6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
A postcolonial deconstruction
, 23 Dec 2011
This review is from: Questioning Collapse: Human Resilience, Ecological Vulnerability, and the Aftermath of Empire (Paperback)
"Questioning Collapse" is a criticism of best-selling author Jared Diamond and his books "Collapse" and "Guns, germs and steel". The authors have a left-wing, "postcolonial" political agenda, which presumably explains the negative reviews of the book on this product page. Personally, I liked the sacrilegious character of this book!
The contributors' main objection to "Guns, germs and steel" is the book's determinism and implicit Euro-centrism, in which the success of Europe at the expense of the rest of the world is seen as a consequence of pure geography. In this scenario, the downfall of non-European cultures at the hands of Europeans is an unfortunate but inevitable process which simply couldn't have been otherwise. Nobody is guilty, especially not Europeans. Diamond has simply revamped the colonizer's view of the world. An over-simplified and exaggerated critique of Diamond? Sure, but Diamond's book *could* be given this particular spin, despite the anti-racist agenda of its author.
As for "Collapse", the authors question whether it's meaningful to view the history of the world as a series of collapses at all. Rather than "collapse", many societies simply change to cope with changing circumstances, making "resilience" a more meaningful term, or even "success". While this sounds like a more optimistic view of history than the quasi-Spenglerite view of Diamond, the contributors seem mostly interested in absolving Third World peoples from the charge of ecocide. Still, they have a certain point when accusing Diamond of subconscious Euro-centrism in "Collapse", as well. Diamond, it seems, never regards Western civilization as having collapsed. But why not? What about the fall of the Roman Empire, for instance? Or the Greek Dark Ages? Or the plagues and general mayhem of the late medieval period? Westerners tend to look at their own civilization as...well, a story of successful change and adaptation, rather than as a "collapse" (the fall of Rome being the only exception to the rule - and we seem to have survived that one, too!). Why not look at the Maya, the Hohokam or other non-European cultures in the same way?
The bulk of "Questioning Collapse" deals with some of the examples of collapse described by Diamond: Easter Island, the Norse settlements at Greenland, the Anasazi and the Hohokam in the American Southwest, the Maya, the Inca, Mesopotamia, and modern Rwanda and Haiti. China and Australia are also discussed. Of course, only sharp critics of Diamond have been invited to the show, and they often claim that what actually happened was pretty much the very opposite of what Diamond narrates in his books. Since archaeologists and historians tend to disagree on almost everything, the reader should study the issues further before making up his mind. Still, "Questioning Collapse" does raise many interesting points.
According to Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo, the ecocide at Easter Island (Rapa Nui) is largely a myth. The forests at Rapa Nui were destroyed by rats, not by humans. (Of course, since the rats were introduced by humans, I suppose a deep ecologist *would* see it as a case of human-induced ecocide. Diamond, however, isn't a deep ecologist.) Hunt and Lipo also claim that the population collapse at Easter Island took place *after* the European colonization, while the ecocide hypothesis claims the opposite - crazed natives died like flies after cutting down the last palm tree already before the arrival of the colonists.
Joel Berglund questions whether the Norse settlements on Greenland really failed. His alternative hypothesis is that the settlers simply emigrated when climactic conditions became too severe. He also points out that the settlements lasted for 500 years - longer than many modern nation-states. Of course, Diamond might retort that this is beside the point, since the settlements *did* fail during the 14th century, perhaps because they were culturally conservative and refused to adapt to changing weather conditions by choosing a different lifestyle. However, I don't think this is merely a terminological squabble. Sure, the Norse settlements "failed", but perhaps they adapted by simply leaving Greenland? And shouldn't a culture that lasted for 500 years in *Greenland* be thought of primarily as a success story, rather than zooming in on its eventual disappearance?
Michael Wilcox claims that virtually everything we ever heard about the vanished Native civilizations of the U.S. Southwest is a gigantic hoax. There never were a people called the "Hohokam". The ethnic group living on the territory in question are know as O'Odham or Pima. They didn't vanish. The real collapse of their culture took place during the 19th century, due to actions taken by White European settlers and the federal government. The "Anasazi" are equally problematic. Wilcox believed that the abandoned towns of these vanished Native cultures were really a kind of ritual, religious centres (something like a Native Mecca). Their abandonment didn't spell the doom of an entire civilization. Somewhat disappointingly, Wilcox says very little about the lurid stories concerning Anasazi cannibalism.
The chapters I found most interesting deal with the Maya and the Inca. According to McAnany and Gallerta Negron, the Maya culture *didn't* collapse. In fact, it didn't even cease to be a high culture. Rather, the Maya transformed their "Classical" culture to a more commercial, maritime culture at the coasts of Central America and southern Mexico during the "Postclassical" period. While some areas were depopulated, others experienced a population growth. The society may have become less "complex", but it certainly didn't collapse. More as a sidebar, Mel Gibson's film "Apocalypto" is in for a good whipping for its terrible portrayal of the Maya.
As for the Inca, David Cahill points out that Diamond's narrative of the Spanish conquest is grossly over-simplified. The Spaniards arrived at a particularly propitious moment, since the Inca Empire was going through a civil war between two pretenders to the throne. Many non-Incans felt oppressed by the empire, and were more than willing to enlist on the side of the Spanish. After the conquest, the Spanish took over the imperial infrastructure and ruled with the aid of local elites. Also, it took the Spanish about 50 years to really pacify Peru after their initial (and swift) conquest. Obviously, "guns, germs and steel" did play a role in the Spanish conquest - the guns at the start, and the germs later on. However, without various chance events and the enlistment of native support, Pizarro might very well have failed. Cahill also gleefully points out that the Inca Empire was more centralized, well organized and prosperous than Spain - nobody in Tawantinsuyu (the real name of the Inca Empire) starved, due to food distribution by the state, while famines were common in Spain. Pizarro himself came from an impoverished Spanish province.
The weakest chapters in the book are those dealing with Rwanda and Haiti. In fact, the Haitian chapter says very little about the actual problems mentioned by Diamond: the deforestation of Haiti as compared to the better situation at the Dominican side of the border. Drexel Woodson opines that Haitian peasants cut down trees to meet fuel needs in the cities and for export. Which proves...what? Why don't Dominican peasants do the same thing? The Rwandan chapter argues against Diamond's Malthusian take on the Rwandan genocide, but most of it is devoted to an eye-witness account of the chaos in Kigali during that terrible year of 1994. Of course the Rwandan genocide has political and ethnic causes, but you don't have to be an orthodox Malthusian to realize that relative overpopulation and scarcity can happen. What about the Irish potato famine? Further, a kind of "Malthusian" catastrophes can take place in a world marked by colonial and neo-colonial relations of exploitation and dependence. Perhaps the Rwandan disaster wasn't "Malthusian" even in this qualified sense, but if so, author Christopher Taylor hasn't proved it. He didn't even try.
To sum up, I like "Questioning Collapse". But yes, I somehow liked "Collapse", too. Diamond's book does indirectly disprove some of the more romantic strands of eco-radicalism, since he mentions both egalitarian cultures which didn't live in complete harmony with nature, and hierarchic societies which did. I wonder what the contributors to this volume think about that aspect?
I cannot vouch for every single fact in "Questioning Collapse", and the debate about the merits and demerits of Jared Diamond's magna opera will surely continue. I didn't mind the contributors' "politically correct" deconstruction of Mr. Diamond's subliminal Euro-centrism, but what I found most inspiring was the idea that our history is one of resilience and change rather than "collapse". If the Maya and the O'Odham could survive their supposed "collapses", so can we.
(Revised on 15 Dec, 2012)
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