2005 January 05 Wednesday
Jared Diamond Wrong To Worry About Environmental Collapse

Jared Diamond has a new book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, about past societies that failed due to damage they inflicted on their environments through deforestation, overfarming, and other bad things that humans have done to the environment. He also argues that today we are at risk of a similar fate. Oh humans, you terrible people. Look at how you get your just desserts if you don't do right by the environment. Picture me rolling my eyes. Yet Diamond will be taken seriously in some quarters.

Steve Sailer points out that most societies that have fallen (and there have been many) did not do so as a result of damage they inflicted upon their environment.

Contra Diamond, in reality, most societies down through history died because they were conquered. Generally speaking, not suicide, but homicide was the fate of most extinct societies.

Diamond cites the Maya, but I cite the Aztecs and the Incas. He cites the Anasazi, but I cite the Cherokee, the Sioux, and countless others. He cites the Easter Islanders, but I cite the Maoris, the Tasmanians, the Australian Aborigines, the Chatham Islanders (exterminated by the Maori), and so forth. He cites the Vikings in Greenland, but I cite the Saxons in Britain and the Arabs in Sicily, both conquered by the descendents of the Vikings. We can go on like this all day.

Diamond used to be a terrific independent thinker, as shown in his 1993 book The Third Chimpanzee (indeed, many of my examples come from this book). But he sold out to political correctness, most profitably, in his bestseller Guns, Germs, and Steel.

How many people will pick up on the absurdity of Diamond's latest argument? It is so politically correct that it deserves parody Onion-style. But some suckers will buy it. I predict he'll make a fair amount of money off of a left-leaning segment of our society prone to being excited by uncontextualized trivia about environmental disaster. This sort of thing reinforce their prejudices and so will be welcome. P.T. Barnum was right after all. Those who treat environmentalism as a sort of secular religion will see Diamond's book as a bunch of clever new arguments (and they are in need of such arguments) to use to make new conversions to the faith and to buck up their own belief in their faith. Bjorn Lomborg and other rationalists (notably Julian Simon before him) have been bringing up disquieting rational arguments against some of the nuttier environmentalist claims. The faithful need something like this book.

Speaking of parody, how about WWII? The Germans, by attacking 3 major powers including one that had a few times greater industrial base (albeit one that was terribly polluting at the time), brought on a counter-attack that devastated the environment of Germany. Allied bombings caused an ecological disaster which wrecked the quality of German water and food supplies and left many Germans without adequate shelter. This directly led to the fall of the Third Reich. The Germans should have had more fighter interceptors to protect their environment. The Luftwaffe should have been rebranded as the Aerial Environmental Protection Agency.

Or hey, how about the Carthaginians? By challenging the supremacy of Rome the Carthaginians provoked counter-attacks on the environment around Carthage. How irresponsible. The Carthaginians did not put enough resources into environmental protection (probably because their capitalists were funnelling money off to invest in Egypt or Syria) and eventually the Romes were able to defeat the Carthaginians on the field of battle. This left Carthaginian farm fields completely unprotected from Roman efforts to salt the earth. The result? Carthaginian fields became an unfarmable ecological disaster that the Carthaginians (at least those few still left alive) failed to repair.

There was an alternative for the Carthaginians. They could have pursued a policy of appeasement and let themselves become servants of Rome. Appeasement might have protected their fields. Though the Romans might have forced them to overfarm in order to ship more grain to Rome. That might have allowed the Roman Empire to go on longer before ecological collapse caused by the damage from all those Visigoth horse hooves. In any case, not only did the Carthaginians fail at their responsibility of environmental protection but they also failed to set up (let alone adequately fund) something like the EPA Superfund program to repair their damaged environment. Looked at this way by righteous environmentalists the Carthaginians clearly deserved their fate.

Tyler Cowen makes the correct argument that we have far too many technological and human resources to be unable to deal with any environmental problems.

The key to the "meta-book" is Diamond's claim that part one -- the history of deforestation -- means we should worry more about part two, namely current environmental problems. The meta-book fails.

Yes we should worry about the environment today, but largely because of current data and analysis, not because of past history. If you look at the past, the single overwhelming fact is that all previous environmental problems, at the highest macro level, were overcome. We moved from the squalor of year 1000 to the mixed but impressive successes of 2005, a huge step forward. Environmental problems, however severe, did not prevent this progress. We may not arrive in 3005 with equal ease, but if you are a pessimist you should be concerned with the uniqueness of the contemporary world, not its similarities to the past.

Tyler's argument is ultimately why I am not deeply concerned about the possibility of global warming. Humanity's base of technological capabilities is only going to grow more advanced in the future. What global scale environmental problems we have now are ultimately solvable. For example, should we ever need to stop using fossil fuels then as I've previously argued, nuclear power plants could provide all the power we need for transportation and for a cost that would still allow modern lifestyles. Huge amounts of capital are available to build new coal-fired electric power plants. As CO2 extraction and sequestration technologies advance the costs of adding on CO2 emissions control systems will fall to the point where stopping CO2 emissions will become much cheaper than it would be to do today. Energy shortages are not going to stop us.

How can environmental pollution bring down modern civilization? I just do not see it. Take the apocalyptic warnings of future water shortages as an example. In the industrialized countries we have too many ways to deal with potential future water shortages. We can desalinate. Desalination is more expensive but still affordable. We can stop subsidizing agricultural uses of water. Farmers can adopt practices that use water more efficiently. We can put on more efficient fixtures in showers. We currently mix all waste water together even though some types are much harder to process. So we could gradually build our plumbing and waste water street pipes to separate them out. There are just too many options for handling water more efficiently for more efficient use and reuse that are doable for affordable prices. In the face of warnings about water shortages starting in the year 2003 for the first time in history more than half of the human race now has piped water. As China, and some other Asian countries industrialize hundreds of millions more will get piped water. Nanotech advances in materials and biological engineering will make water filtration cheaper. So water isn't going be what brings us low.

So what should we worry about with regard to the future? I think Tyler hits the right note when he speaks of the uniqueness of modern problems. Future dangers I worry about are nuclear proliferation, germ warfare pathogens, robots some day taking over, self-replicating nanotech that gets out of control, and genetically engineered ruthless semi-humans who lack the necessary empathy and feelings of fairness and altruism to make a workable society. You can read some of those items as ecological. But they would not be the result of overusing resources or emitting pollutants (unless someone wants to take seriously my strategic bombing pollution parody or perhaps categorize robots as pollutants).

Steve Sailer says once upon a time before Diamond made his run for fame and fortune pitching appealing arguments to the politically correct Diamond had much more interesting and insightful things to say about the human condition.

Jared Diamond didn't used to be so boring: Jared Diamond has a new book out called Collapse about societies that have collapsed due to environmental disasters such as deforestation. It's a useful topic, but in the large scheme of things, a minor one, which is why Diamond spends so much time on famously trivial edge-of-the-world cultures like the Vikings in Greenland and the Polynesians on Easter Island. But Diamond is so good at getting publicity that the fact that ecology has little to do with the reason most societies collapse will likely be overlooked. The main reason you don't see many Carthaginians or Aztecs or members of other collapsed civilizations around these days is they got beat in war, as Edmund Creasy's famous 1851 book "Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World" makes clear.

Steve is not the only one to make that argument. As Godless Capitalist has found, a younger and less politically correct Jared Diamond once said provocative things about selective pressures in human populations. But those days are long past.

In a way Diamond has flipped from the position he took in Guns, Germs, & Steel when he now focuses on the worries that come from noticing that humans can alter the environment. One of my favorite historians, William Hardy McNeill wrote a great review of Diamond's GG&S for the NY Times Book Review. McNeill's review costs 4 dollars. It prompted Diamond to write a letter to the New York Review of Books and you can read Diamond's response and McNeill's reply and here is a bit of what McNeill said: (my bold emphasis added).

Secondly, Diamond accuses historians of failing "to explain history's broadest patterns." I answer that some few historians are trying to do so, among them myself, and with more respect for natural history than Diamond has for the conscious level of human history. He wants simple answers to processes far more complex than he has patience to investigate. Brushing aside the autonomous capability of human culture to alter environments profoundly—and also irreversibly—is simply absurd.

So now Diamond is overemphasising the importance of human damage to the environment. Before he was overemphasising the importance of environment as restraints on human achievements and development while simultaneously sidestepping the importance of local environments as selective pressures. But Diamond is responding to his own left-liberal academic environment and allowing himself to be far too constrained in what causes of history he will consider and what conclusions he will allow himself to draw.

Update: back40 examined some essays by Diamond that he wrote as shorter versions of the arguments in his book.

As stated earlier, Diamond isn't convinced by his own analysis and is still perplexed. I am perplexed why we should pay much attention to the prescriptions of someone who is bewildered by the problem he seeks to cure.

Why were Easter Islanders so foolish as to cut down all their trees, when the consequences would have been so obvious to them? This is a key question that nags everyone who wonders about self-inflicted environmental damage. I have often asked myself, "What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it?" Like modern loggers, did he shout "Jobs, not trees!"? Or: "Technology will solve our problems, never fear, we'll find a substitute for wood"? Or: "We need more research, your proposed ban on logging is premature"?

No, they didn't want to abandon their projects in which they had invested so much already and they didn't want to disrupt their group consciousness. They couldn't bear that double loss even though in the end it meant that they would lose everything. It is the self justification noted by Brockner: "when the group is faced with a negative feedback, members will not suggest abandoning the earlier course of action, because this might disrupt the existing unanimity." The individual human susceptibility to the "Concorde fallacy" is amplified by group consciousness.

It isn't the "globalization, international trade, jet planes, and the Internet" that Diamond worries about that are the problem, it is the “Concorde fallacy”, big projects entered into for flimsy reasons and maintained even when it is crystal clear that they are nothing but resource sinks. It's important to grasp this because Diamond's solution is to engage in even "greater integration of parts" so that he can enforce his proposed bans on logging or whatever. Group behaviors are less intelligent than individual behaviors for such problems and the larger the group the more this is true.

As long as we have enough energy we can clean up any industrial or agricultural processes that cause environmental problems. With sufficient wealth and energy any environmental disaster can be avoided. In Western industrialized societies overall environments are getting better, not worse. We already have enough wealth and technology to get plenty of energy from non-fossil fuel sources. So I do not see some coming future collapse of society due to lack of energy. Resource depletion and pollution are poor choices for speculations about disasters in the future. If you want to worry about the future worry about natural dangers such as an asteroid collision or a repeat of the Yellowstone area eruption of 600,000 years ago that spewed out 240 cubic miles of debris. Or if you want to worry about human dangers worry about run-away nanotech lifeforms or a robot take-over. Common forms of pollution or depletion of trees or fish or minerals just aren't going to bring down our civilization.

Update II: Regards my comment about complaining about CBS and the NY Times: Someone emailed me to complain about this comment. In case anyone else didn't get it I was joking! If we can't criticise left-liberal major media without bringing on a civil war then we are doomed anyway. In that case we obviously might as well coordinate our criticisms and make them reach a coordinated peak as a way to choose when the civil war will start. This will give the critics of the Grey Lady a decisive advantage in the outcome of the war. Though of course such an advantage would not be needed since the conservatives dominate the military away.

By Randall Parker    2005 January 05 11:37 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (51)
2004 August 01 Sunday
What Will Be The Big Political Issues In Future Decades?

My readers, I have a speculative exercise for you: What will be the top 5 political issues 10, 20, 30, 40, and 50 years from now? Specify whether your list is for the United States, your own country, the world, or some other domain. For instance, if you think the United States won't exist as such 50 years from now you can state "North American Union" or Transatlantic Union". You can also specify more than one political unit for a list if you think the list will apply to more than one political unit. Post your own in the comments. I'll read what everyone posts and then come up with a new set of lists in a new post.

Here is my first set of guesses.

United States 2014:

  1. Rising costs of medical spending for old folks.
  2. Low salaries and low labor market participation rates for the bottom quarter of society.
  3. Islamic terrorism.
  4. United States debt to the rest of the world.
  5. Funding for rejuvenation research.

United States 2024:

  1. High costs of medical spending for old folks.
  2. Funding for rejuvenation research.
  3. The continuing decrease in the demand for the least skilled workers.
  4. Genetic engineering choices for offspring personalities, cognitive abilities, and physical attributes.
  5. Islamic terrorism.

United States, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Canada 2034:

  1. Increased violence and other crime as all people become young, energetic, and motivated by youthful levels of desire once again. This will lead to a debate on whether governments should genetically reengineer the brains of criminals.
  2. Debate over reproductive rights as death due to aging becomes rare. Should people be allowed to have as many kids as they would like?
  3. Widening cognitive gap between the intellectually enhanced offspring and the older generations.
  4. Political rights of artificial intelligences and allowable programming for their motives and values.
  5. "Uplift" of other species with enhanced intelligence and allowable mental qualities of uplifted species. How smart are we going to allow our dogs to become? Even smarter than Border Collies?

World 2044:

  1. Migration of cognitive elites to other planets.
  2. Creation of new sovereign states by forced shifting of populations to separate cognitively incompatible groups. The sorting will be based not just on IQ (or even chiefly on IQ). Desires, values, religiosity, and other cognitive differences will become too great to allow harmonious existence of some groups with each other in the same society.
  3. Religious disagreements that escalate into armed conflicts will come about as a result of genetically engineered causes of differences in religious beliefs and values.
  4. Rivalry between large artificial intelligences.
  5. Debates about cognitive qualities allowable in new biological life forms.

World 2054:

  1. Humans controlled by artificial intelligences.
  2. Cyborgs that are smarter than any human.
  3. Wars between artificial intelligences.
  4. Possible devastation by nanotech goo.
  5. The high level of determinism achievable for the values and preferences of newly created intelligences both biological and artificial.

One theme running through these lists my view that cognition, whether human, animal, or artificial, will become the central issue of the future. What are allowable patterns of cognition? Once desires and values become programmable the Western rights-based view of the brain as a sovereign entity is going to run into the problem that technology will be able to be used to create intelligences that have little or no respect for the rights of others. Also, some intelligences will be engineered to have respect for the rights of only well-defined subsets of all sentient beings.

It is hard to guess the relative times at which various technologies will become available. For instance, as soon as personal DNA sequencing becomes cheap then each woman making a reproductive decision will be able to decide on a potential mate or sperm donor based on much more accurate projections of offspring intelligence and personality than is now the case. But when will DNA sequencing become cheap enough to provide a strong incentive for women to become aggressive practitioners of eugenics?

Also, when will rejuvenation therapies become available? That will determine how far the finances of Western nations deterioriate before rejuvenation therapies allow older folks to return to the labor force. When those rejuvenation therapies do become available how expensive will they be initially? How long will the expensive phase last and how much political conflict will it produce?

I have a harder time predicting when and if we will get wiped out by nanotech goo or taken over by artificial intelligences. The achievement of an artificial intelligence singularity where computers become smart enough to accelerate scientific and technological progress by orders of magnitude could make predictions about the 2040s and 2050s (or perhaps even the 2030s) impossible to make. Yet struggle between conflicting wills seems inherent to intelligences no matter how fast and powerful the intelligences become.

By Randall Parker    2004 August 01 02:20 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (59)
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