Reviewing a Reviewer
National War College, 2005
A friend just e-mailed me Gregg Easterbrook's recent [January 30, 2005] NY Times review discussing Jared Diamond's books, especially his Pulitzer prize-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel (W.W. Norton, 1999) and the new Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (Viking, 2005). He labeled the e-mail "insightful and informative book review." I assume—because I am, at heart, the charitable type—that my friend meant to say, "review of some insightful and informative books," because Easterbrook's article is the most boneheaded review by a normally bright writer I've seen since J.F.C. Fuller (writing in 1932) dismissed Carl von Clausewitz as "a general of the agricultural period of war."*
Let's start with the small stuff. Easterbrook displays a classic what-me-worry? approach to environmental issues via a series of mathematical, historical, geographical, and scientific gaffes. Some of this is just a matter of taste: Personally, I would consider that the extinction of 9% (Easterbrook's figure) of the world's species in a 50-year period would indeed constitute a rather "large fraction"—especially if the period covered were one I might be hoping to live through myself. For scaling purposes, try losing 9% of your military forces: Can you spell decimate? His ironic historical reference to pre-Meiji Japan's "collapse" is beyond puzzling: Is Easterbrook really unable to distinguish between the purely political collapse of the outmoded Shogunate (the unlucky last Shogun was cruelly forced in 1868 to retire to his family estate where, after being promoted to the rank of imperial prince, he died a natural death in 1913) and the human catastrophes Diamond deals with—events in which entire populations, in some cases numbering in the millions, were reduced by 50 to 100%? In reality, the 1867 Meiji revolution represents an extremely successful adaptation, leading to a vast expansion in Japanese population and power. Geographically, Easterbrook is evidently under the impression that Montana, Colorado, Rwanda, the Yucatan, Australia, and China are "islands." (OK, I'll concede Australia as "an island," if you'll give me Africa as "a peninsula.") Scientifically, his claim that "Diamond argued mainly from the archaeological record" is simply false—Diamond draws on a vast wealth of scientific data far beyond Archaeology (which deals specifically with leftover human artifacts). Especially in Collapse, which covers historic and contemporary events as well as prehistory, he also draws on document-based history whenever that is available and relevant.
In perhaps the oddest of his criticisms, Easterbrook criticizes Diamond for basing his interpretation of the past on the actual evidence that remains. As if there were some alternative to that approach. (Note that I have politely refrained from saying anything about "political science.")
But beyond his afactual weirdnesses, Easterbrook alleges that Diamond's approach is one of politically correct, single-factor determinism. Unfortunately, it is hard to reconcile Diamond's alleged "determinism" with Easterbrook's other complaint about Diamond's excessive belief in the impact of "chance." You can't have it both ways—a guy who believes that history is shaped by contingency is not a determinist. And what is the "single" factor that Easterbrook points to? It is the entire physical world within which human societies actually have to make a living—climate, flora, fauna, soil chemistry, topography, lines of communication, mineralogy, disease vectors, seismic proclivities, you name it. In reality, the fundamental strength of Diamond's approach is its multicausality. He hardly "discounts culture and human thought as forces in history." Rather, he puts those factors into the necessary real-world context and considers the complex interplay that results.
The physical world matters. Even politicians, soldiers, poets, and thinkers have to eat—usually food produced by other social types whom they tend to despise. When those people die off in large numbers or get very, very angry at incompetent and/or overly-exploitive elites (e.g., priest-kings who can't deliver the promised rain; decadent nobles too busy pursuing "dangerous liaisons" to trouble with the practical business of the state; Herbert Hoover; Nomenklatura apparatchiks who can't deliver on the workers' paradise), the cultural applecart can get upset. While Diamond acknowledges the obvious, proven, and undeniable power of the physical world to influence, empower, constrain, channelize, and even destroy man and his works, he never gives in to determinism when it comes to major or minor details of human history or culture. Indeed, in order to paint the broad canvas his subject requires, he constantly sweeps back and forth between the vast scale of, say, regional climate systems and close-up examinations of the practical problems facing individual human beings and communities who live within their confines. He also notes the varying solutions (and non-solutions) various societies have developed. Admittedly, Diamond largely ignores the intermediate-level events that usually pass for "history." There are, after all, limits to what a writer can cram into even a thousand pages (i.e., Diamond's two most recent books).
In truth, the writer guilty of single-factor analysis is Easterbrook. Like many PC writers, Easterbrook—blithely unconscious, evidently, of his own PC-osity—assumes that "culture" (never defined, as usual) is an autonomous force independent of material circumstances and that human beings are blank slates upon which any notion, pattern, or organization can be imprinted at will. For example, he says "China's embrace of a change-resistant society was a cultural phenomenon. During the same period that China was adopting centrally regimented life, Europe was roiled by the idea of individualism."
This is Victor Davis Hanson-esque cultural determinism at work.** In fact, of course, despite whatever Western "culture" may have had to say about the values of pluralism and individuality (not all that much, really, before the modern era), Europe's various traditional elites have tried their damnedest to regiment the West into one vision or another of a single, universal, change-resistent society. They simply failed to do so (a political phenomenon, by the way), for reasons that had a lot more to do with Europe's complex geography, hydrography, and linguistic fragmentation than with any particular cultural compass-setting.
Even Hanson acknowledges that there is a wealth of factors at work in shaping the course of history, though in practice he takes every opportunity to denigrate non-"cultural" explanations for any facet of the problem. Unfortunately, culture does not grow in a physical vacuum. If Western culture is superior in many important respects (and it is, a fact obvious to everyone except college professors and journalists), there must be reasons—causative and constraining factors. The big picture is important. The fact that the environmental deck was heavily stacked in Eurasia's favor cannot be a small consideration. Consider Western culture's "founding fathers," the Greeks: Most of the key elements of the classical Greeks' diet and technology (including their food and transport animals, their crucial writing system, weaponry, mathematics, and architecture) originated elsewhere in Eurasia. How did these things get to Greece? Why didn't they get to Tasmania, Polynesia, or Peru? Given equal human potential in all populations—neither Easterbrook nor Hanson would claim that the odds were stacked by superior European or Asian genes—it would be odd indeed if massive environmental differences over long periods did not result in substantial disparities in the distribution of wealth, power, technology, and expensive high culture. This is not a "side-effect." It is a simple, grinding, fundamental reality of life.
Nor does Diamond argue, as Easterbrook charges, that deadly environmental degradation and societal collapse are inevitable. He points to several advanced societies that, whether by chance or by conscious design, have successfully adapted to their environments over very long periods. He talks at length about creative solutions, past, present, and future. He is even "cautiously optimistic" that we ourselves will find such solutions to the environmental problems we face. Contrary to Easterbrook's insinuation, therefore, Diamond is no victim of the "Fallacy of Uninterrupted Trends." On the contrary, he points to several societies that failed, indisputably and disastrously, by assuming that the good times would last forever. Easterbrook writes, "A century ago, rationalists would have called global consumption of 78 million barrels per day of petroleum an impossibility, and that's the latest figure." One has to wonder, therefore, if he's not suffering from a bad case of FUT himself.
I must admit, however, that Diamond's search for practical solutions stops well short of Easterbrook's journey into trans-galactic utopia. If the latter is the standard for realistic solutions—well, I guess I'm just an unimaginative slob. Yes, screw the planet—there's more where this one came from.
The final oddity of Easterbrook's assault is its criticism of Diamond for not extending his vision as far into the future as he does into the past. Why look forward only a decade or two, vice, say, 13,000 years? Unfortunately—and this is a fact that we ignore at our peril—the future is fundamentally different from the past. History is written, if not by the victors, then at least by the survivors. That alone is sufficient cause for retrospective optimism: Hey, everything worked out OK—I'm here. But there's no guarantee that the future will be written at all. Have you read any hot new Anasazi writers lately?
* The ever-evolving Fuller later redeemed himself—years later, responding to fulsome praise of his own final book, he said that if it had any value, it was "because my study of Clausewitz has compelled me to write it." Let's hope Easterbrook eventually experiences a similar come-to-Jesus moment.
** See, for example, Victor Davis Hanson, Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise to Western Power (Doubleday: 2001). This is a seriously flawed but also very interesting study of the character of Western warfare. The author is a classicist and contemporary political polemicist.