Monday, October 1, 2012

Jared Diamond and Ecosystem Services

Consider this a one-entry liveblog of the EcoSummit Conference in Columbus, Ohio.  It’s an Elsevier joint that brings together an international community of scholars and researchers on ecosystem service policy development and assessment. I just heard Jared Diamond’s plenary address. 

So right up front I should say that Diamond is a complicated figure for geographers like me.  Guns, Germs and Steel was widely criticized in my discipline, which is also Diamond’s adopted discipline.  It was seen as an intolerable throwback to the bad old days of environmental determinism, in which geographers tended to say that climate and resources determined the fate of civilizations in every detail.  In the case of Ellen Semple and Ellsworth Huntington in the 1920s, they would say that desert climates led inexorably to autocratic politics.   In Diamond’s case, he claims the size, resource base and isolation of a island (for example) determined whether or not the society would suffer ecological collapse, either under its own weight or because of their inability to resist invaders and their weapons.   There continue to be excellent reasons to guard against pointing to nature to explain what are in fact social phenomena, from race to intelligence to gender to  “overpopulation”.  Eternal vigilance, however, does not need a hair trigger.

Diamond’s argument was not (and is not) atypical of the way that ecologists treat complicated social phenomena: black-box them and look for external drivers of change.   In this, the only unique sin he committed was to write a Pulitzer Prize winning book of extraordinary exposure.  Fifteen years later, it’s fair to say that geographers probably overreacted to the implicit determinism in Diamond’s work – it was simply a high-profile version of what one finds every day in environmental writing.  That doesn’t make it less wrong as social science, just less remarkable.  And does anyone doubt that Diamond has his facts right? 

Moreover, I’m not convinced that his critics had it right.  Talking about the strong influence of physical environments is different than determinism, and claiming that Diamond is "an environmental determinist" is about as useful as calling someone a Nazi or a fascist.  It's a weak and overplayed argument, and leaves him the option (which he took in his next book, Collapse) of saying that these societies chose their fate – that human rationality was at the heart of the problem, rather than being irrelevant.

And this is, to me, far more troubling.  Diamond’s invocation of individual responsibility is  precisely equivalent to “responsibilization” in modern social policy.  Poor?  Your choice.  Unemployed?  Your fault.   Successful?  You built that.  The disbelief in any collective social forces such as “class” or “the economy” or “society” is pervasive, and in describing (in his subtitle, in fact) “How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed”, Diamond adds his voice to those who treat societies as if they are a rational actor and points the finger at them for their own fall.  It shares all the faults of the “rational actor” model of human agency so common in economics: it assumes perfect knowledge, it assumes utility-maximization, and it has no place for the exogenous collective social forces -- colonialism, capitalism, socialism, whatever -- that so obviously exist in the world.  To me, this is a far worse and more insidious maneuver than trying to resurrect environmental determinism, which I don’t think Diamond was trying to do in any event.

So, to his talk.  In discussing Easter Islanders and the collapse of the island’s ecosystems, Diamond went out of his way to say that “people are all the same” and that we all essentially want the same things out of life.  We behave identically toward resources whether we are Easter Islanders or Chinese or Spanish – we use them for food, shelter, worship and recreation.  “The islanders needed to chop down trees for the same reasons that everyone chops down trees. … Easter Islanders were normal people who had the misfortune to be living on the least ecologically-productive of all Pacific Islands”.

[Diamond stresses this to arm himself against the racism of much environmental determinism. In fact, in the context of its time, environmental determinism was a sort of bulwark against the prevailing genetic racism of the time – determinists said that climate, not genetics, determined one’s intelligence and civilization, so that an African raised in London’s climate could be seen to achieve “European” cultural levels.]

I never cease to be amazed at the capacity for affluent westerners to think that all people basically think and act like them.  Yes, that was a cheap shot, and I include myself in that criticism, but in saying “we’re all the same”, Diamond is saying that, at base, we’re all essentially economic actors who are motivated by the same material concerns.  This is the familiar figure of both economics and ecological anthropology – Milton Friedman and Roy Rappaport alike.  And it bears no resemblance to any real people in the world. 

And Diamond knows it – his next example after Easter Island was that some Vikings colonized Iceland and made good choices that led to sustainability, and other Vikings colonized Greenland and made bad choices that led to famine.  And more importantly, the entire premise of the Ecosystem Services approach is that people can be convinced to act on their relation to the natural world in a different way.  If there are dumb Vikings and smart Vikings – if social collectives can achieve material needs in variable ways – then the Ecosystem Services approach has hope and our relationship to resources is fundamentally social.  If everyone is essentially acting on their material needs, with the only difference being the physical setting, then no amount of ingenuity can help us, and the difference between a dumb Viking and a smart Viking is climate or biogeography.

In short, if collective efforts to change the social context for resource use are irrelevant, what the hell are we all doing in Columbus?  If they are relevant, then Diamond and everyone else needs to have a long hard think before they use the words "resource base" ever again.

Diamond typically has it both ways in his writing and speaking.  But he’s very far from being alone on this, so I see no real point in singling him out for ritual flogging.

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