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Year : 2005  |  Volume : 3  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 238-247

Benign Capitalism by Another Name: Understanding Collapse

Centre for Studies in Science Policy, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi- 110067, India

Correspondence Address:
Rohan D'Souza
Centre for Studies in Science Policy, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi- 110067
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How to cite this article:
D'Souza R. Benign Capitalism by Another Name: Understanding Collapse. Conservat Soc 2005;3:238-47

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D'Souza R. Benign Capitalism by Another Name: Understanding Collapse. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2005 [cited 2020 Apr 2];3:238-47. Available from: http://www.conservationandsociety.org/text.asp?2005/3/1/238/55824

Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, Penguin, Allen Lane, London, 2005, 575 pp., $29.95 ISBN: 0670033375

Sometime in October 2003, the Pentagon submitted an unprecedented national security report to the US administration. The report drafted by Peter Schwartz, CIA consultant and former head of planning at Royal Dutch/Shell Group, and Doug Randall, of the California-based Global Business Network, outlined some of the consequences of 'abrupt climate change'. In an exercise termed 'thinking the unthinkable', the authors simulated several possible scenarios that could be caused by global warming such as the flooding of coastal regions, Siberian winters in Europe and drought in Africa. According to the authors, millions of people would instantly perish and millions of others would attempt to flee towards Australia and the United States, which ostensibly would still be relatively benign zones for habitation. While it is no great surprise that an extreme-climate-event would trigger untold misery and devastation, one of the Pentagon report's main alarm was directed at amplifying the equation between environmental distress and the inevitable waves of en masse life boat immigration to the United States. Put differently, if the vast numbers in the third world find their eco-systems degraded, their environments irretrievably polluted and their subsistence economies severely eroded, there will, in all probability, be a desperate and massive exodus towards the first world and in particular the United States of America. Complementing this anxiety on immigration is another well flogged fear about the third world's 'irresponsible' population growth. From the late 1960's onwards a rash of publications began to highlight the first world's very real and vivid alarm on population. The titles of the books indicated it all, with panic causing headlines such as The Population Bomb, Breeding Ourselves to Death and, of course, the unambiguous fallout The Population Explosion. [1]

These anxieties on population and immigration, in fact, for many contemporary analysts, have stood out as some sort of twin peaks around which a chain of lesser mountains on natural limits and environmental degradation have been stacked. [2] Together, over the last few decades, the collection of these concerns, fears, dilemmas and sometimes rabid alarms have been harnessed to shape and craft what has begun to be termed as a Neo-Malthusian discourse on poverty, development and environmental stress. The Neo-Malthusianism oeuvre is conceptually anchored largely in the work of Thomas Malthus, the 18th century British economist, whose most widely referred proposition, in essence, held that human populations grew geometrically while resources could be increased only arithmetically. At a certain point, therefore, human beings would far outweigh their capacity to feed and sustain themselves. [3] In effect, a straight forward conceptually unmediated correlation is derived between a rise in human numbers and what is then considered to be the inevitable impact of scarcity, conflict, environmental stress and social chaos. This essentially quantitative notion of causality, to explain social and political upheaval, characterises much of the Neo-Malthusian approach. But in thus describing population growth as the main driver for social turmoil and environmental despoliation, the Neo-Malthusian framework has tended to either elide or, on the other hand, distort various aspects of social and historical complexity (see Ross 1998).

This above, none too brief, detour to understand the Neo-Malthusian paradigm becomes essential, I argue, if one is to grasp the full import of Jared Diamond's challengingly titled book Collapse. Brought out by Penguin in the first half of 2005, Collapse has already evoked a huge popular response and has quickly scaled many best seller lists. Perhaps, this massive public interest has been partly generated by the fact that the central question is compelling and prescient for our times- how do societies choose to fail or survive? Towards answering which, the reader is taken through a whistle stop enquiry into several 'past societies' (Easter Island, the Anazasi, Pitcairn and Henderson islands, Norse Greenland, the Vikings, New Guinea highlands, Tokugawa Japan and the Mayas), followed with an executive trot across some 'modern societies' (Rwanda, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Australia, China and Montana in the United States). Diamond, throughout this walk-about discussion liberally peppers his facts and details with personal observations and anecdotes. And at the end of his breezy conversationalist tour, the implications are judged in a neat (perhaps a little too neat) format: a review of successful societal values, types of irrational mistakes and sources for hope. The conclusion, in a nutshell, suggests that societies have control over their fates and destinies and when faced with environmental challenges or collapse, they can overcome their circumstances by making the right choices. In effect, some good old fashioned wholesome advice.

Despite this evident commonsensical appeal, several questions immediately emerge; can collapse be averted by advocating a social consensus around 'successful' values, norms, rules and positive actions? Will an assemblage of rational behaviours, scientifically nurtured environmental relationships, human ingenuity and business ethics suffice to address the environmental ills of contemporary society? In sum, can a set of such intended corrective prescriptions, based on a Neo-Malthusian, anti-political and ahistorical reading of past and present societies, ever be effective? In fact, I argue, this insistence by Diamond on keeping the rigours of politics and historical understanding marginal to his analyses makes Collapse chiefly an ideological manoeuvre rather than a credible engagement with contemporary environmental challenges. Take, for example, the manner in which he has chosen to understand and define society as a phenomena. For Diamond, society appearce as a homogenous frozen object, placed whole in a petri dish and surveyed in terms of input-output equations. The input comprising four factors - environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbours and friendly trade partners; the output, in turn, comprising the said society's 'responses' to its environmental problems. Societies, in other words, are examined as petrified objects and not as conflict ridden processes or as transforming historical entities. A society, thus defined, for Diamond, can be observed in cold laboratory like conditions and he terms societal collapse as 'a drastic decrease in human population size and/or political/economic/social complexity over a considerable area for an extended time' (Diamond 2005: 3). This notion of collapse, interestingly perhaps, too closely mirrors many premises from his own preferences for Conservation Biology; a theoretical approach that has argued for the prevention of species extinction and the conservation of biodiversity on the plea that they possess intrinsic value (Michael Soulé, 1994). But, can what might be a valid basis for preserving the natural, hold for the social? Would it be right to argue that the preservation of a social form, its hierarchies, its political and economic complexity be sustained for their intrinsic worth? In other words, should any or every type of social organisation and its attendant level of complexity be prevented from collapsing? This, however, may not necessarily be the manner in which many sociologists, historians and especially political economists frame the question. Social change, transformation or annihilation have been located through conceptual templates such as theories about revolutions, decline, implosions, radical shifts or breakdowns. In effect, societies are not merely assessed from the limited quantitative vantage of population numbers or a net count on institutional complexity. Rather, the drivers for social change or its extinction, many would argue, need to be explored more meaningfully through qualitative perspectives such as class contradictions, gender, modes of production, relations of power, and so on. This qualitative vantage, in particular, provides a significant window into how social forms can be characterised and understood as distinct organisations that bear specific types of hierarchies for exploitation and domination. That is, a society is more meaningfully unravelled not merely as a quantitative collection of institutions, technologies and populations, but by the manner in which it reproduces itself as a specific social relation. Thus, employing terms such as slave owning societies, feudalism, capitalism or kinds of state socialism, though rough heuristics devices, nevertheless, help us conceptually understand either their limits or resilience as particular social organisations. Put differently, social forms are not merely collections of economic, political or technological practices but need to be more substantially illumed as specific types of articulations of relations of power.

The point I wish to make here, somewhat forcefully, is that Diamond's basis for a wide ranging comparison of societies, across epochs, is fundamentally flawed because he does not distinguish them as social forms. Whether it is the Mayas, the Greenland Norse, the islanders of the Pitcairn, modern China or Australia, the exercise is reduced to one of judging the differences between societies based on their respective technological capabilities, population sizes and their impacts along various ecological gradients. Thus, more often than not, one comes across a stacked shopping cart type of explanation for societal collapse. [4] The Easter islander's did themselves in following deforestation, destruction of their bird population, clan rivalry, the unsustainable pursuit for erecting energy and material consuming statues and importantly, as well, their inability to emigrate. The Norse Greenlanders outmanoeuvred themselves through a portfolio of factors such as locking their economy into livestock rearing and hunting, soil erosion from overgrazing, deforestation, climate change, inflexible values, extreme social hierarchies and their inability to adopt indigenous Inuit survival strategies. The Mayas similarly debilitated their populous cities through several causes such as deforestation, over population, elite hedonism, recurring droughts and endemic warfare. Diamond, in fact, lists the above mentioned combination of factors or some variation of them to explain the collapse of the other pre-modern or pre-industrial societies as well. The subtext of much of the discussion, nevertheless, is geared to argue that the environmental ills and social stresses of the contemporary world closely parallel these ancient societies; albeit the only difference being that the modern world is more technologically complex and tightly integrated economically on a global scale. Thus, today's threats for sustainability facing Australia, China, Montana in the United States, the Dominican Republic or Haiti can, for Diamond, in differing degrees, be assessed and judged by the same list of causes that ostensibly unsettled ancient societies.

On the reverse, one is tempted to suspect that Diamond is projecting his analysis the other way around by crudely understanding the past essentially in terms of the present. Take, for example, his discussion on Norse Greenland with regard to how the latter's settlement at Gardar ostensibly collapsed. He writes (p. 273), perhaps, in terms that are transparently revealing of first world anxiety:

'We are increasingly seeing a similar phenomenon on a global scale today, as illegal immigrants from poor countries pour into the over crowded lifeboats represented by rich countries and as our border controls prove no more able to stop the influx than were Gardar's chiefs and Los Angeles yellow tape. That parallel gives us another reason not to dismiss the fate of the Greenland Norse as…irrelevant to our own larger society.'

Forcing such a strong parallel between contemporary concerns about lifeboat- immigration and the distant past is both surprising and politically disingenuous. Third world immigration to the first world or for that matter the movement of people from Bangladesh to India are far more complex than one of being simply a case of distress flight by impoverished people. Mass scale migration is, in present times, very tangibly linked to aspects of global capitalism and the consequences of uneven development. [5] If seen outside the context of contemporary political economy, immigration can easily be read in the simple and untroubled terms that have become the bread and butter political posturing of extreme right wing groups. Diamond, in fact, repeatedly adopts several similar far right perspectives or Neo-Malthusian shibboleths to evaluate ancient societies. This political preference of Diamond is also well underscored in his assessment of the Anasazi, the early peoples in the US South West (sometimes around the 11th and 14th centuries AD). The collapse of the Anasazi is vividly described as a consequence of climate change, human environmental impacts, population growth and extreme dependence on imports. These chiefly environmental and population factors then, according to him, intersected and inevitably caused the attrition of warfare and ultimately the extinction of the Anasazi (Diamond 2005, p.137).

The neat causal linking of population, resource scarcity and environmental stress to explain violence, war and conflict, in fact, appears to draw substantially from the well trodden recent field of environmental security studies. Notably, the controversial writings of Robert Kaplan (1997) and Homer-Dixon (1999), who have argued, simplistically but with much impact amongst policy makers and state strategists, that when growth in population numbers collide against environmental limits they produce combustible social consequences and can and do trigger conflicts. Put differently, wars result not necessarily from specific political or economic dynamics and forms of power but instead from a simple quantitative unsettling between societies and their resources. The proponents of this version of 'Green War', not unexpectedly, erase the manner in which aspects of political economy, histories of exploitation and structured inequalities influence and shape relationships between power, the environment and the social production of scarcity. [6] For security studies, consequently, issues of scarcity and conflict are not to be politically addressed. Instead, a social crisis is to be logistically resolved through norms, policies and regulations. In effect, states and their anchorage in distinct political economies can be preserved and sustained by a fresh set of bureaucratic and administrative manoeuvres rather than a fundamental alteration in social equations of power. Diamond's analytical format appears to draw greatly from the above described securities studies template and this perhaps accounts for his simplified dovetailing of ancient societies into the contemporary period. And at the end point of this Neo-Malthusian and ahistorical survey that renders the past essentially in terms of the present, Diamond arrives in chapter 14 at his grand question-why do some societies make disastrous decisions? Posed thus, that societal collapse can result essentially from a pile up of wrong choices and unintended outcomes, the way for Diamond out of the dark tunnel is to follow the clear illumination of instrumental reason: good policies, ability to anticipate, good core values, good business ethics and bottom up rational decision making. In other words, solutions lie in the apolitical tinkering and shuffling of certain technoinstitutional and behavioural arrangements. But can a celebration of the 'rule of expert', a techno-managerial response or a collection of 'sound' business practices become the blinding light of hope? [7]

Andre Gorz, in a seminal book published in the mid 1970's, offered perhaps a helpful and convincing explanation for this particular turn towards addressing the global ecological crisis largely in terms of problem-solving and technical approaches. For Gorz, managers of capitalism attempt to work themselves out of the current ecological impasse by trying to 'assimilate ecological necessities as technical constraints'. And ecology as technical constraint rather than irreconcilable political or social antagonism could then, in his opinion, enable capitalism to 'adapt' its conditions of exploitation (Gorz 1980). In short, the emphasis on technology and population control could circumvent the need to meaningfully address questions of exploitation and domination. Diamond, in fact, through out his discussion of the idea of collapse avoids even tangential references to the crisis brought on by capitalism. He chooses to not even discuss the manner in which the particular histories of the unfolding of the capitalist project through colonialism and imperialism (from the 18th centuries onwards) have shaped the contemporary ecological crisis (see, for example, Cronon 1995; Dean 1995; Crosby 1995; Foster 1999; Gadgil& Guha 1992; Grove et al 1998; Tucker 2000). In other words, an entire slice of history, as it were, seems to be simply done away with.

Capitalism, the interminable expansion of value, with its insatiable drive for profits has generated, on an hitherto historically unprecedented scale, massive deforestation, the transformation of ecologies into mono-crop plantations, the despoliation of nature in the quest for raw materials, the destruction of wild life, rampant industrialisation and all this alongside the exploitation and even elimination of many indigenous peoples and their ecological worlds. Much of the contemporary ecological challenge, justly debated as planetary suicide, has been credibly related to the crisis of capitalism itself. Over the past few decades, a range of scholarship through rubrics such as political ecology, liberation ecology, environmentalism of the poor, environmental justice, Marxist environmentalism and ecological economics, to name a few, have with much insight and rigour convincingly revealed the strong links between fatal environmental degradation and capitalist accumulation. In other words, addressing the contemporary threat of global societal 'collapse' requires more than mere institutional or technological modifications. Rather, many argue that since the 'efficient cause' of today's planetary degradation is essentially social and economic, the solution lies in unsettling the political foundations of the capitalist market imperative. The alternative, therefore, cannot be the reassertion of the principle of profit and the current relations of hierarchy and exploitation, but the dramatic overhauling of society in general.

A change not of degree but of kind. Diamond's notion of hope clearly careens to the right of such claims. Simply put, he would prefer an ecologically sound oil rig, judicious mining practices, responsible business behaviour, a market that runs on profit but remains sensitive to social thresholds and a society that is capable of correcting mistakes. In effect, a plea for the benign dictatorship of capital. While it is beyond the scope of this review to debate whether benign capitalism is a valid solution, what clearly emerges from Collapse is that the book's explanatory teleology is premised on such a limited and suspect notion of hope. Thus, one gets an assessment of both ancient and contemporary society only through the extremely narrow telescopic lens of benign capitalism. In effect, a way of mapping the distinctions between societies in terms of what Fernando Coronil has concisely described as 'regimes of deficits rather than historical difference' (Coronil 1998, p.65). That is, the comparison between the past and the present is viewed simply as the absence or presence of presumed commensurable quantities. On the other hand, to acknowledge that societies across space and time are separated by historically created differences requires the analysis to be theoretically cautious and careful in assessing social elements and characteristics on dissimilar terms. Thus, in Collapse, besides the calculated ignorance of the differences between social forms, as outlined above, Diamond seems to also avoid engaging with a weight of scholarship in archaeology that has been uneasy about loosely using terms such as collapse or the end of civilizations. Scholars debating the ancient Harrapan society (2600-1800 B.C.), located in modern Pakistan, for example, have been careful about understanding the implications of what appears to be the evident abandonment of an elaborated urban settlement and culture. The debate, while acknowledging that Harappan society's complex social, economic and political system seems to have ended sometime in 1800 B.C, the disappearance could as much indicate a new kind of continuity rather than a straightforward overwhelming extinction of an entire civilizational complex ( Lahiri 2000; Ratnagar 2002; Possehl 2003). The end of urban Harrapa, in fact, could also suggest a qualitative transformation in patterns of rule and economic organisation and thereby indicating instead the emergence of an entirely different type of spatial location and cultural sophistication in the region. Moreover, a recent strand in archaeology has also begun to profitably question whether sweeping easy comparisons between and across ancient social organisations, especially given their unique dynamics, is possible in the usual terms of technological acquisition or urban sophistication. Rather, these archaeologists have begun to urge for the radical reconsideration of existing toolkits on how ancient social organisation have thus far been explained and understood, with the emphasis to be directed instead at unravelling the distinct arrangements between social relations, institutions and power (Ray 1999).

In sum, Diamond appears to have invented a past in order to advocate a notion of benign capitalism for the future. Collapse, is disappointing scholarship and dangerous politics.


I would like to thank Andrew Nash, Himanshu Prabha Ray , Kumkum Roy, Mohan Rao, Thomas Mathew and Yu Sasaki for comments and criticism.[33]

   References Top

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33.Tucker, R. 2000. Insatiable Appetite: the United States and the Ecological Degradation of the Tropical World. University of California Press, Berkeley, LosAngeles, New York.  Back to cited text no. 33      


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