Questioning Collapse: Human Resilience, Ecological Vulnerability, and the Aftermath of Empire, Edited by Patricia A. McAnany and Norman Yoffee, Cambridge University Press, 2010, ISBN 978-0-521-73366-3, 372 pages.
(Swans – April 19, 2010) There are few professors with a higher profile than Jared Diamond, whose 1997 Guns, Germs and Steel (referred to hereafter as G, G & S) enjoyed blockbuster bestseller status and whose appearances on PBS have made him an instantly recognizable figure. With his avuncular beard, Diamond is the perfect figure to explain to middle-class television audiences why some people are on top and others are on the bottom. As the PBS Web site on G, G & S puts it, he will answer “Why were Europeans the ones to conquer so much of our planet?”
The way he answers this question has convinced some people on the left that he is “one of us” since it rejects the kind of racism that 19th century defenders of Empire espoused. Diamond says that it is not in the white man’s genes that he rules over people of color. Instead it is only a geographical accident that Europe and the United States became hegemons. If, for example, the Incas had access to horses rather than the llama, they might have become major world powers. While it is arguably a mark of progress that the intelligentsia no longer considers people of color to be closer to the apes than to homo sapiens, the net effect of Diamond’s grand narrative is to relieve the privileged men and women of the imperialist societies of any sense of responsibility for the suffering of the system’s victims. After reading G, G & S, they might say to themselves: There, but for the grace of geography, go I.
In 2005, Diamond came out with Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, another ambitious book geared to a mass audience. Long associated with the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, Diamond was finally getting around to answering another Big Question now that he had settled the issue of why the U.S. and Western Europe ruled the world. This time he would analyze why some societies suffered ecological collapse, a problem that is also very much on the mind of the PBS audience and all other solid middle-class people worrying about their future. After all, what good would it do to sit on top of the world when it was facing environmental destruction?
As was the case with G, G & S, Collapse was universally regarded as a prophetic and progressive manifesto. But unlike the earlier book, this one was less deterministic. Geography had little to do with, for example, the failure of the Haitians to succeed as the Dominicans did on the very same island of Hispaniola. How could one part of the island be an ecological disaster while the other half was a virtual Garden of Eden? The answer could be found in the choices made by the people themselves. While the Incas could not be blamed for lacking horses, the Haitians could be blamed for deforestation — or so it would seem.