Are We at Risk of Collapse?

This blog is not for the fainthearted, but even I found this item sobering.

Mark Thoma at Economist’s View featured an interview with Jared Diamond, author of Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.

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.

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    Thanks for providing at least a little backing for that argument.

    But to me, that’s the equivalent of blaming starvation and ethnic fighting over resources in Zimbabwe upon ‘scarcity,’ deforestation, plundering of the land, (insert Diamond enviropocalyptic prophecy here). Yes, in a sense the plundering and the strife are connected. But that argument willfully ignores the much more obvious and direct cause–a ruthless regime made a series of calculations wholly separate from any environmental considerations whatsoever, that lit a powder keg of ethnic distrust.

    To say that environmental degradation caused either event is simply looking for data points to fit your curve of environmental civilizational history. It’s intellectually feeble, and it’s not reality-based.

  2. Yves Smith

    Rwanda is not a persuasive example, given the history of deep ethnic tensions created by the Belgians. It’s arguable that the strained economic conditions provided the trigger, but a lot of events could have set that tinderbox off.

    Nevertheless, I am sympathetic to Diamond’s general point. Darfur is a much more obvious illustration. Even Wikipedia says it was due to ccompetition for resources:

    The combination of decades of drought, desertification, and overpopulation are among the causes of the Darfur conflict, because the Baggara nomads searching for water have to take their livestock further south, to land mainly occupied by non-Arab farming communities.

  3. Anonymous

    Do you know an area of the world that does not suffer “deep ethnic tensions”, that does not have people readily willing to blame others for the problems they likely created for themselves.

    Just look at the wealthiest nation in the world… already squabbling about immigrants taking jobs and tax dollars and causing crime, ignoring a host of easily understandable arguments that the immigrants are symptoms of the problem.

    Look at the “white man’s rage” so readily exploited on our TV’s and radios, exploiting every possible difference in race and religion and ideology to create an illusion of persecution diametrically at odds with the fact that white christian conservatives tend to have the most money and power in the country.

    Do you really think that if things get worse that it can’t happen here? Opportunists in Rwanda saw a chance to grab up resources and exploited the differences in their population to increase their own power. We don’t have hootoo and tutsis, but we do have southern and yankee, white and brown, evangelical and not-evangical, and the already primed tinderbox of liberal and conservative. Some of the most popular authors and pundits in america regularly accuse liberals of treason, immigrants of breaking laws, and generally hating america… is civil war so unlikely when resources start running out?


  4. Anonymous

    Let’s not make a mistake of thinking Diamond is a simple “IF A THEN B” causality thinker.

    If one reads Collapse (or similar works, like Tainter’s Collapse of Complex societies) one quickly understands that the people in question are systemic thinkers.

    Ruthless dictatorships usually go hand in hand with persistent resource starvation situations.

    It is rather academic to argue which one was the chicken that spawned the egg (and scientifically impossible to prove either).

    More important is to understand that the two (among various other sub-systems) usually work in mutually reinforcing positive feedback loops.

    Overpopulation drives scarcity of resources

    Scarcity of resources drives tensions and competition over resource

    Tensions & competition usually increase ethnic conflict

    Ethical conflict reinforce in national and ethnic political candidates, programs and election results, or rise of dicatorship

    Dictatorship often results in higher corruption, worse management of resources and increase resource loss

    So, one can also reverse chain of events (presented linearly here for the sake of simplicity):

    The situation and start with a ruthless ethnic dictatorship (say put into power by west that wants to commence a resource grab through cheapest/quickest means), resulting in structural destruction of agriculture, resource loss, poverty, growth of population, etc.

    The point is that in various scenarios these can reinforce each other.

    Saying continued pervasive resource scarcity does not matter or does not increase the likelihood of ethnic conflict and war in a multi-ethnic country with other structural imbalances is really denying history.

    That would be a really intellectually feeble argument to make.

    This is not either or binary logic where either resource starvation or bad management/leadership causes some automatic results.

    It’s a system which produced increased/decreased likelihoods that are then manifested in each particular environment with local peculiarities.

    The big patterns do repeat however (read Tainter to understand more).

    Let’s start thinking with systems and we get better understanding and can choose to agree on important points rather than fight over minor points.

  5. a

    “To know that you could get shot tomorrow does grab your attention.” I know I could get shot tomorrow, because I like in a major city. But it doesn’t grab my attention, because I think the probability is low.

    Was the Great Depression a collapse?

  6. TechFun

    No, the Great Depression was not a collapse. A collapse, in the context of Diamond’s book, is one in which the society, in same basic form, and geographic location, CANNOT recover.

    That did not happen in the 1930’s.

    Yves: I admire you for posting this, but you are probably gonna get lots of comments from people who have grown accustomed to getting info in 500~ words or less and haven’t read Collapse or any other long format book that explores the many many factors involved.

    Taylor’s “alternative view” was a perfect example. He asks “Are present generations truly worse off because past generations drew down stocks of minerals and metals to make advanced satellites…”?

    I’d have to answer that no, satellite communications are a wonderful thing that can improve lives, but I – without researching the numbers – would bet that we have used more minerals and metals to produce Diet Coke cans and Matchbox cars than we ever have on communication satellites.

    Every time I hear a speech or news piece that touts ethanol or hydrogen fuel cells as a magic bullet to solve the world’s problems I want to bang my head on my desk.

  7. Anonymous

    I often find articles and books by Jared (and Tainter) beguiling until they touch upon historical events such as the decline of the Roman Empire where I have some modicum of expert knowledge. Then their arguments suddenly seem jejeune and simplistic.

  8. Anonymous

    Diamond is very clear in ‘Collapse’ that the variants at work combine social, economic and ecological/biological factors. It is a mistake to assume that ‘ecocide’ is simply a matter of cause (ecological decline) and effect: the collapse of society. Instead, all these factors play out together, as was the case in Rawanda.

    However, Diamond’s approach, when looking at solutions, falls far short in addressing the depth of change needed in the political and economic spheres. Here change must be of equal depth to the problems. Consequently, radical change requires that the very political and economic systems be thrown in doubt, including the existing construct of democratic liberalism and capitalism.

  9. ron

    does it really matter if diamond is right or wrong about rwanda?

    what about the consuming 30% more resources than can be regenerated? global warming is nothing compared to that.

  10. Anonymous

    Is world growth increasing costs faster than it is increasing benefits? Is growth making us poorer rather than richer?

    [ The text for my homily this evening is taken from John Ruskin: ‘That which seems to be wealth may in verity be only the gilded index of far-reaching ruin’. That’s my theme and I want to develop it in the following way: first I’ll discuss the issue of uneconomic growth in theory. Does it make sense theoretically? Does it flow out of standard economics? I will argue that it is highly consistent with micro economic theory but that it conflicts with macro economic theory as currently done…I’ve put a dotted curve in the bottom which is the cost of GNP growth – in other words, the social and environmental sacrifices made necessary by that growing encroachment on the eco-system. I’ve named that a Jevonian view in honour of William Stanley Jevons, a great economist of around 1870 or so, who used that kind of diagram for a different problem but the logic is very much the same. In this diagram what is uneconomic growth? Well, economic growth is out to point B on the horizontal axis. At point B, line AB is equal to BC. The marginal benefits of further growth are just equal to the marginal costs. Growth beyond point B is uneconomic growth. It is growth for which the distance from the horizontal down to the dotted curve is greater than the distance up to the continuous curve, growth which makes you poorer than richer. And so there’s the definition of uneconomic growth, growth beyond point B.]
    “Uneconomic Growth in Theory and in Fact”

    Herman E. Daly

    The First Annual Feasta Lecture
    Trinity College,Dublin
    April 26th, 1999

  11. newsman

    People who discount Diamond’s insights seem to take comfort from the fact that improved technologies have staved off collapse in the past. It was Hobbes, I believe, (or was it Malthus…forgive me) who did the math and predicted imminent famine in England. But then, steam engines replaced animal power for transport, and more farmland and grain was available to feed people instead of draft animals.
    But I think it’s horrific foolishness to assume that technofixes will always come to our rescue without any planning on our part. Is there any cheap water substitute now in development? On global warming, we are only now reaching a grudging concensus that there is probably a problem–the massive effort we will need to undertake in response is still on the drawing board.
    Diamond’s book points out that civilizations DO collapse, and ours could too, if we don’t start behaving in a rational way that recognizes limits to consumption. No real sign of that yet, unfortunately. Ethanol is not the answer.

  12. newsman

    Also, I think we often let the surface causes of world turmoil obscure the underlying competition for resources. In “The Prize,” Daniel Yergin notes that the two main aggressor nations of World War II, Germany and Japan, were hungry for oil, and that goes a long way (not all the way, but a long way) toward explaining their actions. Germany wanted the Caspian; Japan wanted the area that is now Indonesia, to provide themselves with the oil resources they lacked.
    Would the Rwandans have slaughtered one another if there was plenty of idle farmland for people to move into? Would we be in Iraq if there was no oil there? (Alan Greenspan doesn’t think so.)

  13. newsman

    At the risk of belaboring the obvious–the point of Diamond’s book is the title: Collapse. He didn’t entitle it “Long slow decline that we’re not obligated to worry about because our grandkids and great grandkids will be smart enough to fix the problems we bequeath to them.” We have never experienced a collapse. Catastrophes, yes. Depressions, plagues, world wars. But not a collapse. So some people seem to think collapse can’t happen or is highly unlikely. But just imagine shortages of energy leading to shortages of food, which in turn are exacerbated by loss of farmland, drought, and the depletion of underground water supplies. Meanwhile, sea levels rise and millions of people in major coastal cities become refugees. There is a limit to how many such impacts our system can stand. Our economic life support system is intricate and vulnerable.

  14. Anonymous

    To follow up on newsman’s comments: The key point that I took away from Diamond’s “Collapse” is that civilizations can fail, even when solutions to their problems were possible, and even when those solutions were (or should have been) evident. Some people–especially free-market enthusiasts and technophiles–seem to believe that we will solve any problem once it becomes severe enough to solve. Maybe we will, but Diamond demonstrates that it ain’t necessarily so.

  15. Minh-Poland

    There is another possibility that I fear more probable to apply to the USA right now.

    Do you remember Cambodia ? Polpot, a Sorbonne educated Cambodian together with a communist group, abolished money and killed/torture intellectuals, send the population of big cities to work in the country. Cambodia,you see, is a country of plenty agricultural resources, but the destruction of money and the quick changing social role of people has lead to dramatic drop of productivities. In a windows of just 3 years, Polpot and his regime has managed to starve to death few million of Cambodian.

    1. Society divisive in term of perceived wealth creates animosities. But the real danger is the less well-off see the banking system as enemy (like Polpot saw paper money)

    2. When a “revolutionary” group of less “educated” people took power, they tend to over-estimate their ability to change the current system for the better (Bush&Co vs World Oil distribution system is a good example)

    This reminds me of math’s catastrophe theory ie “sudden shifts in behavior arising from small changes in circumstances”.

  16. Anonymous

    Diamond speaks of ‘core beliefs’ but, as apparent from the ‘solutions’ proferred, fails to understand that such beliefs are the internalization and taking for granted of historically specific sets of social relations of production and reproduction until in truly ahistoric fashion these are presumed and, in the case of capitalism, advertisted to be the only which have ever been, will – through ‘reforms’ – ever be.

    Core beliefs within a social system based on commoditization, profit and accumulation are distinct from those within a social system of reciprocity producing for use. Both types of systems fail but for quite different reasons, e.g. pre-capitalist crises were of scarcity whereas those within capitalism have resulted from abundance on one hand and created scarcity on the other. Overproduction of means of production, overaccumulation of capital, is inherent to an ‘expand or die’ system, overaccumulation/overproduction which through the mediations of falling rate of profit, unemployment, etc, manifest as scarcity for the greater number, as limits and limits which the selfsame system must – in its attempt to perpetuate itself – constantly struggle to overcome.
    A famous 19th c. political economist noted that the limit to capital is capital itself. He did not though expect this system to realize its final form through demolition of nature but to have passed into history before then. In this sense, yes, the great depression might be seen as a warning just as more modern notions of a ‘green capitalism’ are no more than attempts to perpetuate, to profit from increasingly destructive creation…no more than generally unconscious, ultimately unrealizable, attempts to save that which generates what must be overcome.

    Unless we, as a world social formation, are able to move beyond “the Moses and prophets” of “accumulate, accumulate, accumulate”, Diamond will be correct in his assesment of the future, and this will happen even as the tools to mitigate then correct already exist.

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