Jared Diamond (picture, Wikipedia entry) has written Collapse, a book about how societies fail, following on the heels of his previous Guns, Germs and Steel, which addressed the other side of the same question—why some societies succeeded. (That book, by the way, has a great section on the Incan empire and its defeat by the conquistadors.)
My interest is in how religion relates to a society’s success or failure. Unfortunately in “Collapse” Diamond deals with this question only tangentially. The examples he gives, however, do not speak well for religion. For instance, he attributes much of the blame for the collapse of the Norse society which existed in Greenland during the first half of the last millennium to the overinvestment in Christian infrastructure: the building of large churches, the undertaking of dangerous expeditions to acquire walrus tusk to trade for religious ornamentation. Similarly, the death of the civilization on Easter Island can also be attributed to religious factors, at least to the extent the motivation for building the huge stone statues was religious in nature. Building the statues consumed huge amounts of manpower and natural resources. In contrast, the societies he presents as relatively successful—including Tokugawa-era Japan, which he praises for its forestry policies—had weak religious infrastructures.
At the same time, it’s worthy of note that none of the societies Diamond identifies as political and environmental disasters are Buddhist.
Overall, “Collapse” is a worthy successor to “Guns, Germs and Steel”, although it tends to bog down in places. The focus is overwhelmingly on ecological/environmental issues, which account for three of the five causes Diamond identifies for societies collapsing:
- environmental damage
- climate change
- hostile neighbors
- friendly trade partners
- society’s response to environmental problems
Fine, but in his conclusions—basically, that the world faces an environmental crisis that threatens its collapse, albeit one that he bravely claims we can deal with—he entirely ignores his third factor, hostile neighbors, which would seem to be of prime importance given the current wave of global terrorism. He mentions terrorism of course, but only in the context that environmental depradations and the ensuing poverty can give rise to it. But the Saudis who flew airplanes into buildings suffered from neither.
Concerning his fifth point, society’s response to environmental problems, Diamond does mention political and organizational factors in the form of e.g. NGOs working to conserve natural resources, but, oddly, fails to address how a country’s political system affects its response (other than mentioning how poorly the USSR did environmentally). He does praise the conservation policies of noted autocrat Balaguer in the Dominican Republic, but fails to ask the obvious question: to what extent is democracy the best political system for dealing with environmental issues? Presented with a potential choice between some political prisoners rotting in jails and environmental devastation destroying a society, which would you choose? And of course Diamond talks at length about the impact of overpopulation on the environment, but fails to address how either it, or technology which allows information to be transmitted instantaneously and virtual groups to be formed overnight, affect the political and decision-making dynamic.
The elephant in the room, of course, is the impact of race. “Guns, Germs and Steel” went to great lengths, to the extent it can almost be read as an anti-racism manifesto. to make the point that Europe did not succeed because the Caucasians there were smarter than, say, native Americans, but rather because of factors such as flora, fauna, and geography. In “Collapse”, we are similarly told that Haiti is a failed country not due to any lack of giftedness on the part of its citizens but rather as a result of colonial history, climate, and the like.
But as the world becomes flat, in Thomas Friedman’s term, and globalization continues its inexorable progress, with people, information, products, resources, and money flowing like water across borders, making historical and geographical factors less important than ever before, what are the remaining factors that will dictate a country’s success ?