Sunday, January 09, 2005

Jared Diamond: Collapse

I haven't read the book, only a review about it in the Salon. But it seems like an interesting read for an idle weekend in the near future. Diamond has written about the same concepts before: how the environment and culture presage the rise and fall of civilizations. This most recent book is relevant for the United States, and Diamond argues that we will go the way of the dodo bird (no, nobody will come and hunt us to death), if we don't attend to a few of our current values. One example is the dislike of family planning by the Bush administration, especially because of it's effects on the U.S. foreign policy and ultimately on overpopulation in poor countries. Two other are, in Diamond's own words:

The two traditional American values that I think -- that I know -- have to be discarded are, first, unbridled consumerism resulting from our sense of being in a land of unlimited resources. Historically the United States has viewed itself as the land of infinite bounty, endless fields of grain. But now we're in a world that does not have unlimited resources, and we have to come to grips with that.

And the other long-held American value is the value derived from the United States' relative isolation. George Washington in his farewell address warned Americans about the danger of entangling alliances, and for a couple of hundred years the United States was able to function well because we were separated by oceans from any country that might damage us. But now the oceans don't separate us from countries that could damage us. Now, even desperately poor countries like Afghanistan and Iraq can raise absolute hell with our economy -- as well as killing a few thousand people in the process. So the other long-held value with which we have to come to grips is our sense of isolation. We're not isolated anymore. We have to engage with the rest of the world -- not in order to be charitable to them but for our own self-interest. It's much cheaper to put a few tens of billions of dollars into world programs for public health and environment than to throw $150 billion into Iraq and $100 billion into Afghanistan, when there are about 20 other countries waiting to become the next Iraq and Afghanistan. We can't afford it.

He would seem to be right on both counts, though I might not necessarily stop with these two values. The Bush administration, for example, would do well by discarding the outdated value of arrogance. It causes real havoc in international relations and may even increase the risk of terrorist attacks against this country. But empire builders have never been quick to rid themselves of arrogance, so I don't expect much from this lot, either.

It's not very kosher to write about a book I haven't read. Maybe some of you have, and can tell us more about its value?