Under the Spell of Malthus

Biology doesn't explain why societies collapse.

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, by Jared Diamond, New York: Viking, 592 pages, $29.95

Jared Diamond's new book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, is neither "superb" (The New Statesman), "incisive" (The Washington Post), "magisterial" (BusinessWeek), nor "insightful and very important" (Boston Herald). It is, instead, a telling example of how a smart man can be terribly misled by a fixation on one big idea. In this case, Diamond, a biologist, is trying to apply biology's master narrative to human societies.

In 1838 the founding father of modern biology, Charles Darwin, read the 1798 edition of the Rev. Thomas Robert Malthus' Essay on the Principle of Population. Malthus famously concluded that human population increased at an exponential rate, while food supplies grew at "arithmetic" rates. Thus population would always outstrip food supplies, dooming some portion of humanity to perpetual famine. As a description of human behavior, it was, as we shall see, a wildly inaccurate argument. But it sparked a genuine revolution in the life sciences.

Reading Malthus was a "eureka" moment for Darwin, who declared in his autobiography, "I had at last got a theory by which to work." Darwin realized that Malthus' thesis applied to the natural world, since plants and animals produce far more offspring than there is food, nutrients, and space to support them. Consequently, Darwin noted, "It at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The results of this would be the formation of a new species." This insight launched one of the most important modern scientific theories, the theory of biological evolution by means of natural selection.

Ever since, biologists have been entranced by the idea that if Malthusianism can explain the operation of the natural world, it should also explain human societies. Are we not just complicated animals? Shouldn't this biological insight apply to us too? In Collapse, Diamond proves himself an enthusiastic apostle of Malthusianism.

"Our world society is presently on a non-sustainable course," Diamond warns. "The world's environmental problems will get resolved, in one way or another, within the lifetimes of the children and young adults alive today. The only question is whether they will become resolved in pleasant ways of our own choice, or in unpleasant ways not of our choice, such as warfare, genocide, starvation, disease epidemics, and collapses of societies."

As prophets go, Diamond certainly has impressive credentials. He is a polymath who speaks 12 languages, won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1997 book Guns, Germs, and Steel, and received a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant. He trained as a physiologist, is an expert ornithologist specializing in the birds of New Guinea, and is now a professor of physiology and geography at the University of California at Los Angeles.

In Collapse, Diamond argues that the decline and fall of several relatively small-scale premodern communities are pertinent to our current situation. These include the medieval Norse colony in Greenland, the Polynesian settlers of Easter Island, and the Mayan civilization of Central America. "It is not a question open for debate whether the collapses of past societies have modern parallels and offer any lessons to us," he declares. "That question is settled, because such collapses have actually been happening recently, and others appear to be imminent." By collapse, Diamond means "a drastic decrease in human population size and/or political/economic/social complexity, over a considerable area, for an extended time." Based on his case studies, Diamond concocts a five-point framework to explain why societies collapse: "environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbors, and friendly trade partners," along with "the society's responses to its environmental problems."

Diamond takes readers to the ruins of the Greenland Norse's Eastern Settlement, where he kicks the stones of the cathedral built by Viking settlers. The colonists arrived in Greenland in 984 A.D., led by Eric the Red, and survived there for nearly 500 years, reaching a maximum population of around 5,000. On their arrival, average temperatures in Greenland were slightly higher than they are now. This relatively benign climate permitted a long enough growing season for hay to sustain their cattle, goats, and sheep through the long winters. The milder climate also allowed their open-decked wooden ships to maintain trade with Europe, exporting walrus tusk ivory and polar bear skins in exchange for both necessities (iron, lumber, tar) and luxury goods (stained glass and communion wine for their cathedral at Gardar).

According to Diamond, the Greenland Norse fell afoul of all five of his baleful factors. Around 1300, the Little Ice Age commenced and Greenland's climate began to cool. This meant critically shorter growing seasons and trade routes blocked with ice. Meanwhile, the colony found itself fighting with the Inuit, who began moving into Greenland around this time. The Norse also tore up fragile sod to build their houses and overgrazed what remained. Finally, they refused to emulate the lifestyles of the Inuit, who were able to survive the rigors of a climatically harsher Greenland. All true, but worsening climate seems the driving factor for all the others; the Norse might well have been able to hang on had there been no Little Ice Age.

Similarly, Diamond describes how Polynesian seafarers settled Easter Island by 900 A.D. This 66-square-mile island is one of the more remote scraps of land on the planet. It lies in the South Pacific 2,300 miles from Chile and 1,200 miles from the next nearest Polynesian island. Easter Islanders don't seem to have had any contact with outsiders until Dutch explorers stumbled on them in 1722. Archaeological evidence shows that Easter Island was once covered with a subtropical forest which was home to the world's biggest species of palm (now extinct). Today, no native tree species exceeds seven feet in height. Evidently the Easter Islanders cut down all of their trees by 1600, leaving none to regenerate the forests. This complete deforestation caused severe soil erosion, which cut farmers' crop yields, leading to starvation and cannibalism. Easter Island society apparently "collapsed" in a civil war around 1680, at which time the island's population may have declined by 70 percent.

When Diamond discusses the "collapse" of the Mayan civilization in Central America around 900 A.D., he hauls out the standard Malthusian explanation: "It appears to me that one strand consisted of population growth outstripping available resources: a dilemma similar to one foreseen by Thomas Malthus in 1798." This population/resource imbalance led to civilization-destroying warfare, which Diamond declares is "not surprising when one reflects that at least 5,000,000 people...were crammed into an area smaller than the state of Colorado." Before nodding your head in sage agreement with this analysis, keep in mind that Colorado itself is today crammed with 4.5 million people whose standards of living are vastly more luxurious than those of 10th-century Mayan nobles and peasants.

Anthropologist Lisa Lucero of New Mexico State University at Las Cruces told USA Today that she disagrees with Diamond's analysis of the "collapse" of the Mayan civilization: "There's no evidence for massive violence and massive disease among the classic Maya." She believes the evidence indicates that the Mayans simply moved on because of widespread drought.

Diamond then turns his attention to modern societies that have "collapsed." His first example is Rwanda. "Modern Rwanda illustrates a case where Malthus's worst-case scenario does seem to have been right," he declares. Diamond gets a lot of his facts right, but his analysis stinks. He essentially claims that Rwanda's genocide, in which Hutus massacred 800,000 Tutsis, was caused by too many people fighting over too little arable land.

But what is the population density of Rwanda? About 760 people per square mile. The Netherlands holds 1,008 per square mile. Diamond himself acknowledges that the United Kingdom, with a population density of 631 people per square mile, produces more food than its people consume. Why? Because, he explains, the U.K. has highly efficient mechanized agriculture. Just so. Apparently there is nothing at all necessary about Malthusian collapse, if you've got tractors and fertilizers. Germany, with 602 people per square mile, and India, with 811, both produce more food than their people consume. (By the way, the U.K.'s population has grown sixfold since Malthus wrote his essay.)

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  • Oldworldmonkey||

    As far as Malthus goes, it seems you have missed the point. It is true that those modern European nations you (and Diamond) named have higher population densities than Rwanda and Burundi. But you admit that agricultural production (and importation) in such regions is far better than that available in Rwanda, yet you still poo poo Malthus? The core theory is that population will outstrip agricultural production unless certain measures are taken. There are obviously two choices: limit population growth; increase agricultural production. The methods by which to do either are varied. European nations have been able to practice both at varying degrees of success, while third world Rwanda has not. The result is contiguous with the analogy, and Holland's success by no means disproves Malthus because Holland has been able to produce and import enough comestibles for its dense population.

  • David||

    The first paragraph incorrectly states that Jared Diamond is a biologist. Jared Diamond is not a biologist... he is a professor of geography.

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    These criticisms are painfully incomplete. The final point that changing traditional consumer values means changing standard of living is baseless. Our standard of living emerged with traditional consumer values, but these may not be what sustains a high standard of living or what is essential to it. Research into quality of life and happiness by organizations such as the Positive Psychology Center's suggest that at a certain level of consumption and income, quality of life ceases to increase. On the other hand, voluntary simplicity and consolidation of technological innovations with an addition of better organic food, etc. has proven to greatly increase standard of living while fundamentally altering "traditional consumer values." As for comparing Puerto Rico to Haiti - Puerto Rico is supported by the United States and yes, by certain institutions, tourism, and oil. But that is exactly the point...Haiti does not enjoy these things and Ronald's assessment ignores this throughout his article. The rules of subsistence are very different without oil. Each year, in all developed countries, more food than necessary is produced for populations because the ground is pumped with petroleum-based and chemical fertilizers. This food productions system is incredibly fragile to collapse on many levels: discontinued supply of oil and the desertification of the land from industrial farming practices that leaves it unviable if manufactured fertilizers are not present and if water is not shipped in from a distance. These are just a few simple examples of the very low quality of this review. It's as if Ronald was simply trying to dismiss the book before even reading it. I didn't intend to leave a comment. I stumbled across this review. But it is shamefully ill-conceived for a publication called Reason. I understand free market mentality, but it does not preclude the common sense of the fragility of fundamental dependencies such as depending on oil for food production and other obvious vulnerabilities and increasingly insolent systems associated with "traditional consumer values."

  • ||

    Robby,

    Your comments are complete nonsense, not the review. Diamond makes a number of arguments that are Malthusian fallacies. As the reviewer pointed out, food production grew geometrically over the past few decades, and population growth is declining. He could have touched on Demographic Transition Theory, which makes Malthus falsifiable, but he probably didn't have space.

    Most modern epidemiologists, demographers, and scientists use demographic transition theory to model population growth, which is how they successfully prediced population declines in Europe, Russia, Japan, Korea, etc. I suggest you look into it.

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