Easterbrook on Jared Diamond's Collapse


This past weekend's NY Times Sunday Book Reviews carried an interesting review by Gregg Easterbrook of Jared Diamond's new work: Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.

While I don't often agree with Easterbrook's point of view (he writes well, but he's often placed with Julian Simon and Bjorn Lomborg as a climate change downplayer), he does make some very insightful comments about Diamond's analysis. Stopping population growth is not a rational goal - it's not going to happen with any measures normal people would find reasonable. So we have to live with it - probably an extra 2.5 billion people on Earth, at the currently projected peak. There are worse things than a 40% increase in human population to worry about.

Easterbrook notes that most of Diamond's analysis is for societies living on small islands, and questions the generalization to the entire modern world. There are arguments on both sides - obviously Diamond's point is that some of the world's resources (fossil fuels in particular) are limited, just as the resources of trees or other critical elements of an island society were limited. On Diamond's point that, for the island societies, ''A society's steep decline may begin only a decade or two after the society reaches its peak numbers, wealth and power.'', how does this properly generalize to a world 4 or 5 orders of magnitude larger? Do we really only have a decade or two after our peak (and will we know when we've reached that?)

Easterbrook makes two comments on changes he foresees that illustrate more why he doesn't think the island analogies apply - and perhaps whe he and we are more in agreement than one would first think... "If the West changes from fossil fuel to green power, its worst resource trend will not continue uninterrupted.", and he concludes with the rather inspiring: "Above us in the Milky Way are essentially infinite resources and living space. If the phase of fossil-driven technology leads to discoveries that allow Homo sapiens to move into the galaxy, then resources, population pressure and other issues that worry Diamond will be forgotten. Most of the earth may even be returned to primordial stillness, and the whole thing would have happened in the blink of an eye by nature's standards."

Created: 2005-01-31 14:37:16 by Arthur Smith
Modified: 2005-02-01 05:04:47 by Arthur Smith