Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Is the planet (especially the West) on a non-sustainable course?

Gregg Easterbrook reviews Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed and, in doing so, he gives a very good overview of Jared’s previous book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, and how the two books are connected. Diamond argues that all variations in societies are not caused by the societies themselves, but by "differences in their environments." Some of this sort of thing is interesting, of course, but Easterbrook does a pretty good job in showing how problematic it is in the end. Just one paragraph:

Diamond’s analysis discounts culture and human thought as forces in history; culture, especially, is seen as a side effect of environment. The big problem with this view is explaining why China -- which around the year 1000 was significantly ahead of Europe in development, and possessed similar advantages in animals and plants -- fell behind. This happened, Diamond says, because China adopted a single-ruler society that banned change. True, but how did environment or animal husbandry dictate this? China’s embrace of a change-resistant society was a cultural phenomenon. During the same period China was adopting centrally regimented life, Europe was roiled by the idea of individualism. Individualism proved a potent force, a source of power, invention and motivation. Yet Diamond considers ideas to be nearly irrelevant, compared with microbes and prevailing winds. Supply the right environmental conditions, and inevitably there will be a factory manufacturing jet engines.

Discussions - 4 Comments

China adopted a single-ruler society that banned change. True, but how did environment or animal husbandry dictate this? China’s embrace of a change-resistant society was a cultural phenomenon. During the same period China was adopting centrally regimented life, Europe was roiled by the idea of individualism.

Diamond addresses this argument very simply, and I’m surprised that a guy as smart and thorough as Easterbrook would miss it.

Diamond argues that China’s geography makes it easy to unify, leaving it vulnerable to the disastrous whims of a single leader, while Europe’s forbidding natural barriers obstruct unification and supply hostile neighbors to drive innovation through competition.

He may be wrong about that, but he aims a credible argument squarely at the target that Easterbrook claims he doesn’t even see.

Just to add 2 cents to Laertes’s remark, if you look at a map you see that the heartland of Sinitic (Han Chinese) culture is basically the Yangtze River floodplain. This area has been continuously farmed and settled by humans for 10,000 years. If you look at another map, you see that Europe is a small space absolutely honeycombed and crisscrossed with mountain ranges, islands, peninsulas, rivers running in all directions, arms of the sea, marshes, and so on. The former kind of space is obviously much easier to bring under central control than the latter. (BTW, this is what makes the Romans so awesome, as they are almost the only ones to have done the trick of unifying Europe for a sustained period of time, and even they could not subdue the German lands, which not coincidentally were also the area the became the heartland of that later revolt against Rome called the Protestant Reformation--and of course it was the Germans who more or less invented modern nationalism as a response to Napoleon’s scheme to integrate them into a new-model Roman Empire run by Romance-speaking France.)

Sorry, small revision: I didn’t mean to say Yangtze, I meant to say the plain drained by the Huang Ho (Yellow) River, which is the more northern of China’s two great eastward-flowing streams.

Brad DeLong and an outstanding bunch of commenters are all over this:

http://www.j-bradford-delong.net/movable_type/2005-3_archives/000252.html

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