The Collapse of Collapse:

Scientists, archaeologists, and others have begun examining the claims of Jared Diamond's best-selling Collapse, and some are finding that many of his claims do not hold up to serious scrutiny.

For example, Diamond claims that the collapse of the Rapa Nui on Easter Island provides "the clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by overexploiting its own resources." Yet Diamond's account is contradicted by the available archaeological evidence, as documented in this article by Terry L. Hunt from The American Scientist. (Link via Daniel Drezner) Whereas Diamond blames deforestation and population growth, Hunt finds that newly introduced diseases, invasive species (rats) and conflict with Europeans had a greater impact.

Using Rapa Nui as an example of "ecocide," as Diamond has called it, makes for a compelling narrative, but the reality of the island's tragic history is no less meaningful. . . .

I believe that the world faces today an unprecedented global environmental crisis, and I see the usefulness of historical examples of the pitfalls of environmental destruction. So it was with some unease that I concluded that Rapa Nui does not provide such a model. But as a scientist I cannot ignore the problems with the accepted narrative of the island's prehistory. Mistakes or exaggerations in arguments for protecting the environment only lead to oversimplified answers and hurt the cause of environmentalism. We will end up wondering why our simple answers were not enough to make a difference in confronting today's problems.

Hunt is hardly the only one to raise questions about Diamond's accounts and his underlying thesis. In 2005, the interdisciplnary journal Energy and Environment devoted a special issue to essays critiquing Diamond's work. Several of the papers are available here. Among other things, the various authors fault Diamond for failing to give sufficient attention to the role of instituions in economic development and environmental performance (a criticism that can also be made of his earlier book, Guns, Germs, and Steel). For those interested in Diamond's thesis, the various papers are worth a look.

Tracy Johnson (www):
I think the future of ecological prognostication sits in the prospect of the lack of potable water and "water wars" rather than lack of flora and fauna. But hey, we're free to predict our own disasters here. America, what a country!
8.25.2006 10:30am
milo_went (mail) (www):
At risk of getting you addicted to the latest mindless Internet phenomenon, You can see a 16-year old's alleged debunking of Jared Diamond here.
8.25.2006 10:46am
Randy R. (mail):
Having read Collapse, I thought it was a great read, and a terrific cautionary tale. It's what, 600 pages? For one person to make huge conclusions about so many things -- he's gonna be off the mark on some of them. And some examples won't pan out.
However, I don't see in the critiques a refutation of his overall thesis, or a contention that all the examples he writes of are wrong. Scientists can and should examine such theories, but it's a long way from proving him totally wrong.
8.25.2006 11:07am
DavidBernstein (mail):
Guns, Germs and Steel is a very interesting book, but if you read the first chapter carefully, you see that Diamond doesn't actually take a scientific approach to his subject matter. Rather, he has a preconceived notion of the answer he wants, and then looks for facts to support it. So I'm not at all surpised by this post.
8.25.2006 11:13am
Randy R. (mail):
Furthermore, the critiques come from an organization devoted to property rights. Is that less biased than being an environmentalist as they claim? They claim to demolish Diamond's claims simply because evironmental apolcolypse is the cause celebre now, as though he wrote this book passed on nothing more than a passing fancy.
The irony is that Diamond goes out of his way to laud the oil industry for their environmental efforts, and acknowedges that this stance upsets many environmentalists.

I guess Energy And Environment has no problems with THAT part of the book, right?
8.25.2006 11:15am
Richard Aubrey (mail):
I read "Guns..." and found it pretty much worthless, except in a negative sense. It showed how far even scientists will go to promote a theory.

I didn't bother with Collapse because I figured it would be yet another pet idea presented with hectoring, special pleading, and misdirection.
8.25.2006 11:35am
After Guns, Germs and Steel, I was looking forward to collapse, particularly since the Norse settlements in Greenland and North America were one of the examples.

He had to stretch too far in this book. To claim the Greenland Norse did not eat fish makes a great story, but is a rather silly conclusion to try and prove. Extraordinary claims (people in Greenland didn't eat fish, whereas their fellow citizens in Iceland did) deserve some better evidence than debating how quickly fish bones decay in dry environments like Iceland versus wet ones like Greenland.

I liked Before the Dawn by Nicholas Wade much better for a discussion of how people moved from Africa to populate the world.

8.25.2006 11:37am
Houston Lawyer:
I'm still upset that the Lemmings Jumping Over a Cliff video that I remember seeing as a child was faked. We've been fed the Easter Island was overpopulated line for a number of years now. Urban legends abound and are almost impossible to correct.
8.25.2006 12:05pm
It's been a while since I read Collapse, but one of the biggest messages I took from it was that these downfalls were due to a combination of factors. Easter Island was not destroyed solely due to deforestation but a number of factors caused the collapse. I think he points out 6 main culprits -- including pressure from outside forces, like disease and invasion -- that appear most often in collapsed societies.

If Easter Island were only deforested, or only faced conflict from Europeans then perhaps the society would have survived.

The lesson is that there are a number of unpredictable outside forces that could hurt our society -- a few years of drought limiting staple crops, or political turmoil disrupting a society we depend on for resources. Because of this, we should always strive to mitigate the causes of collapse that we have control over, such as deforestation or uncontrolled population growth.

When environmentally responsible solutions are available, why not use them? The example of Home Depot and the Forest Stewardship Council is a great one given in the book, as well as the oil companies previously mentioned.
8.25.2006 12:50pm
Camilla's first husband was Catholic, and I believe her children are as well. I guess this isn't a disqualification, though.
8.25.2006 1:25pm
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
Ahh, more overpopulation scares. According to Malthus we should have been dead a long time ago. Then the scares from the 70's had us dead and buried by now too.

Quick - grab a racial, ethnic, religious, or political group you don't like and start sterilizin' 'em.

That's a joke, of course. But some of these people need to realize how flawed some of their theories are.
8.25.2006 1:59pm
te (mail):
So if the criticisms are correct does that mean that we need to breed more and cut down more trees?
8.25.2006 2:00pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):

It means we shouldn't foreclose opportunities to appease radical environmentalists who get it wrong. As an earlier poster mentioned, we're all dead about nine times, according to various alarmists.

You ought to read 1491. Interesting. Among other things, what we now think of as virgin rainforest of the Amazon is an artifact of smallpox. Prior to the intro of said bug, the area was largely farms and domesticated fruit trees. We apparently got along just fine without the Amazon rainforest for some centuries. This, I should say, is not a conclusion of the author's. He doesn't address that issue. It is a question which arises upon finding out how the previous inhabitants raped Gaia for their own purposes and farmed the land now considered the lungs of the earth or something.
8.25.2006 2:15pm
Harry Eagar (mail):
Being a bit slow, I just finished 'Guns, Germs and Steel' this week. If we were to have taken the title seriously, the subtitle would have to have been: 'Why we are all Hindus'

He should have stuck to birds.
8.25.2006 2:19pm
Bruce Wilder (www):
I saw this referenced on Marginal Revolution, too, and wonder at the conclusions being drawn. Diamond is certainly not above omitting details, others might find interesting or important. I would criticize him, too, for the "just so" nature of some of of his overly facile explanations. But, before people get too carried away with the notion that his "underlying thesis" has been completely overturned, let's remind ourselves that there is no dispute possible on premise number 1 in these stories: the Vikings on Greenland did die out; Easter Island did end up with very few people, no trees and, consequently, no boats.
8.25.2006 2:33pm
bob montgomery:
Seems to me that almost all of the contemporary literature about environmental issues, and certainly all of the popular literature, are just plain bad science, agenda-driven hypotheses in search of favorable evidence.
8.25.2006 2:34pm
Dick King:
I've always thought that the "environmentalists" who want to tongue-lash Bush for withdrawing Kyoto and who pointed to the hideous 2005 hurricaine season were making a big mistake. The science isn't there yet -- not even close -- and after making all that noise all it would take is one ho-hum hurricaine season or a few average ones to undercut all the good work convincing the public that global warming is a real problem [although reasonable people can believe that Kyoto is no solution and would not have been even if the US had ratified -- I certainly do].

Yawn so far we have seen five Atlantic tropical depressions, three tropical storms, no hurricaines -- even a Cat 1, and this is about the anniversary of Katrina by which time there had been 12 tropical depressions and [I think] five hurricaines ranging up to a Cat 4 [?].

8.25.2006 3:09pm
Harold Henderson (mail) (www):
I've read and reviewed both books and posted on the Hunt article. In Collapse Diamond does omit some stories that don't support his overall thesis, and I will take great interest in whether he responds as a scientist, or as an ideologue, to the results of Hunt's research.

I am disappointed in Mr. Adler's willingness to point us to a "journal" that obviously has an axe to grind, without acknowledging that fact in his blog post.
8.25.2006 3:45pm
Jamesaust (mail):
Not only "instituions in economic development and environmental performance" but also human iniative to overcome determinism. As one person put it, Diamond is a man who can look 50,000 years into the past but can't seem to look 50 years into the future. As a rule, trends do not continue uninterrupted.

Still, as a survey of geographical knowledge, Diamond's works are an interesting read.
8.25.2006 4:01pm
If you want to gain a better understanding of Diamond's environmental philosophy, take a look at an organization that he is an active board member of -- World Wildlife Fund.

This is 2006 -- "radical environmentalists" are disavowed by serious conservationists who work with business to find solutions that benefit both industry and the environment. WWF's work in creating the Tortugas reserve in the Florida Keys in a great example. Fishing had been declining there for years, but with the creation of a reserve containing a few stratigically placed no fishing zones the wildlife is protected and the fishing as consistantly improved. Fisherman who initially campaigned against the prorject are now among its greatest supporters. Also look at their work with IBM, Nike, Lafarge... A number of businesses are learning there are economic benefits to environmental stewarship and some of them are detailed in Collapse.

Yes, there are stupid wacko idiots out there saying the speak for the environmental movement. And there are also credible scientists who thoughtfully consider and study environmental problems around the world. I expect that readers of this blog are able to distinguish between them.
8.25.2006 6:41pm
Alaska Jack (mail):

Guns, Germs and Steel is a very interesting book, but if you read the first chapter carefully, you see that Diamond doesn't actually take a scientific approach to his subject matter. Rather, he has a preconceived notion of the answer he wants, and then looks for facts to support it. So I'm not at all surpised by this post.

David, I agree -- this was almost precisely my feeling. There were a few ideological preconceptions that I thought JLD let slip into the book. It was a while ago, so I can't remember many specifics.

One I seem to remember from the intro: Diamond says something like -- "Of course there are no racial differences in innate genetic intelligence, so what then are the causes of the varying degrees of success?" or something like that. Now I hope it goes without saying that I'm not suggesting there *are* racial differences -- I personally doubt it -- but it just seems to me to be unscientific to summarily dismiss any possibility just because it makes us (and I include myself here) uncomfortable.

- Alaska Jack
8.25.2006 6:43pm
Harry Eagar (mail):
Bruce Wilder sez, in partial defense of Diamond: 'there is no dispute possible on premise number 1 in these stories: the Vikings on Greenland did die out; Easter Island did end up with very few people, no trees and, consequently, no boats.'

Hawaii also ended up with no canoes capable of long-distance voyaging, but its society did not collapse because of it. It then entered into its period of greatest cultural elaboration.

I will not read 'Collapse,' because 'Guns, Germs and Steel' revealed Diamond as a poseur. Here's a clue for him: if you want to establish yourself as an historian and philosopher of the effects of technology on society, don't include a whole chapter based on an imaginary technology that is physically impossible. (The one about when China ruled the seas.)
8.25.2006 7:09pm

Benny Peiser, Liverpool John Moores University, Faculty of Science
Liverpool L3 2ET, UK.

The 'decline and fall' of Easter Island and its alleged self-destruction has become the poster child of a new environmentalist historiography, a school of thought that goes hand-in-hand with predictions of environmental disaster. Why did this exceptional civilisation crumble? What drove its population to extinction? These are some of the key questions Jared Diamond endeavours to answer in his new book 'Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive.' According to Diamond, the people of Easter Island destroyed their forest, degraded the island's topsoil, wiped out their plants and drove their animals to extinction. As a result of this selfinflicted environmental devastation, its complex society collapsed, descending into civil war, cannibalism and self-destruction. While his theory of ecocide has become almost paradigmatic in environmental circles, a dark and gory secret hangs over the premise of Easter Island's self-destruction: an actual genocide terminated Rapa Nui's indigenous populace and its culture. Diamond, however, ignores and fails to address the true reasons behind Rapa Nui's collapse. Why has he turned the victims of cultural and physical extermination into the perpetrators of their own demise? This paper is a first attempt to address this disquieting quandary. It describes the foundation of Diamond's environmental revisionism and explains why it does not hold up to scientific scrutiny.
8.25.2006 8:45pm
Randy R. (mail):
I don't know why you say it is impossible for China to have ruled the seas. It is commonly known that they built the largest ships ever up to that point in time, and traveled at least as far as Africa. then the emperor thought it a bad idea, and had all the ships burned.

But as to the bigger point, What Diamond was essentially saying is that many societies, even strong vibrant ones, have died out. This is beyond dispute. Whether they were big and strong, or small and weak, some have survived, and some have died away. Why? If it's because of their own actions, shouldn't we take care to learn what those actions are, and try to avoid the same actions and potential consequences? I mean, that's a prudent thing to do.
Diamond talks a lot, for intance, about the potential collapse of the fishing industry. What says is that if trends continue, we will overfish the ocean past the point of recovery. And you know, these things HAVE happened. Whales were overfished to the point where they are a fraction of what they were pre-1800.
BUT he also says that there is hope -- the new technologies, new ways of doing things that preserve the environment, give us hope. He says that Scottish farming of salmon produce a whole lot of environmental damage. So that's bad. But, they have been learning and reducing the garbage, so that in the future it will be cleaner. so he supports farm raised salmon over wide for the long term benefits. How is that bad, deceitful, or alarmist?

What makes ME a bit alarmist is how casually the anti-environmental crowd thinks. They point to one flaw, or one wrong argument, and say everything therefore is flawed and wrong. Malthus lived 200 years ago and was wrong, ergo, every single argument regarding overpopulation must be wrong too. That's just stupid! Well, 200 years ago, doctors were bloodletting people, and that was wrong. Therefore, all medical science must be wrong too.
Sheesh -- it's amazing how hatred of environmentalists clouds everyone's reason.
8.25.2006 8:57pm
Dick King:
The big problem I have with environmentalists is that they simultaneously make lurid predictions of a world damaged beyond repair by global warming, and work to the best of their ability to prevent nuclear power plants from replacing significant CO2 emissions. Can you really claim that bringing the percentage of power generated by nuclear plants in the US up to the level of France will damage the planet nearly as much as the CO2 the replaced plants would have generated?

I don't have time to evaluate all the science. I must assume that they do [they claim to, after all] and by continuing to battle against nuclear power they are telling us that global warming is less damaging than nuclear power.

8.25.2006 9:36pm
MarkM (mail):
A valid criticism of Diamond would be that he cherry-picks evidence to back up his thesis. I think this may be true for some of the case studies he cites in GG&S but I have yet to read a convincing critique that undermines the central argument of the book. People have nipped away at the sides of Diamond's thesis but not gotten anywhere near the core.

As for being unscientific, Diamond starts with a hypothesis and then goes about citing evidence that supports his hypothesis. This is exactly what science is about and I doubt you will find any scientist who begins research on a topic without some expectation of the results. Diamond does reject the idea that genetic differences are responsible for global inequality but this is itself a falsifiable hypothesis. It is not a hypothesis that can be proven as it is a negative statement but it could be falsified with a sufficient body of evidence. Amassing this evidence and evaluating its explanatory power would be an entirely different book and probably not one that Diamond would be professionally equipped to write.
8.25.2006 9:40pm
Dick King:
I don't believe that Diamond is so much trying to take human genetic differences between cultures off the table as an explanation of differential success.

I believe that he is trying to take memetic differences off the table as well. I think he does not believe that the invention of private property and supporting institutions mattered, and he makes that claim by "showing" that it's all a matter of luck.

8.25.2006 9:53pm
Alaska Jack (mail):
This is a off-topic, but the farming of Atlantic salmon has an absolutely fascinating historical counterpart here in Alaska: fish traps. These were contraptions constructed of pilings and webbing (what you landlubbers call "nets") that took advantage of one of the unique characteristics of Pacific salmon -- we know where they are going. They essentially used the entire ocean as a "farm", funneling returning salmon through a series of baffles and trapping them in the "heart."

Fish traps are now illegal in Alaska. They were a huge political issue in the decades leading up to statehood, because they were all owned by Washington- and Oregon-based corporations that used them to extract money out of the territory of Alaska. When Bill Egan became the state's first governor, Executive Order #1 -- signed within hours of his inauguration -- was the banning of fish traps. Now, probably fewer than 1 in 1,000 Alaskans has any idea what a fish trap is.

In many ways it's a shame they're gone. They were marvelously efficient, safe, productive, etc. Of course, legalizing them would mean the end of our fishing industry and culture as we now know it, and once again there would be nothing to prevent Outside corporations from snapping them up.

- Alaska Jack
8.25.2006 11:22pm
Randy R. (mail):
OF course many environmentalists are nut cases, of course much of their predictions turn out wrong, of course they often play up the bad against the good.

Again, so what? Pollution doesn't care if it's antagonists are smart or stupid. The question isn't the motives, or past predictions of these people. The question is whether it is true or not. The bottomline is that we really can't predict the future.

But suppose they are completely and totally wrong. The worst that would happen is that we reduce pollution from carbon based fuels, we wean ourselves off of foreign oil, we develope new technologies of sustainable energy, we have a cleaner planet and so on.

How is this bad?
8.25.2006 11:55pm
Harry Eagar (mail):
There is some evidence that the Chinese sailed to East Africa. They did not do it, however, in the largest ships ever up to that time.

In particular, they did not do it in, as Diamond claims, ships 400 feet long. Until the era of engineered wood, no ship could be more than a little over 200 feet long. Physically impossible, due to the bending moment of wood.

HMS Victory, which you can still see, was built about as big as it was possible to build a wooden ship. It is 227 feet, 6 inches long, maximum dimension.
8.25.2006 11:56pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
But suppose they are completely and totally wrong. The worst that would happen is that we reduce pollution from carbon based fuels, we wean ourselves off of foreign oil, we develope new technologies of sustainable energy, we have a cleaner planet and so on.

How is this bad?
Well, Randy, it's bad because if we could do that at no cost, we'd have done it already. We don't pollute as much as we do because Nasty Oil Companies cackle at the thought of spewing smoke into the air; we pollute because not polluting as much is more expensive than polluting. Every bit of money spent on reducing those things is money not spent on feeding people, housing them, educating them, medicating them, cleaning their water, researching new medical cures, etc.
8.26.2006 12:08am
Randy R. (mail):
"we pollute because not polluting as much is more expensive than polluting. Every bit of money spent on reducing those things is money not spent on feeding people, housing them, educating them, medicating them, cleaning their water, researching new medical cures, etc."

Really? Are you counting the costs of pollution? What about the asthmatics, the cancer, all the health issues that arise from pollution? I would argue that losing a species due to extinction is a cost, but it can hardly be measured by dollars. Lives cut short to do pollution is very much a cost!

New York used to have an active oyster and sturgeon harveting industry in the 19th century. In fact, it contributed quite a bit to the economy. Today? Gone. Perhaps if we had harvested them sustainably, and didn't pollute the waters, NY would still have that industry -- which would employe people and pay taxes. Today, the Cheasapeake produces a fraction of oysters from even 10 years ago. Much is due to a drop in population, which in turn many people believe is due to the runoff of pesticides from people spraying their lawns. People could save money by NOT spraying their lawns, but then they would have weeds. And so an entire industry is collapsing, at least in part, due to this pollution.
Have you kept up with the technology of 'green buildings'? These buildings reduce the costs of operation, and reduce the pollution, AND reduce the need for more energy from coal or oil burning generators.

In other words, contra to your statement, at NO cost - and actual savings -- we could reduce all sorts of pollution.

Again, how is this a bad thing?
8.26.2006 1:10am
Randy R. (mail):
You know, whenever someone wants to beat up on environmentalists, they ALWAYs trot out Matlthus. They gleefully point out how wrong he was -- 200 years ago -- and smugly say, see he was wrong, so any statement about overpopulation today must also be wrong.

And yet, that's not at all true. First, Malthus was indeed correct, given the circumstances of his time. If we didn't increase the food supply, there would indeed be mass starvation. On this, everyone must agree, Malthus was correct.

But here's another point: In the 70s, there was a lot of talk about overpopulation, that it would lead to starvation and economic and environmental degredation. Well, they might have been wrong about the starvation part (much famine since then had political and distribution problems). But on the economic and environmental degredation issues, there is no doubt they were correct.

The population bomb hit most hard in third world countries, and those countries remain mired in poverty. Not only have they often not improved their economic lives, they have suffered. In China, one third of the people have no access to clean water. A friend of mine spend three months studying at the famous Shoalin Temple there, and he said they had water for one hour each day, and it was filthy. One HOUR! When you have a huge population that is growing uncontrollably, the people may not be starving, but that's hardly cause for celebration. Their lives are often short and unhealthy. And the land becomes so degraded you can't even find a clean stream to bath in or take a drink.

Just because an environmentalist says something you don't particularly like, does not automatically mean he is incorrect. He might be right, he might be wrong, but he might be both, too. Again, shouldn't the real conservative be the one who wishes to conserve the environment and take prudent measure to protect our lives and our livelihoods?
8.26.2006 1:18am
Jake (Guest):
I personally found Victor Davis Hanson's Carnage and Culture to be a persuasive rebuttal of the core of Guns, Germs, and Steel.
8.26.2006 1:23am
Randy R. (mail):
One last point before I beat the dead horse already (some will say I passed that point three posts ago!)

Throughout the 90s, environmentalists asked to have gas mileage increased on cars, and emissions reduced. Costs are too high, was the reply from Congress and the industry. No doubt that they were correct, at the time.

But HAD they actually taken those actions, today's gas prices wouldn't hit you so hard, because you would have better mileage. You would be SAVING money today. Since we know that gas prices have never gone down in modern history, but only increase, would not the prudent thing have been to prepare ourselves? Again, wouldn't that have been a good thing?
8.26.2006 1:42am
Dick King:

Since we know that gas prices have never gone down in modern history, but only increase, would not the prudent thing have been to prepare ourselves?

That premise is widely known to be false.

8.26.2006 2:53am
noahpraetorius (mail):
The cost of living has about doubled since 1980. Even with the war/terrorism premium, gasoline prices are basically no higher on an inflation adjusted basis. Supplies of crude are plentiful. I believe the SUV boom is another one of those unintended side the station wagon of yesteryear is classified differently than an SUV with higher mandated fuel economy so people switched. Also people tend to forget that vehicles with an economic purpose will never get 40 mpg, eg dump trucks!
8.26.2006 8:13am
noahpraetorius (mail):
The developed world is facing population decline if not for immigration. The only places that face ecocide are cultures the world could do without...I am thinking Bangladesh, Pakistan, sub-Sahara Africa. The cesspools of human misery and black holes for misbegotten charity. Africa, for example, exports capital, human and otherwise. And even S. Africa is going down. You heard it here first.

Harsh? Perhaps.
8.26.2006 8:28am
sdfgsdfgsdfggg (mail):
I have no opinion on whether Diamond's theories are right or not, so clicked on the link to the Peiser article above:

"Collapse is perhaps the prime upshot of the amalgamation of environmental determinism and cultural pessimism in the social sciences. It epitomises a new and burgeoning doctrine expounded largely by disillusioned left-wingers and former
Marxist intellectuals. In place of the old creed of class warfare and socio-economic driving forces that used to explain every single development under the sun, environmental determinism essentially applies the same one-sided rigidity to historical events and societal evolution (Peiser, 2003)."

And he's questioning Diamond's agenda?
8.26.2006 9:09am
Randy R. (mail):
I should have said the absolute, not relative, price of gay, has never gone down.
Places like Bangladesh only prove my point -- too many people often equals squalor. You can't push millions of them anywhere without created a similar problem in their new home, either.
8.26.2006 10:33am
Actually Randy R, the "price of gay" has gone up quite a bit in the last few years!!! :)
8.26.2006 12:00pm
noahpraetorius (mail):
Well Randy, will factual refutation refute? After 9/11, I bought gas for less then 1$/gallon and said to myself this is probably the last time in my lifetime. The price of gas has decreased about 20 cents per gallon here in NC in the last week.

Just remember supply and demand and you will be less inclined towards such rash generalizations.
8.26.2006 2:49pm
Harry Eagar (mail):
Hmmm, if one-third of the population of China does not have access to clean water today (I don't know whether that is a fact), is that an improvement or a degradation?

My guess is that it's an improvement.

As for having running water at the temple only one hour a day, the usual condition in premodern societies was no running water at all, Randy. The water carrier was a familiar figure on the steets of premodern cities, and still is in some places.
8.26.2006 3:41pm
Ross Levatter (mail):
Randy: "Places like Bangladesh only prove my point -- too many people often equals squalor. You can't push millions of them anywhere without created a similar problem in their new home, either."

Actually, Randy, if you Google two lists--a list of countries by population or population density, and a list of countries by per capita affluence--you'll find essentially NO correlation. For every Bangladesh (pop. dens. 985 per sq. km.)there's a Hong Kong (pop. dens. 6407). For every Sri Lanka (316) there's a Japan (339) For every Cameroon (34) there's a United States (31). Long ago, economists including the late Lord Peter Bauer conclusively demonstrated that it is not "overpopulation" that causes third-world poverty.
8.27.2006 12:01am
I just don't understand the lack of love for the findings of a MacArthur Grant Genius.
8.27.2006 12:44am

the usual condition in premodern societies was no running water at all,

For whatever reason, I happened to be looking at potable water supplies in SW Utah, St. George. Until very late in the 1800's, water was delivered for drinking and cooking by a ditch alongside the road.
8.27.2006 12:52am
Harry Eagar (mail):
And even where it did run in pipes, it was not safe. Although sand filtration goes back, in London, to about 1820, the first municipality to disinfect water (with bleach) regularly, Middlekerke, Belgium, started as recently as 1904.
8.27.2006 9:29am
guest (mail):
Jared Diamond can be wildly entertaining in his writing style--very conversational--but his science is dreadful and his style of argument is to assert contested theses as fact. Worse, he patronizes members of any society he deems primitive and refuses to hold members of those societies to the same standards of ethical behavior he demands of westerners. Finally, I'm pretty sure that kuru is not a slow virus, no matter what Mr. Diamond insists.
8.27.2006 11:48pm
Harry Eagar (mail):
He cherrypicks, too.

In 'Guns, Germs,' one of his two opening anecdotes is the conquest of the Moriori by the Maori, once they obtained European firearms and shipping.

About the same time, the Hawaiian chief Boki obtained European firearms and shipping and set out to conquer a Polynesian empire among other island societies that, like the Moriori, were still living in the Stone Age.

We can understand why Diamond does not use Boki as his example. He and his two crews sailed over the horizon and were never heard of again.
8.28.2006 1:14am
Randy R. (mail):
Ross: The United States, Japan, and HongKong are are all first world regions and have been since at least WWII. To compare these countries to Cameroon, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh is irresponsible and misleading at best.
In the first group, and increase of population will not much change the basic economics because the economies are large enought to handle it. In the second group, and increase in population only degrades the economies, because for whatever reason they simply can't handle the extra mouths to feed.
Instead of comparing population densities, you should compare economic productivity, and you will see a huge disparity. In Bangladesh, for instance, there are simply too many people to feed, and it's a constant drain on the economy.

As for the price of gas, certainly it has gone down a few cents recently, but it's still much much higher today than it was thoughout the 90s. Supply and demand? you bet. And because of China's voracious appetite for gas, the price will only increase in the future.
8.29.2006 11:52pm