Monday, March 27, 2017

Collapse VI

The last section of the book, "Practical Lessons" covers a mishmash of ideas. Chapter 14 lists some of the psychological failings of the people in the collapsed societies discussed earlier, including failure to anticipate, failure to perceive, rational bad behavior (of a subset of the population) and disastrous values. This chapter had a lot of potential, but I found it disappointing, because it stuck to the obvious. Chapter 15 describes in detail how some businesses have been able to behave like responsible citizens, though that usually occurs only when actual events have shown that the cost of irresponsible exploitation of resources outweighs the cost of additional safety measures and precautions, for instance, when a large oil spill occurs. In the case of hardrock mining, there is usually so little profit in the business to begin with that it is cheaper for businesses to lobby for lax regulations than it is to operate in an environmentally responsible fashion, in which case they would simply lose money. Diamond emphasizes how consumers play a role in this, because, even though they may not understand the economics of the oil or mining industries, they are more cognizant of oil because they buy it at the retail level, whereas the end use of most mining products remains a mystery to them. They are willing to pay for oil because they are aware of how they use it, whereas mining products often become invisible components of consumer products. Responsible stewardship of the environment comes at a cost, and ultimately it is consumers who decide by buying or not buying certain products; they usually aren't willing to pay any premium for consumer products, because, according to Diamond, they don't often understand the environmental costs. Where hardrock mining is concerned, the costs of environmental responsibility are considerably higher than those of most other natural resources. Diamond also notes that self-regulation within some industries, such as forest products, has been comparatively successful.

The final chapter, 16, includes a somewhat redundant list of what Diamond thinks are the twelve most serious trouble spots related to sustaining the environment. Here are the first sentences or so that he has written for each item on the list:

1. At an accelerating rate, we are destroying the natural habitats or else converting them to human-made habitats, such as cities and villages, farmlands and pastures, roads and golf courses.

2. Wild foods, especially fish and to a lesser extent shellfish, contribute a large fraction of the protein consumed by humans.... [T]he great majority of valuable fisheries either have collapsed or are in steep decline. 

3. A significant fraction of wild species, populations, and genetic diversity has already been lost, and at present rates a large fraction of what remains will be lost within the next half-century.

4. Soils and farmland used for growing crops are being carried away by water and wind erosion at rates between 10 and 40 times the rates of soil formation, and between 500 and 10,000 times soil erosion rates on forested land.

5. The world's major energy sources, especially for industrial societies, are fossil fuels: oil, natural gas, and coal. While there has been much discussion about how many big oil and gas fields remain to be discovered, and while coal reserves are believed to be large, the prevalent view is that known and likely reserves of readily accessible oil and gas will last for a few more decades.

6. Most of the world's freshwater in rivers and lakes is already being utilized for irrigation, domestic and industrial water, and in situ uses such as boat transportation corridors, fisheries, and recreation.

7. It might at first seem that the supply of sunlight is infinite, so one might reason that the Earth's capacity to grow crops and wild plants is also infinite. Within the last 20 years, it has been appreciated that this is not the case....

8. The chemical industry and many other industries manufacture or release into the air, soil, oceans, lakes and rivers many toxic chemicals....

9. The term "alien species" refers to species that we transfer, intentionally or inadvertently, from a place where they are native to a place where they are not native. Some alien species are obviously valuable to us as crops, domestic animals, and landscaping. But others devastate populations of native species with which they come into contact....

10. Human activities produce gases that escape into the atmosphere, where they either damage the protective ozone layer (as do formerly widespread refrigerator coolants) or else act as greenhouse gases that absorb sunlight and thereby lead to global warming.

11. The world's human population is growing. More people require more food, space, water, energy and other resources. 

12. What really counts is not the number of people alone, but their impact on the environment.... [O]ur numbers pose problems insofar as we consume resources and generate wastes.... But low-impact people are becoming high-impact people....

Following this list, Diamond refutes, effectively I think, some of the common criticisms that have been brought against the arguments that he makes. He then attempts to finish on a positive note by mentioning that some societies of the past, such as the success stories described in the book, were able to overcome similar problems when they confronted them, and that we may be able to as well.

Because of its scope and completeness, this is by far the best book I've read on environmental issues. In books by E.O. Wilson, such as The Diversity of Life and Half-Earth, the perspective is that of a naturalist more than that of one specifically concerned with the future of mankind. Similarly, in The Sixth Extinction Elizabeth Kolbert looks at the environmental consequences of human activities without paying as much attention to the specific causes. Al Gore's popular documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, which came out the year following Collapse, covers only one aspect of the twelve mentioned by Diamond. Global warming is an important issue, but in itself is probably survivable, and though the film played an important role in raising environmental awareness, compared to Collapse it barely scratches the surface. Diamond makes it clear that if we don't deal effectively with the issues that he raises we may all die, as did those in some of his historical examples.

Although it seems that somewhere in Collapse one is likely to find at least a passing comment on every issue relevant to human survival vis-à-vis environmental damage, Diamond, disappointingly to me, does not present specific strategies for solving the problems, and he more or less leaves it up to mankind to solve them on their own. For example, he recognizes that corporations may or may not behave responsibly but are driven primarily by financial motives, and that the public can pressure them in the right direction, but he also notes that some of the environmental issues are not understood by the public: how could corporate malfeasance be corrected in those instances? As I have argued in previous posts, many of the problems that we are currently facing are the result of the combination of economic competition under capitalism with inferior governance under existing democratic political models. It would be difficult to deal with environmental problems at that level, but, since that is where the problems actually originate, it may be the appropriate place to look.

I think that economic competition tends to cause a vicious cycle from which it becomes increasingly difficult to escape. For example, for someone like me, who prefers a rural environment with a low population density and doesn't care about money, how can I realistically expect to live that way in the current world? If you live in an unspoiled environment with its natural resources more or less intact, in order to retain those resources you need defense measures of one kind or another. Under current global conditions, in the absence of a suitable defense, sooner or later corporations, other nations or perhaps refugees would arrive on the scene and alter the environment for the worse. In other words, in order to protect my sustainable environment, I would need an economic base large enough to support an army or some other deterrent, which contradicts the very idea of the society that I envision. Similarly, economically weak countries may be forced by external economic pressures to modernize their economies, if only for their own protection. Even developed countries with declining populations face pressure to increase their fertility rates in order to ensure that they have sufficient workers to keep their economies strong in the future. Capitalism in the absence of an effective world government forces regions of the world into defensive postures, with economic forces driving events in a way that roughly mimics warfare.

The other problematic component underlying environmental risk, incompetent governance, has hardly diminished since Diamond wrote the book. The collapse in Syria is flooding Europe with refugees, conditions in South Sudan have deteriorated and ISIL is at large. These kinds of situations are predictable within Diamond's framework, because political instability is often associated with environmental destruction. However, one may also question how well the developed nations are dealing with increasing environmental pressures. It may be a little too early to assess the populist movements in Europe and the U.S., but at first glance they may be related to the sustainability of economic growth, which is at least partly related to environmental health. The high standard of living in the developed world comes at a high environmental cost, and the lower end of the income spectrum has been experiencing a reduced standard of living in recent years. Although a collapse does not seem imminent in the developed world, some of the early patterns of political instability may be falling into place. Recently, the two most striking examples have been the victories of Brexit and Donald Trump, which, to me, are clear indications of the inherent incompetence of democratic electorates. Both votes were for isolationism and protection from foreigners and demonstrate a poor understanding of global economics.

The election of Donald Trump is a good example of the incompetence of a democratic electorate. From his few weeks in office it has become apparent that, not only does he not understand any of the serious issues facing the U.S., including those raised by Diamond, but he isn't even interested in them and is unlikely to do anything about them. This encourages me to withdraw into my futuristic mode of thinking, in which complex issues such as those raised in Collapse become the province of AI or AI-assisted humans rather than the poor decision-making process of the voting public or the incompetent people whom they elect.

Diamond is correct that all of the problems brought up in his book can be solved, but he isn't exactly creating a new paradigm. I am a much stronger proponent of population control than he is, but that may be because I am not affected by the pressures of political correctness. Looking into the future, I wonder whether there is any advantage to a world population of seven billion people, in which the majority lead imperiled lives, compared to a world population of one billion or fewer people, in which all lead unimperiled lives. There are painless ways to make that transition without producing inequality or diminishing the richness of human experience. This obvious option is not receiving any public discussion.

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