26 June 2019
This book contains Diamond’s typically very good ‘big picture’ style overview as in many of his other books, placing particular emphasis on geography and how it relates to both human societies and geopolitics, (and ultimately just plain politics). A typical example is the reason for the USA’s very fertile soils-being that successive sheets of glaciers have ground down and tilled the soil for hundreds of thousands of years, creating large expanses of fertile ground which can then feed the ~330 million+ people in the USA, and produces significant agricultural exports as well. This hasn’t happened to nearly the same extent in Europe or South America, who’s geographical shapes and also position in relation to the poles has resulted in them not being frequently covered in advancing glaciersfrom the poles. The USA also by chance has more favourable inland lakes (Great Lakes) and other waterways, enhancing early development and modes of transport.
There are many other similar such good ‘geographically-based’ overviews and points, which are often simply forgotten or left out in an academic culture which often emphasises human factors over geopolitical/geographical l ones.
However the section on natural resource depletion is still weak, which also seems to be very common within academia generally. I have worked in this area and read many books and studies in this field, and it still surprises me how often career academics can get this field so wrong, or just be so uninformed. It’s at least an improvement from the Club of Rome which predicted many decades ago, without any training or experience in the field of natural resources, that the world will run out of just about everything by 2000. This didn’t happen, of course, was never going to happen, and in fact we have more of many things now not less, due to better resource analysis, investigation, and definition. Academic culture has a tendency to be very poor in this area, for reasons that are a little obscure but probably partly because on the whole, academic culture is not in the ‘resource definition business’, the market generally is. When people experienced in the market point this out to academics they sometimes just ignore them largely based on perceived vested interests; now sometimes this is the case, but sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes people who have worked in the natural resource business know things that academics seem to miss, and they sometimes do ignore each other. There is indeed a history of very weak and woeful predictions when it comes to natural resource analysis and future predictions within academia. Examples of such have still slipped in here, and note also Diamond is largely a career-academic (although quite a free thinking one).
For a start, on a world scale, we cannot ‘run out’ of various metals, the reason being that we only ever mine the top less than 0.1% of what is available, because the rest is currently uneconomic to extract. This is not only true for iron and aluminium, which Diamond mentions, but in fact all metals, which he doesn’t. Metals are examples of resources which are non renewable (they don’t renew in the crust at mineable concentrations through tectonic processes in any meaningful timeframe with relevance to humans) but are essentially inexhaustible. This concept gets lots on many, including many career-based academics, because their underlying assumptions have still not been properly addressed.
Fossils fuels, incidentally are not quite the same, they have more limited abundance due to their not originating in the earth's crust in the first place -you need organic matter first, even though they are also modified by tectonic heat and pressure as well. They will eventually decline, but many academics still under-estimate how long this will take.
The section on climate change here suffers from similar sorts of issues and assumptions. Whilst Diamond recognises that there are many non linear and variable outcomes going on with greenhouse gases, he still makes a number of questionable assumptions which many in academia also tend to do. Examples being: More CO2 in his diagram (Figure 9, p392) automatically leads to more droughts and lower food production, therefore leading to conflict. There is no qualification of this in his diagram, and this is far from the case. The diagram also, and at the same time, automatically shows more storms and floods, which is also far from the case. Storms frequency may in fact decline overall in a warmer world, largely due to the lessening of temperature differentials between regions which often create storms in the first place. (e.g. polar regions are generally warming faster the temperate regions). An example is the difference between the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific-the latter of which was named by Magellan because it was more ‘peaceful’, in large part because there is less temperature differentials between different regions in the Pacific; it has little to do with the overall temperatures of the two oceans. Referring to his diagram in general, Diamond states ‘it is certain these things will occur’. The reasoning appears solid, it’s just that the assumptions and linear maths that go into it are not. It’s the same sort of mistakes the Club of Rome made decades ago.
He also misses some basic differences between rural -based countries and urban-based countries, regarding their likely future development, for similar sorts of reasons. Countries which have large populations of rural people such as China and India are like that fundamentally because of their climate, but strangely, in his discussion he largely assumes that their climate has little to do with their likely future development, comparing their development to nations which do not have rural-based economies or rural-based climates to begin with. He also assumes that overall food production will decline worldwide with climate change, but also fails to note that food production has been going up worldwide for many decades due to: better farming practises and ongoing rollouts of better technology, more CO2 in the air, and some increases in rainfall, especially in Africa. Academics tend to think that this increase in food production will sooner or later be overcome by ‘climate change’, but this is also actually far from certain.
He states that corals are ‘contracting by 1-2% per year, largely due to increasing ocean acidity, again showing in the diagram and also stating they will largely be gone ‘by the end of the century’. This again is far from certain. There are serious studies on coral reefs, for exampke, which suggests this will not be the case. At least he didn’t state it will be only due to warming, because most of the Holocene was warmer and these corals didn’t go anywhere. They generally like warmer water-that’s why they grow in warm seas in the first place. (I’m glad that he has spelled it all out in the diagram on page 392, because like the Club of Rome’s failed predictions in a book in the early 1970s-which I have a copy of, it will again be very easy to see where it’s wrong and where the hidden linear-style assumptions are in future).
Having said the above criticisms, there are what I would see as far better points. He sees the polarisation of politics in the USA, for example, as a move in the wrong direction, and many agree, because for one thing what goes on now often isn’t related to either reality nor reasonable, and secondly, it means democracy generally stagnates. When one or or the other side no longer compromises, things stagnate. He quite rightly doesn’t blame one side of the other, as it’s clear this affects both side of politics-the ‘unwillingness to compromise’ which has plagued US politics in recent decades, and it seems to be increasing worldwide, for obscure reasons. He speculates social media may be partly to blame, because people now more frequently choose what they want to hear, rather than hearing overviews and different sides which tend to balance each other out. In climate change and resource science in general this is also very common, as one only hears views and science which aligns with what one wants to hear, meaning over time one tends to get a one-sided picture of things without realising it.
I’m sorry to say, but Diamond’s general overview of climate change and natural resource analysis also tends to suffer from academic-style cultural bias in some areas, seemingly without actually realising it.