There is a review of Jared Diamond’s book “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive” in the London Review of Books. The reviewer, Partha Dasgupta, is an economist. The review is titled “Bottlenecks”. It’s a long review, with an overview of the book. The book has been praised in reviews and on the web by deep ecologists, Greens, Gaians, and the other usual suspects. Professor Dasgupta isn’t singing in that chorus. He is impressed with Diamond’s research and the analysis, up to a point.
… By his reckoning, the situation today is worse than it has ever been: as well as the old dangers of deforestation and so forth, we now have to deal with anthropogenic climate change, the accumulation of toxic chemicals, energy shortages and a near-full use of the Earth’s photosynthetic capacity. The concluding chapters of the book are devoted to speculations on the contemporary human condition, responses to dismissals of the concerns of environmentalists by sceptics, and a meditation on our hopes and the perils we face. Which is when the book skids and becomes a mess.
A little later, he elaborates:
The more important reason why Diamond’s rhetoric doesn’t play well any longer is that it presents only one side of the balance-sheet: it ignores the human benefits that accompany environmental damage. You build a road, but that destroys part of the local ecosystem; there is both a cost and a benefit and you have to weigh them up. Diamond shows no sign of wanting to look at both sides of the ledger, and his responses to environmental sceptics take the form of ‘Yes, but . . .’ If someone were to point out that chemical fertilisers have increased food production dozens of times over, he would reply: ‘Yes, but they are a drain on fresh water, and what about all that phosphorus run-off?’ Diamond is like a swimmer who competes in a race using only one arm. ‘In caring for the health of our surroundings, just as of our bodies,’ he writes at one point, ‘it is cheaper and preferable to avoid getting sick than to try to cure illnesses after they have developed’ – which sounds wise, but is simply misleading bombast. Technology brings out the worst in him. At one point he claims that ‘all of our current problems are unintended negative consequences of our existing technology,’ to which I felt like shouting in exasperation that perhaps at some times, in some places, a few of the unintended consequences of our existing technology have been beneficial. Reading Diamond you would think our ancestors should all have remained hunter-gatherers in Africa, co-evolving with the native flora and fauna, and roaming the wilds in search of wild berries and the occasional piece of meat.
This kind of appraisal of Professor Diamond’s nature-worshipping anti-development tendencies is not new. What Professor Dasgupta brings to the debate is an economic analysis of sustainable development that goes below the surface of the dirt-worshipping ideology of Diamond’s book. The greater part of his review is devoted to an introduction to the modern economics of sustainable development. It’s a good essay.