Friday, January 14, 2005

Jared Diamond

Diamond's new book has been well reviewed and criticised elsewhere but a couple of points caught my attention from his Times article.

Even if the human populations of the Third World did not exist, it would be impossible for the First World alone to maintain its present course, because it is not in a steady state but is depleting its own resources as well as those imported from the Third World

It isn't clear from the article how Diamond defines steady state. At the start of the 20th century lots of people thought we would by now have run out of oil, and some eccentrics still predict similarly. Yet the amount of oil left does not decrease in proportion with the amount used. This is a big clue to the fact that resources are not fixed, but are instead a function of social and technological development. We are of course depleting our resources on the one hand, but on the other we are diversifying them and increasing their size through economic and technological development.

Because we are the cause of our environmental problems, we are the ones in control of them, and we can choose or not choose to stop causing them and start solving them. The future is up for grabs, lying in our own hands. We don’t need new technologies to solve our problems; while new technologies can make some contribution, for the most part we “just” need the political will to apply solutions already available. Of course, that’s a big “just”. But many societies did find the necessary political will in the past

This sort of argument seems seriously flawed on two levels.

1. What is the “we” in this case? Where is this global democracy acting with one voice. You only have to look at one country, the US, to see that there is no “we”, but instead an “us” and “them” mentality. It is also questionable how many societies found the political will in the past. Which countries decided collectively to get richer and cleaner. I can’t think of one. For the most part, countries got rich and improved living conditions through a subtle blend of relatively stable political regimes, urbanisation and economic and technological development. They didn’t sit around and vote the same process into existence. The problem of converting individual preference into public good has been “solved” (in Diamond’s language) by effective property rights institutions - Don Boudreaux rightly calls Diamond’s analysis here ‘adolescent’ because Diamond seems unaware of the lessons of the Tragedy of the Commons.

2. Why don’t we need new technologies to solve our problems? To give an example, if we gave this argument 25 years ago when the average car engine was much less efficient, would it have been valid to say that we don’t need to innovate technologically to make engines cleaner, we just need to have a vote? Presumably Diamond has looked at global inequalities and solved the problem by transferring resources from the rich to the poor. But even if you ignore the practical problems of such an undertaking, it is unhinged from reality. It might equalise wealth for a very short time but countries and individuals will begin to diverge again as a function of aptitude, political environment, luck, etc... which would necessitate further redistribution ad infinitum.

Diamond seems to have a strange, a-historical view of the world whereby there are only a fixed number of problems waiting to be solved collectively and democratically once and for all, and then we live happily ever after.


Anonymous Chris O'Connor said...

My name is Chris O'Connor and I run an online nonfiction book discussion community called This is an invitation for you to check us out and hopefully get involved in the book discussion. We read almost exclusively science too!

We're currently reading Collapse and expect to have a live online chat session with Professor Diamond near the end of June. You and your friends are invited and encouraged to join us in the discussion and chat session.

Here is a list of past authors that we've read and had as guests in our chat room...

Upcoming Author Chats
A. C. Grayling - pending
Jane Goodall - pending
Howard Bloom - pending
Jared Diamond - pending

Chat and Interview Transcripts
Howard Bloom - Reinventing Capitalism
Lee Harris - Civilization & Its Enemies
Ann Druyan - Pale Blue Dot
Michael Shermer - How We Believe
Matt Ridley - The Red Queen
Stephen Pinker - The Blank Slate
Massimo Pigliucci - Rationally Speaking
Richard Dawkins - Unweaving the Rainbow
Howard Bloom - Global Brain
Howard Bloom - The Lucifer Principle

Feel free to ask questions or simple visit the following links... And please spread the word to your science-minded friends. Home Forums Collapse forum Guns, Germs And Steel forum


Chris O'Connor - the freethinkers book discussion community

PO Box 4624
Clearwater, FL 33758


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