Reading Jared Diamond makes me hopeless

I’ve been wanting to read Collapse for ages. It’s perhaps a quarter too long, where he tries to be encyclopaedic; but it has some really first-class, thought-provoking parts, at the end of which I am even more pessimistic than before. Here’s why.

Diamond distinguishes two ways in which societies may overcome their selfish tendencies and manage their environments sustainably. He calls them top-down (where a brutal central authority ensures that everyone behaves well) and bottom up (where a clear perception of common interests, combined with community pressure, keeps exploitaiton within bounds). Examples of top-down environmentalism would be China’s one child policy; bottom-up environmentalism is found in stable pre-industrial societies.

In between, hoever, there are societies of middling complexity and organisation which are unable to take the far-sighted decisions necessary to preserve their environment: the classic example here is Easter Island, but almost any society will do where the collapse has been accompanied by warfare.

In the last century, progressive Westerners have believed in both top-down and bottom-up curbs on selfishness: first in World Government, and then in some form of enlightened self-interest — “why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole earth yet”.

But it seems to me that neither has been successful or convincing outside a narrow circle. We are seeing in Iraq, amongst other things, the end of the dream of world government. The bottom-up idea that we will all come together, united by a common interest in saving the planet, is not taken seriously by anoyone who has decisions to make. It may make some progress, but there are lots of things, like existing religions and power structures, that stand in its way. The most likely outcome of such a global bottom-up movement is that it would turn into somehting like the French revolution, where universalist ideas become incarnated in a particular political regime, which then starts wars with all the others, to establish the brotherhood of man.

So we will remain stuck in the middle with each other, where the tragedy of the commons becomes unavoidable.

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