side by side but are as different from each other as the United States and Mexico.

Of all the countries surveyed in Collapse, China is the most pivotal. Its goal of achieving a first-world lifestyle for its 1.3 billion people will double the world's human resource use, but as Diamond tells us, "it is doubtful whether even the world's current human resource use . . . can be sustained. Something has to give way." Raising the stakes is what the author calls China's pattern of unified lurches. China's geographical unity -- unlike Great Britain, it lacks major islands, and unlike Italy it lacks large peninsulas -- has given it a political and linguistic homogeneity that Europe never had. Thus China's leaders have had the organizational capacity to create gargantuan tragedies such as the Great Leap Forward, when 20 million people were killed between 1958 and 1962, or to take positive steps on a similarly grand level, as when they instituted a national ban on logging in 1998.

Diamond's cautious optimism about the fate of the Earth is conditioned on vigilance. He defends the false alarms about resource scarcity issued in the 1970s and '80s by the demographer Paul Ehrlich, suggesting that Ehrlich's (and Malthus's) larger, implied point about surging populations and diminishing resources is true: While these trends do not necessarily lead to global cataclysm, they certainly have been a factor encouraging warfare and civil unrest across the underdeveloped world. Moreover, as the author notes, false alarms are a necessary and unavoidable part of any protective process -- just ask any fire department. True irresponsibility lies in optimism based on ideology, rather than the facts on the ground.

That's the reason why Diamond expends so much detail on the failure of such obscure civilizations as Easter Island and western Greenland. On Easter Island, the felling of trees for high-altitude gardens, the cremation of bodies, the building of canoes and scaffolding for statues led to massive deforestation and decreased crop yields. The toppling of the stone statues there reminds the author of the toppling of the monuments of Stalin and Nicolae Ceausescu upon the socioeconomic collapses of Soviet Russia and Romania. As for the Greenland Norse, they were a fiercely communal and hierarchical society, whose strict adherence to European Christianity may have accounted for their conservatism and consequent failure to learn from the indigenous Inuits, who burned whale and sea blubber for fuel and used sealskins in their kayaks in order to conserve wood. But as Diamond notes, we shouldn't be dismissive of these failed civilizations. Norse Greenland, for example, survived for 450 years -- twice the lifetime of the United States -- in one of the most remote and inhospitable regions of the globe, without the benefit of modern technology.

The parallels between an interconnected Earth, in which each continent increasingly affects the other, and the dozen clans of Easter Island are, in the author's words, "chillingly obvious." Like them, we would have no place to flee if something fundamentally goes wrong: not just suddenly wrong but gradually wrong, so that the danger remains deniable until it's too late. Thus false alarms like Ehrlich's and Malthus's will continue to be made in a good cause. Thank heavens there is someone of the stature of Diamond willing to say so. •

Robert D. Kaplan is a correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly and the author of "The Ends of the Earth" and "The Coming Anarchy." His latest book, "Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground," will be published in August.

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