Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Failure of Collapse

In Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Jared Diamond, best-selling author of Guns, Germs and Steel, identifies a number of factors he maintains contribute to a society’s collapse: Among them are natural climate change, man-made environmental disasters, and the disintegration of a society’s trading relationships with the outside world. An enthusiastic supporter of Guns, Germs and Steel, I was eager to read Collapse, but I ultimately left the experience deeply unsatisfied. It might have been because of the sheer ambition of the project—after all, attempting to categorize the demise of so many societies, ancient and modern, based on a handful of factors is brazen to say the least. The downfall of any society is necessarily a multifactorial event. But Diamond acknowledges that reality, and as someone who tends to view the world through trade-colored lenses, I am hardly one to cast the first stone. My dissatisfaction stems not from the vastness of his questions but on the narrowness of his response. Collapse asks a few provocative questions:

On a planet where systems of economics, politics and the environment are inextricably connected, is it possible for humankind to isolate the issues that could be leading us towards collapse? Can such issues be addressed individually or must they be considered as part of larger systems? Are the lessons of history sufficiently relevant to guide us in the choices we make today?

Diamond disaggregates these factors and compares the different approaches societies have taken to deal with them. In his chapter on Haiti and the Dominican Republic (DR), for example, Diamond asks why is it that two countries that share an island, and that started with very similar colonial and economic histories, could end up in such a different place: While the DR is considered a developing country, it is quite prosperous when compared with Haiti, a country long designated the poorest in the Western Hemisphere. Diamond ultimately concludes the difference lies in the countries’ differing trade and environmental policies. The DR enjoys some natural environmental advantages; it receives greater rainfall; it has a greater land mass and supports a smaller population, and because the Spaniards were already sinking into oblivion when they colonized the east side of Hispaniola (the former name of both halves of the island), they did not exploit the land by developing large-scale plantation agriculture as the French did on the west side (Haiti). Moreover, when the dictator Joaquín Balaguer came to power, he preserved DR’s forests by limiting commercial logging (to himself and his cronies—corruption has its privileges!)
I am persuaded by Diamond’s environmental impact assessment, but his discussion on trade policy ignores geopolitics. He suggests, for example, the DR’s greater openness to trade and foreign investment—including its willingness to return to Spanish control in the mid-nineteenth century—contributed to its success. That may well be true, but any serious study of economic history would show Haiti did not have the option of remaining open to trade. The Haitian Constitution of 1805, adopted almost immediately after independence, in fact expressed great hope in trade and commercial relationships. Article 22 provided:
Commerce, the second source of the prosperity of states, will not admit of any impediment; it ought to be favored and specially protected.

The drafters went on to pledge that “Good faith and integrity in commercial operations shall be religiously maintained.” (Art. 24). But to underscore the understandable fear and suspicion with which the newly-independent Republic regarded their potential trading partners, Article 25 stated:

The government assures safety and protections to neutral nations and friends who may be desirous of establishing a commercial intercourse with this island, they conforming to the regulations and customs of the country.

Despite its efforts, Haiti’s commercial overtures were soundly rebuffed. The countries of the world refused to even recognize the Black Republic, and the United States, under Thomas Jefferson, imposed a trade embargo that would economically cripple Haiti for years to come. I am not suggesting that trade politics (or policy for that matter) explains all of the differences between Haiti and the DR. Even as I begin the research on my own book, which will explore how economic history helps to explain the disparities between prosperous and poor countries in the globalization era, I remain leery of scholars who maintain their specialty explains everything. As the old adage goes: When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail. I therefore admire Diamond’s attempt to cast a wide net to help explain the phenomenon of societal implosion. But in doing so, he misses some key elements, which to my mind cast doubt on the legitimacy of his ultimate conclusions. All of this is to say that at times perhaps we as scholars are better off going more deep than wide.

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