This blog is not for the fainthearted, but even I found this item sobering.
Note that one commentator at Thoma’s site disputed Diamond’s argument that the genocide in Rwanda was caused by competition for declining resources. It’s a controversial, but not unfounded view. From “Human Rights and Human Welfare,” in a review of Mahmood Mamdani, When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda:
Mamdani is well aware of the drastic economic decline Rwanda experienced in the late 1980s and early 1990s as well as the “massive corruption” in its government (p. 151). “By the close of the 1980s,” he writes, “the World Bank was citing Rwanda as one of the three worse performing sub- Saharan countries when it came to food production” (p. 146). He notes Rwanda’s growing population and land scarcity. However, he rejects them as causes of the genocide. “No matter how
depressing these facts may seem, we need to keep in mind that there is no necessary connection between a drastic reduction in resources and deadly human conflict” (p. 198).
From the interview of Jared Diamond:
KAI RYSSDAL: There’s a technical term for what we’re doing as we eat, shop, drive and go about our daily lives. The word is “overshoot” — when a population uses up resources faster than they can be replaced.
Today, we’re consuming about 30 percent more trees, fish and fossil fuels than the planet can regenerate. We can run a deficit like this for a little while, but there are limits to how big a hole we can dig before it gets too deep to get out of.
To help understand those limits we spoke with Jared Diamond. He’s a professor of geography at the University of California, Los Angeles. You might know him better though his books — Collapse, among others. When we talked, I asked him whether we’ve overshot our resources already:
JARED DIAMOND: Of course we are in overshoot and everybody knows that we are in overshoot — and we are overshooting the things that people talk most about. First thing we’re running out of is oil, and everybody knows it. Second thing we’re running out of is water. Something like 70 percent of the fresh water in the world is already utilized. Topsoil — we’re exploiting it and it’s running off into the ocean. We’ve already exhausted something like maybe half of the topsoil that was originally in the Great Plains. And then fish and forests…
RYSSDAL: Is the rate of use increasing? Are things getting worse more quickly than they did 20 years ago?
DIAMOND: Yes, things are getting worse more quickly, for obvious reasons — namely, the human population is increasing, and worse yet, average consumption rates are increasing. That’s to say, out of the world’s six-and-a-half-billion people, the majority are in the so-called Third World, but they are working hard to catch up.
RYSSDAL: The same way that I would imagine there’s no one thing you can point to where you’d say that’s the tipping point of decline, is there one thing that can be done to reverse that decline?
DIAMOND: Yes, and that is to stop looking for the one thing that we could do to reverse the decline. The reason is that there are about a dozen major problems and we got to solve them all. If we solve 11 of those problems, but we don’t solve the water problem, we’re finished. Or if we solve 11 of those problems but we don’t solve the problem of topsoil and agriculture, we’re finished. So we’ve got to solve all 12 problems and not look for that one problem that’s most important.
RYSSDAL: It seems to me what we’re missing is the “or else” part of this discussion… There’s a whole list of things we have to fix — what happens if we don’t?
DIAMOND: History is full of the “or elses.” For example, the most advanced Native American society of the New World, the Maya, had astronomy and astronomical observatories and writing and books. They chopped down their trees, they ran into water problems, and the big Maya cities that American tourists go to visit today, they go abandoned.
RYSSDAL: Are we seeing those crashes anywhere today?
DIAMOND: Absolutely. The African country of Rwanda, the most densely population country in Africa, began to get deforested, massive problems of soil erosion, too many people and not enough food… And in 1994 Rwandans transiently quote “solved” — if I can put it in quotes — their population problems in the most awful way imaginable. Namely, six million Rwandans killed, one million Rwandans in brutal ways, and drove another two million into exile. That’s an example of a country that did not master its environmental problems.
RYSSDAL: How much time to we have left?
DIAMOND: If we carried on as we are now, then I would expect that we will not have a First World lifestyle anywhere sometime between 30 and 50 years from now.
RYSSDAL: Concentrates the mind…
DIAMOND: Yes it does. To know that you could get shot tomorrow does grab your attention.
RYSSDAL: Jared Diamond teaches geology at UCLA and is the author of Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.
The site also features a rebuttal by Jerry Taylor of Cato Institute. I know it is terribly narrow-minded of me, but I have such a strong antipathy towards Cato that I cannot bring myself to feature someone associated with them. But feel free to read his comments here.
Note that Thoma thinks we will somehow muddle through, but Diamond’s research apparently shows that societies that overshoot seldom pull themselves out of that destructive pattern.