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Collapse

Not so much a review of Jared Diamond's Collapse as a long, somewhat ill-organized blog post Inspired By Actual Book Reading. Follow on below the fold....

So first off -- should you buy it? You should probably buy Guns, Germs, and Steel first, because that was better. But if you liked Guns and The Third Chimpanzee (and I did) the main section -- a history of collapsed societies -- of Collapse will give you more of the classic Jared Diamond you know and love. On the downside, as I've learned over the years, he often gets a bit sloppy with the details. But there's compelling, sweeping narrative and you'll learn lots of interesting things and you can read books by real specialists if you want to learn more. The more bloggable portion of the book concerns the prospects for similar environmental destruction-driven collapses in the contemporary world. Here a simple problem of book organization comes up. The contemporary situation turns out to not be very analagous with most of the ones Diamond discusses. Our technology is very different, and the world is now highly interconnected whereas Diamond's cases were all unusually isolated societies living in more isolated times. That said, we do have things to worry about, and that's what I'll talk about now.

FOOD: Diamond makes some effort to convince us that natural increase in global population may lead to a crisis wherein there isn't enough food. Since I imagine this book will be the subject of many attempted debunkings by rightwingers of various sorts, I'm going to assume that someone paid to do such things will write up the appropriate debunking of this suggestion. Diamond's numbers don't add up and he doesn't seem to totally grasp the economics of food production. It's undoubtedly the case that we can't have 9 billion people all eating like contemporary Americans (or even contemporary Europeans), but that just goes to show that it won't happen, not that we'll all starve. Michael Lind had a discussion of this somewhere and suggested synthetic beef, which sounded fanciful, but unlike Lind I wouldn't consider it a huge tragedy if this didn't work out.

DEFORESTATION: Much more compellingly, Diamond's historical examples show that trends toward deforestation could cause an actual collapse of agricultural productivity (further down the road) which would be much worse than a mere increase in the number of people. Deforestation wouldn't devastate the contemporary world to the degree it devastated Easter Island or Greenland since we're less wood-based then we used to be, but we still do use an awful lot of wood (and paper) and it turns out that deforestation has catastrophic impacts on soil and a whole bunch of other stuff. The good news is that at the intellectual level this is well-understood. You need to identify your especially valuable wooded-areas (old growth forests and so forth) turn them into national parks, and then actually enforce the rules. Then, with the rest of your timber supply, you need to assign some proper property rights such that a multiplicity of companies either actually owns the land or else holds it in a very long-term lease. When Diamond is discussing how property rights can lead to effective forest-management he puts a lot of weight on the idea of turning the land over to your heirs, but as Alex Tabbarok has explained you don't even need to bring the kids into it.

Managed properly, a wooded area can produce timber products in a sustainable way, just as you can sustainably farm all other sorts of agricultural products. The trick is to create situations where the incentives are right. Oftentimes, they aren't right, but as with lax enforcement of park rules, this is a governance problem not an intellectual difficulty. How you overcome the governance issue, I couldn't quite say, but at least we know what we should be doing.

OVERFISHING: Fisheries management has a similar "tragedy of the commons" dynamic to forest management. Unfortunately, it's not nearly as clear how you un-common the commons here since the ocean isn't well-suited to fences and so forth. I don't know what more to say about this (and Diamond doesn't have much to add).

ENERGY: The really big problem here is energy. I would like to see the following things happen over the course of the 21st century:

  • Developed world economies continue to grow modestly in real per capital terms.
  • China and India continue to grow rapidly in real per capita terms.
  • The rest of the developing world manages to get on the sort of path China and India are on.
The reasons for hoping this will happen are extremely compelling. Rapid economic growth in China and India has taken a largish bite out of the phenomenon of severe poverty, and the only really effective way to see larger bites taken is to see the trend both continue and expand to other parts of the world. But all of this implies a very large increase in future oil use. Unfortunately, while there's certainly oil out there we can drill that we aren't drilling yet, most of it will be much harder to get at than the oil we're drilling right now (that's why we aren't drilling it already). At some point, the easy oil of the Middle East will run out, much as the easy oil of Pennsylvania ran out a while back and many of our best Texas fields have gone dry. It's not at all clear that the sort of global economic growth we need to combat severe poverty is compatible with a large increase in the price of oil.

Much hope is being placed on a transition to hydrogen cars at some point in the future, but the electricity here will have to come from somewhere. Even with a significant increase in the proportion of electricity coming from wind and solar power, this still implies a large increase in the use of other power sources. Oil plants (obviously) won't help us with the oil problem. Bringing many more coal plants online will make global warm much worse. Nuclear waste needs to be put somewhere. The problem is a very serious one. Compared to some other things, I don't think Diamond takes it as seriously as he should, perhaps because he doesn't seem to think that faster economic growth in poor countries is a compelling aim. But you should find this goal compelling. The true environmental problem is how to make greater prosperity for the world's four billion poorer people compatible with not absolutely wrecking everything everywhere. Energy is the area where this is hardest. Growth requires a cheap source of energy, and the environment requires that energy source not to be coal. Praying for cold fusion does not strike me as an appealing option.

January 2, 2005 | Permalink

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Comments

Sounds like it's worth reading, although it does seem somewhat Ehrlichian.

One problem I see is that agricultural yields aren't increasing as fast as they used to, and in many places of they're heading downwards as the water table gets all screwed up. WRT to rainforest soil, my understanding is that the rich topsoil there is for all intents and purposes irreplacable, and erodes or degrades fairly easily.

Overfishing isn't so hard, actually. What you do is you set barriers to entry in the form of boat taxes or regs or license fees or what have you. Occasionally you're just going to need people not to fish in certain areas.

Allow me to recommend this excellent book on the subject.

Posted by: praktike | Jan 2, 2005 11:15:42 PM

The biggest and most available alternative to coal and oil energy is energy conservation. There's lots and lots of low-hanging fruit in this area. Obviously it's not going to ramp up to meet India/China demand, but neither is any other single source. Conservation is an area where we can start now -- technologies are available. Where there are many difficult technical issues with solar, wind, etc., the main issue with conservation is simply political and popular will.

Posted by: Realish | Jan 2, 2005 11:18:24 PM

I think Avery Lovins said that conservation could be our fastest-growing source of energy if we did it right.

Posted by: praktike | Jan 2, 2005 11:24:45 PM

Rain forests don't have rich topsoil. They have very thin topsoil, and rely upon the recycling of organic waste for the nutrients needed to sustain the forest growth. A rain forest is a balanced environment, and cutting down a significant portion of the plants upsets that balance, causing the death of much of what remains. The farm land that is obtained in Brazil, for example, by clear cutting or burning tracts of rain forest is a very low fertility land initially and very soon becomes totally unproductive. But, that hasn't stopped the conversion of rain forest to farm land there.

Posted by: Vaughn Hopkins | Jan 2, 2005 11:47:09 PM

One problem I see is that agricultural yields aren't increasing as fast as they used to, and in many places of they're heading downwards as the water table gets all screwed up.

Yes, but world population isn't increasing as fast as it used to, either. Anyway, one also suspects there are still lots of places on earth where agricultural yields are much, much lower than in rich countries. (Although agriculture, by the way, may be the one sector where hycrocarbon shortages may wreak the most havoc, because of their necessity in the production of fertilizer).

Growth requires a cheap source of energy, and the environment requires that energy source not to be coal.

I have heard some rather hopeful things about the process of putting the carbon back into the earth (can't think of the technical term for this). It would certainly solve a lot of problems if this proves to be feasible.

Posted by: P.B. Almeida | Jan 3, 2005 12:11:01 AM

I read Diamond's Guns Germs & Steel, and found in interesting. I hope he hasn't gotten sloppy in his subsequent works.

Regarding deforestation, the issue is not just whether the economy is wood based. It has been reported, for example, that more than a bit of the flooding in Bangla Desh in the last few years was due in no small measure to the deforestation in neighboring regions in China. And, of course, flooding typically results in washing away of fertile topsoil. Moreover, it has been suggested that the recent tragedy in the Indian Ocean was exacerbated by the demise of the sea-side mangrove forests that resulted from local "development".

BTW, regarding "energy," I'm still amazed that nobody seems to recognize that there are huge reserviors of--um--coal in the US and elsewhere. And that coal liquefaction and gassification technologies have existed for well over a hundred years, and could probably be made more efficient if anyone wanted to deal with them. Query why they apparently don't.

Posted by: raj | Jan 3, 2005 12:13:48 AM

The solution to overfishing, in two words: fish farming. (More here.)

Posted by: Dan Simon | Jan 3, 2005 12:25:08 AM

P.B. is talking about creating new carbon sinks. Plants (the two most important sorts of which for our purposes are, in order of importance, algae and trees) hold carbon. Creating more plants creates more carbon sinks. Thus, you have people talking about sprinkling iron shavings in the ocean to make more algae grow. It's rather sketchy and hypothetical at this point, and has a a host of potential drawbacks.

Posted by: djw | Jan 3, 2005 12:39:45 AM

"but the electricity here will have to come from somewhere."

Nuclear. And when we need it, we will do it because once the third world has industrialized, they won't be going back.

Posted by: Sebastian Holsclaw | Jan 3, 2005 12:45:03 AM

The most recent studies of algae blooms show that blooms produced by iron seeding are, for several reasons, very short-lived. As far as I know, this is not a viable option.

The best short-term band-aid for global warming that I've read about it dispersing aluminum nano-baloons into the stratosphere to increase the amount of radiation earth reflects back into space. A 1-2% increase in earth's albedo can be achieved pretty easily this way and is all that would be necessary to reverse, or at least halt, present warming trends.

No, really. We may find ourselves talking seriously about this option if nothing better comes along. It would probably involve a big windfall for the aerospace industry and doesn't require us to change our energy habits, so I bet the GOP would even get on board.

Posted by: El Gringo Loco | Jan 3, 2005 1:41:58 AM

Have just been investigating the energy question
(in a thread debating nuclear power) - quick
summary:

Currently gas is cheapest, and relatively clean.

New designs of nuclear plants are better than the
old ones; but nuclear fuel is surprisingly
expensive (cost per KWh ~ 30% of coal or gas)
and construction of nuclear plants is still
very expensive. And how much plutonium do you
want to ship around ?

Solar cells have dropped from $20/peak watt
to $3/peak watt since 1975. Their use may
really take off if they get to < $1/peak watt -
this probably requires thin-film (rather than
bulk silicon) - but manufacturing technology
used for LCD displays (of which we produce
15 sq km per year!) may allow this to happen
by 2010. Bear in mind that even good sites
(e.g. Southwest USA) only get insolation allowing
yearly average power ~ 0.26 of peak power.

Prospects for conservation are very promising:

- 65% of industrial electricity use is for motors
smart microcontroller/DSP controls give more
power with greater efficiency from smaller
(and probably cheaper) motors

- for lighting, compact fluorescents are getting
cheap already. But the future is solid-state
light-emitting-diodes, which are very efficient
and run cool (reducing fire hazards).

- air-conditioning (and refrigeration) is a major
use of electricity. Beyond the use of smart
motors, we will also see efficiency improved
by moving from Freon to Puron refrigerant,
and replacing piston compressors with scroll
compressors - a really neat design with few
moving parts, but which requires accurate
machining of curved surfaces.

- new "green building" techniques can greatly
reduce heating/cooling energy use

- hybrid cars are great

- gasoline engines may benefit from lean-burn
and high-temperature ceramic materials, and
ever-smarter computerized controls

- use of plastics and composites may reduce
vehicle weight, saving fuel

- genetic engineering may improve biomass fuel
technologies (but this is a long shot -
photosynthesis is horribly inefficient to
start with).

Posted by: Richard Cownie | Jan 3, 2005 1:42:42 AM

my bad, I posted this is in the other thread before I realized the discussion had moved here:


I think a lot of people here - especially those who think Jared Diamond plays fast & loose with the facts - would be interested in Jared Diamond's earlier paper on ethnic variation in testis size and its consequences for human sexual behavior.

No, this is not a joke. He really did publish a paper in Nature, in 1986, complete with diagrams of Danish testes vs. Hong Kong Chinese testes. A full scan of the paper is available at the preceding link.

Might be useful for those who question whether JD was being intellectually honest in Guns, Germs, and Steel...and whether he's being intellectually honest with the idea that "ecocide" lead to civilizational destruction rather than invasion & ethnic cleansing.

Posted by: gc | Jan 3, 2005 2:29:25 AM

For those who want to cut right to the chase:

Jared Diamond's 1986 Nature paper on ethnic variation in testis size and the evolutionary, sexual, and behavioral consequences of this variation:

page 1 JPG
page 2 JPG

or if you prefer

page 1 PDF
page 2 PDF

Again, this is relevant to the question of whether JD is being disingenuous. If he was shading the truth about what he believed in Guns, Germs, and Steel - and I think that even a cursory reading of the above paper will lead you to that conclusion - it is unlikely he is being above board in Collapse.

Posted by: gc | Jan 3, 2005 2:38:29 AM

The nuclear power as the answer to the energy crisis stuff pisses me off no end--not because nuclear power is the worst thing in the world (most coal plants are worse) but because to be safe it has to be heavily regulated, which means it is expensive, which means it is heavily subsidized. Wind is a cheaper and better answer that gets completely ignored because it sounds like a hippy dippy environmentalist solution, whereas nuclear power sounds COOL and you get to tell the environmentalists "choose or lose." But it won't freaking work.

The main disadvantages with wind are, you get reliability problems if you rely too much on it, and our transmission lines are not build to support it well. The first is not a real problem as you can get up to 15-20% and we're pathetically far away from that for the foreseeable future. The second is more of a problem but the grid needs a big restructuring anyway.

There isn't a magic bullet, and even if there were, it wouldn't be nukes. There are so many blatantly obvious steps to take and we won't even start.

I'm not saying environmentalists don't have blind spots, either. The knee jerk opposition to every single new power generating facility must end. Even a coal plant is many many times better than the dinosaurs in the midwest that were supposed to be shut down decades ago. And for all the focus on electricity, the bigger problem in the U.S. is transportation.

Posted by: Katherine | Jan 3, 2005 3:45:13 AM

I agree that the problem area is transportation, not because it is a bigger problem, but because it is a harder to solve problem. RE: windpower, the problem isn't so much the the transmission lines can't handle it, it is that electricity can't be easily stored in really large quantities. We really need an advance in battery technology. But who knows where that is going to come from? No really, who knows? I would like to talk to them and invest some money for my retirement. :)

Posted by: Sebastian Holsclaw | Jan 3, 2005 4:02:47 AM

No magic bullet, and the quickest, easiest options, at least for Americans, involve conservation - more intelligent design and healthier lifestyles instead of brand-name labor-saving power-guzzlers.

Unfortunately, this probably isn't what we'll choose, and our energy future more likely includes coal and methane hydrates than smart buildings, small cars or mass transportation.

We're talking about people who actually feel safer driving SUV's despite all evidence.

In engineering terms, it wouldn't really be that hard to halve our oil consumption. In marketing terms it would be orders of magnitude more difficult than staving off the threat to Social Security, perhaps comparable to the effort needed to implement national health care.

On a happier note, we could, at any moment, hit the "Pause" button on global warming and the many ills attending population growth by launching a nuclear war. Enough explosions would approach or possibly exceed the effect of a major volcanic eruption. Presto! Global cooling! Fewer hungry mouths! It's always a good idea to have a backup plan.

Posted by: bad Jim | Jan 3, 2005 4:34:29 AM

With respect to Sebastian's point, I'm inclined to doubt that electrical storage is as big a problem as generation. There's probably a good way to make fuel cells, or something, work, but finding enough stuff to put in them is likely a larger and longer-lived problem.

That being said, I'll agree that we've made startling little progress on storing electricity over the last century. It would be really nice if at some point in the next century air conditioning ceased to be one of our largest uses of juice.

Posted by: bad Jim | Jan 3, 2005 4:49:11 AM

Nuclear is a mindblovingly capital-intensive source of electicity, but the per-kwh hour price works out quite reasonably, as electricity d' France demonstrates by making huge piles of cash exporting nuclear-generated electricity. Wind-turbines suffer from exactly the same problem of frontloaded costs, are more expensive, and not very suitable for base-load. Solar is, to put it mildly, not enviorment-friendly. Try and work out how much land we'd have to pave over with solar panels in order to power civilisation.

Hmm. Actually given current bondprices this is a great time to build nuke-stations. And windmills. Eastern europe isn't nuke-phobic either... Must point this out to the french.

Posted by: Thomas | Jan 3, 2005 8:13:05 AM

"Rain forests don't have rich topsoil. They have very thin topsoil, and rely upon the recycling of organic waste for the nutrients needed to sustain the forest growth. A rain forest is a balanced environment, and cutting down a significant portion of the plants upsets that balance, causing the death of much of what remains. The farm land that is obtained in Brazil, for example, by clear cutting or burning tracts of rain forest is a very low fertility land initially and very soon becomes totally unproductive. But, that hasn't stopped the conversion of rain forest to farm land there."

Yes, that's what I meant. Apparently I abused a term of art somewhere. Sorry to be imprecise. There is a thin layer that depends on detritus ... and once it's gone, it is for all intents and purposes irreplacable.

Posted by: praktike | Jan 3, 2005 8:33:24 AM

GC, could you spell out what you're trying to say? I looked over the PDFs, they're a bit odd, but I'm not sure what I'm supposed to take from them.

Posted by: Maestro | Jan 3, 2005 9:53:36 AM

I believe he's attempting to imply that Diamond has racist views, based on the fact that he has published a paper analyzing ethnic differences in testis size. Given that the conclusion drawn in the linked paper is that given that: (a) bearing fraternal twins is disadvantageous for mothers of small or slight stature; (b) Koreans tend to be smaller and of slighter staure than Danes on average; (c) there may be a genetic link between testis size and tendency to father fraternal twins and (d) measurements reveal smaller average testis size in Koreans than in Danes; then (e) the difference in average testis size between Koreans and Danes may be explained by evolutionary pressure against the bearing of fraternal twins in Koreans.

Where GC gets racism from that, I don't know.

Posted by: LizardBreath | Jan 3, 2005 10:24:33 AM

You "store" electricity by, for example, using it to produce hydrogen by electrolysing water. Then you store the hydrogen. This isn't cost-effective now, but it could become so. Storing electricity itself may never be feasible on a large scale.

Posted by: SqueakyRat | Jan 3, 2005 11:07:37 AM

I'm surprised no one has mentioned water. The pressure on fresh water supplies--especially in the Middle East--is becoming so acute that some expect that it may spark more conflict than oil. (Of course there is always an upside--the Turks have dammed the headwaters of rivers flowing through Syria, and the Syrians know it. "Boys, I've got [his] balls in my pocket!"--Lyndon Johnson, circa 1968)

Not that we don't have our own problems; places like Phoenix and Tucson are sucking their aquifers dry--partly because of transplanted boneheads who want a lawn of Kentucky bluegrass instead of xerophytes.

Posted by: Aquaman | Jan 3, 2005 12:46:04 PM

"With respect to Sebastian's point, I'm inclined to doubt that electrical storage is as big a problem as generation. There's probably a good way to make fuel cells, or something, work, but finding enough stuff to put in them is likely a larger and longer-lived problem."

Nope, if we ran the electricity-producing plants at full tilt all through the night we could produce quite a bit more electricity. The problem is that there is no where to put it. If you don't use it, it mostly goes away. And conversion to hydrogen isn't that exciting because of the volume needed to store the hydrogen.

Posted by: Sebastian Holsclaw | Jan 3, 2005 1:24:26 PM

As for deforestation, because of planting techniques, trees are growing faster here in the U.S. than the domestic market demands. It's third world deforestation that is going to cause most problems (see haiti's loss of topsoil). Shall we institute a Kyoto-style protocal?

Posted by: j.scott barnard | Jan 3, 2005 3:15:27 PM

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