Jared Diamond’s contribution to the understanding of world society is unparalleled in scope and as an interdisciplinary form of analysis. Through his books “Guns, Germs and Steel” and “Collapse,” Diamond sets out to answer why some societies are more powerful than others, why some societies fail and why European civilisation has come to dominate the globe. In the process, he proposes a theory tying the development of societies to their environment. He argues that all people bear a common ingenuity, but that some societies grow stronger and more technological advanced due to the advantages of the environment they develop within.
In Guns, Germs and Steel: the Fates of Human Societies or a Short History of Everybody for the Past 13 000 Years, Jared Diamond sets out to answer the question as to why European societies evolved to become so much richer and more powerful than other societies.
To first approach this question, Diamond starts with a common starting point where most societies on the planet are more or less equal: the time of hunter-gatherer societies 13 000 years ago. From there, he notes that societies which developed farming and the domestication of large animals, benefited from agricultural surpluses that permitted members of their society to take time off from constantly seeking out food, as hunter-gatherers do. This allowed some of those members to specialise in producing goods and making technological advances, which allowed their society to then further and better exploit the environment around them.
Eurasian societies in particular benefited from living on a large contiguous land-mass at similar lines of latitude, and often therefore similar environmental conditions. This allowed a large number of civilisations to exist alongside one another and to learn from each another’s technological advances. In addition to crops, animals and technology, those societies inadvertently shared devastating diseases. Ultimately it is European society that would benefit most from these exchanges, whether perfecting the use of gunpowder as a weapon first pioneered by Arabs who had adopted it from the Chinese, or developing immunities to diseases that would kill off much of the population of the Americas during colonisation.
Ultimately the technological power and wealth of a society is not due to any inherent cultural or racial superiority. Rather, it may come down to being “in the right place at the right time.” Contrary to the belief of Western colonialists, who thought they were genetically superior to other races, he points out that those civilisations which have become the richest and most dominant owe their success to the environment that surrounded them.
- A three-part National Geographic documentary special “Guns, Germs and Steel” (2005) is available in on YouTube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CyRa5P6xVo8&feature=related
In “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Collapse or Succeed,” Diamond uses a series of modern and historical case studies to explain why some societies fail, some avoid collapse and what this ultimately means for contemporary world society.
From the modern-day collapse of Rwandan and Haitian society to the historical collapse of Norse Greenland, Mayan and Anasazi civilisation in the Americas, Diamond cautions that there is no simple answer. Rather, failure can be attributed to a complex series of interactions between societies and their environment. To try to understand this, he draws up a five-point framework of analysis:
- Human impacts on the environment, inadvertently destroying the resource base upon which they depend
- Climate change
- Relations with neighbouring friendly societies, which may prop up a society
- Relations with hostile societies
- Political, economic, social and cultural factors that will make it more or less likely that a society will perceive and then solve its environmental problems
The fifth point may be particularly important, because it is refers to a society’s ability to perceive, understand and respond to the problems they are facing. As Diamond points out:
“One blueprint for trouble, where they can collapse likely, is where there is a conflict of interest between the short-term interests of the decision-making elites and the long-term interests of the society as a whole. Especially if the elites are able to insulate themselves from the consequences of their actions. When what’s good in the short-run for the elite is bad for the society as a whole, there is a real risk of the elite doing something which can bring the society down in the long-run.”
Prophetically Diamond warned in 2003 that this attitude seems to have infected the business class in the United States. He warns in a 2003 TEDTalk that the business elite have insulated themselves from the consequences of their actions, allowing them to drain billions of dollars to themselves for short-term profit at great harm to society in the long-term. This only seems more prescient with the increasing number of high level business scandals since Enron in 2001, from Bernie Maddoff and the banking collapse in 2008, to the recent Libor rate-fixing scandal that has engulfed Western finance and been described as the “greatest crime of theft and corruption” in modern history.
- The 2003 Jared Diamond TEDTalk on Collapse is available at http://www.ted.com/talks/jared_diamond_on_why_societies_collapse.html
Jared Diamond offers us a warning for today. Unlike past civilisations, which exploited their environment and collapsed in isolated pockets around the planet, globalisation has connected the entire world together. If there is a collapse now, it will involve everyone.
The common theme that runs through Diamond’s research is that societies are shaped by, and depend upon, the environment around them. Humankind may have grown arrogant in its mastery of the environment, but events such as the 2011 tsunami in Japan show that even the most wealthy and advanced societies are subject to it. Nation-states conceived of by people can jockey and compete with one another to form alliances, exploit resources, intervene in weaker states and ensure their own security. Ultimately though their existence and power depends on their relationship with the environment around them.
While some critics argue that this is too “environmentally deterministic,” perhaps not sufficiently taking account of the power of innovation and the human spirit, Diamond clearly states that societies can determine their own fate if they perceive and choose to solve their environmental problems. In fact, this has been done in the past, such as 16th Century forest management undertaken by the Tokugawa shogunate in Japan, and the Dominican Republic’s management of its environment when compared to island cohabitant Haiti. So modern society has a lot of influence over its own fate.
Jared Diamond is a modern-day polymath, variously described as an ornithologist, physiologist, biologist, ecologist, evolutionary biologist, geographer, biogeographer, historian or anthropologist. Trained first as a scientist, he takes a very interdisciplinary approach in his research into understanding how world societies develop, and why they fail. He explores how they interact with one another and how they exploit the environment around them, all the bases behind the disciplines of political science and economics. His theories can be used to inform both schools of thought, providing answers to International Relations just as well as, or better than, any other IR theory.
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