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January 19, 2005

Malthus, Ehrlich, and Diamond

Sadly, I'm not made of money, nor am I a fancy-pants reviewer who is able to score advance copies of an upcoming book release, so I'm still waiting on the Library to deliver up my copy of Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.

One would think that entering the relevant info into the library database and gluing the return-by form onto the inside cover of a book would take something less than three weeks, but perhaps there are secret librarian rituals--no doubt involving goats, entrails and nubile scythe-wielding virgins perched on black-velvet draped tables--that need to be performed before a particular tome is allowed to be pawed at by the grubby hands of the public.

Mind you, once upon a time I was a lowly Barnes & Noble bookstore clerk--the equivalent of a fancy-pants reviewer when it comes to the publishing industry, or so it would seem, judging by the number of free books I got in the mail--but I soon tired of the Ramen and white bread lifestyle associated with those wages and moved on the greener pastures that came with a dot-com lifestyle, at least for a while.

But while I'm waiting, I can at least read some of the other Collapse reviews making the rounds, like this one by Chris Shea of the Boston Globe. I found this passage particularly interesting.

''Collapse'' begins as a series of engrossing case studies of failed civilizations -- Easter Island, Norse Greenland, the Anasazi, Mayan Mexico -- brought low by a combination of fragile ecosystems, environmental destruction, climate change, human conflict, and human folly. By the end, the book turns into a full-throated environmentalist jeremiad. Given population growth, deforestation, soil erosion, oil consumption, and diminishing biodiversity, Diamond declares, ''our world society is presently on an unsustainable course.''

The "unsustainable" argument has been a recurring trope among doomsday detectors since Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb was published in 1968.

In the prologue to The Population Bomb he wrote, "The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate..."

Not only was the world headed for catastrophe, but there was little that could be done to avoid it. Some parts of the world might see some minor and temporary recovery, but "a minimum of ten million people, most of them children, will starve to death during each year of the 1970s. But this is a mere handful compared to the numbers that will be starving before the end of the century" (emphasis in the original).

Paul Erhlich's predictions of disaster came to naught in the end, of course. He was also humbled by University of Maryland economist Julian Simon, who famously bet him in 1980 that five natural resources, all of which could be chosen by Ehrlich, would be cheaper ten years down the road. Ehrlich took the bet, and lost.

Prices of the metals chosen by Ehrlich fell so much that Simon would have won the bet even if the prices hadn't been adjusted for inflation.

Now of course none of the above impacts directly on evidence upon which Diamond constructs his arguments, but it does speak to the way in which those arguments are evidently constructed. (Remember, until the Durham County Library gets off its duff and processes the damn book, I haven't read it. I'm taking the word of the reviewer, which in the case of the New Yorker review, at least, appears to have been a mistake.)

Take a look at Diamond's paragraph ending quote, again.

Given population growth, deforestation, soil erosion, oil consumption, and diminishing biodiversity, Diamond declares, ''our world society is presently on an unsustainable course.''

Ehrlich's mistake, the same one that every prophet of doom has fallen into since academic doom saying was popularized by Thomas Malthus, was that he took a single current trend, in this the rate of population growth in the 1960's, and extrapolated it into the future, while at the same time assuming that, no only would nothing else change, but that the rate of population growth itself was a constant. As it turns out, it wasn't.

Here's a prediction, using the same kind of logic. Last Thursday, the temperature was 80 degrees outside. Today, it's 20. Given the current rate of change, the temperature will reach absolute zero sometime on March 8th. Better wrap up!

The theme of the Population bomb can basically be boiled down to one sentence.

"Given the rate population growth, our world society is presently on an unsustainable course.''

Sound familiar? In fact, in the passage above what Diamond does is to adopt Ehrlich's position wholesale, then update it with "deforestation, soil erosion, oil consumption, and diminishing biodiversity". It sounds remarkably like the The Global 2000 Report to the President--issued, of course, in 1980.

if present trends continue, the world in 2000 will be more crowded, more polluted, less stable ecologically, and more vulnerable to disruption than the world we live in now [i.e., 1980]. Serious stresses involving population, resources, and environment are clearly visible ahead. Despite greater material output, the world's people will be poorer in many ways than they are today.

For hundred of millions of the desperately poor, the outlook for food and other necessities of life will be no better. For many it will be worse. Barring revolutionary advances in technology, life for most people on earth will be more precarious in 2000 than it is now--unless the nations of the world act decisively to alter current trends.

Slate's Timothy reviewed the predictions of the The Global 2000 Report back in 1999, finding it at best half-right, and that's without taking into account the declining population growth rates. Yet here is Jared Diamond, almost 25 years later, making almost exactly the same predictions.

Everything else changes, save for the predictions of anthropogenic disaster. It's the secular humanist version of the Rapture.

But, back to the review. Interestingly Diamond stands by the argument that originally drew me into the controversy surrounding his book, the on-the-face-of-it ludicrous view that the Greenland Norse didn't eat fish.

Kirsten Seaver, an independent scholar based in Palo Alto and author of ''The Frozen Echo: Greenland and the Exploration of North America'' (Stanford), a book Diamond himself recommends in his endnotes, is also skeptical of Diamond's argument. ''To say that they did not eat fish was ridiculous,'' she says.

But Diamond stands firm. ''I think that's the only serious explanation. There are some archaeologists who think maybe the fish bones will turn up, but there's now been 80 years of serious archaeology in Greenland'' -- and still no fishbones.

In fact, as I mentioned in my first post on this tar-baby of a subject, there is--against all odds--good evidence that fish was a part of the Greenland Norse diet. The problem with their preservation in the Norse middens can be traced directly to the wet, low tundra environment of southern Greenland. Fish bones are far more likely to vanish from the archeological record in a wet environment, so from the very beginning any competent archaeologist would be surprised to find them, yet fish bones have been located in Greenland Norse trash piles nonetheless. For Diamond to baldly state otherwise shows that he is either unfamiliar with current theory on the subject, or that he is ignoring it, perhaps in an attempt to move more copies of Collapse before its moment in the sun is over--something one of his defenses of Collapse suggests he realizes may be happening sooner, rather than later.

''False alarms are an inevitable part of an alarm system,'' he says. ''You want to give the alarm early, so that the fire engines can come out to put out the flames. If you never had a false alarm, you'd know you didn't have an adequate warning system.''

Oddly enough, I don't think that excuse would fly were I to pull down the on the fire alarm out in the hall at work.

"Just testing the system officer, and I must say I expected you earlier. What do mean, turn around and put my hands behind me?"

Posted by Bigwig at January 19, 2005 11:53 AM | TrackBack
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My dad had a fishing boat when I was young. I remember we caught 76 flounder in a day in "76" ,and one lobster by hook. (now that's rare..)

We removed the meat from the fish, but there was never a scrap in the waste basket.

What the cat didn't eat, was used as bait in the lobster traps.

We ate fish 3 times a week with no evidence.

Posted by: Sully at January 19, 2005 09:21 PM

Bookslave! I knew it. I can smell the ink on your fingers, from having stacked thousands of books, from here.

I was a lowly bookslave once myself. I worked at an off-campus shop near the UNC campus.

Tell me - after you quit bookslaving, did it take a while before you could pick up a book for pleasure?

Posted by: Blackavar at January 19, 2005 10:25 PM

Dude, no. I loved every minute of it. If B&N paid a wage you could raise kids on, I'd still be there.

And I was tasked only with Sci-fi and computer books. I was done with my stacking each day in an hour. The rest of the time I just roamed.

Posted by: Bigwig at January 19, 2005 10:47 PM

Oh my, I'm not the only one to make the rather unusual bookstore-sysadmin transition.

I worked in a computer bookstore. It was a good time, but the money was... lacking. There was never a moment when books didn't give pleasure.

Posted by: Greg at January 20, 2005 02:29 AM

The problem with Malthus, Erlich, and now apparently, Diamond, is that they look upon humans not as a unique life form but as a bunch of exceptionally clever monkeys. This attitude is also common among those who believe in the Great and Terrible Day of Gaia.

Because they consider humans to be just another animal species (only more intelligent) they apply same principles of population dynamics to human species, much as they would to gazelles or lions or California condors. Thus, increases in an animal population absent any concomitant increases in predation or expansion of range will automatically result in a collapse in numbers.

What they fail to realize is that humans have transcended the basic "kill or be killed" rules that govern other species. We will always endure because we are infinitely adaptable.

Or, to put it in language Nature-worshippers can understand, we have eaten of the Tree of Knowledge, and have therefore become as Gaia.

Posted by: Captain Holly at January 20, 2005 12:45 PM

I have finished the Montana and Easter chapters of "Collapse" so far and do not see Diamond as portrayed by various vicious reviewers and critics. He is not treating humans as smart apes, but as humans. He is not espousing the Eurocentric superior attitude, nor does he fall for the "noble savage" myth.

He does not think those people (in collapsed societies) were stupid. Precisely because he cannot just dismiss them as stupid, he was driven to figure out why they did what they did, and how that fits in a bigger framework of geography, climate and ecology, to explain why some (half of his cases) societies collapsed, while other (other half) succeeded. In each case he analyzes a whole set of factors, both natural and cultural, and does a comparative study in order to tease out the relative importance of each factor in each case-study. So far, I like the book. If anything, he is annoyingly unbiased.

Posted by: coturnix at January 21, 2005 12:00 AM

"if present trends continue, the world in 2000 will be more crowded, more polluted, less stable ecologically, and more vulnerable to disruption than the world we live in now [i.e., 1980]. Serious stresses involving population, resources, and environment are clearly visible ahead. Despite greater material output, the world's people will be poorer in many ways than they are today.

For hundred of millions of the desperately poor, the outlook for food and other necessities of life will be no better. For many it will be worse"

Well, I'm not sure this quote is *wrong*. I think you could find instances where this is correct in the world today.

Also, re: the whole Greenland Norse didn't eat fish. Well, quite frankly I can't understand how someone with half a brain could take such a stance. I don't think there is ANY example of humanity living by a fish-inhabiting water source and they didn't eat the dang things. Especially in earlier times (i.e., can't run down to the grocery store to pick up a KC Strip), when readily available fish stocks would have been put to immediate use.

Stunning that such thesis would have been published, unless entirely for the profitability as a source that will be bought in order to be debunked.

Posted by: cj at January 21, 2005 08:00 PM
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