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Tuesday, December 28, 2004

My Fear 

I saw mentioned today on Marginal Revolution that Jared Diamond (author of Guns, Germs, and Steel) has a new book coming out soon called Collapse: How Societies Choose or Fail to Succeed. The most interesting thing to me was Malcolm Gladwell's article on the book in the New Yorker, since Gladwell provides a preview of some of Diamond's arguments.

I read Guns, Germs, and Steel about a year and a half ago, and I thought it was really great, and I think Diamond made a very strong argument that I largely was convinced by. In fact, Collapse sounds like it has an argument that would convince me too. But there's something about the Gladwell article that is bothering me. I am afraid that the lesson people will take from this book is that societies fail or succeed based on how well they take care of the environment. In fact, the examples Gladwell passes on from Diamond are great examples of exactly that: the Norse on Greenland, the Easter Islanders, and the Rwandan genocide.

Here's what bothers me: These are all non-industrial societies. The fact that Rwanda is cited as a "modern example" is particularly troubling. According to the CIA World Factbook entry on Rwanda, "Rwanda is a poor rural country with about 90% of the population engaged in (mainly subsistence) agriculture." Of course the environment matters greatly to a nation like that, and to the other examples. That is a very different set of resource needs from a modern industrial society, however. No such countries have such a scarcity of food or water or other natural resources that they sit on the edge of a catastrophic environmental imbalance in the same way as these examples. In fact, one of the key points of Guns, Germs, and Steel was the way societies have evolved to have complex mechanisms like trade and markets that make the relative importance of such things for survival much smaller. Still, this is all related second hand, and since I believe the ridiculous example of Oregon was entirely Gladwell's, I am hoping that this is just getting filtered through a particular viewpoint on its way from Diamond to me. I do believe in the phenomenon Diamond describes, where societies can collectively commit suicide.

I am often, when I think about such things, terrified for the United States in this regard. I am not scared about our resource usage or the environment at all. Nor am I concerned about competition from foreign nations, who collectively don't seem to have as great an idea of how to run things as we do. What concerns me is that over time, we will, as we have been, lose touch with our understanding of what puts our own ecosystem in balance. This ecosystem includes our natural resources, but those are overshadowed by our man-made resources: our collective human capital, our personal freedoms and our drive to explore, be entrepreneurial, and risk failure.

Now, I hate to be a doomsday prophet, and liken the US to Rome at its height or anything like that. I don't think that's what's going to happen. Still, we do seem to be turning away from the path that brought us here. We don't have a great education system, and we don't seem likely to get one soon; not due to any necessary state of affairs, but apparently because we just can't bring ourselves to deal with the current problems. We seem more than ever to be uninterested in civil liberties, and willing to chip away at them or trade them in for increased government powers (totally neglecting the safety that we get from freedom from interference by the government). And standing before what could be the dawn of many promising, and yes, risky, fields, like aerospace engineering, biological engineering and nanotechnology, we are finding that we no longer have the taste for exploration and the risks that go along with it, and would rather fight such things.

This is our ecosystem, this is how we feed ourselves. I want to believe I'm wrong here. That I don't have to worry, because entrepreneurialism and the human urge to be free will always find a way. I'm just not sure that's true, given how successfully it has been beaten down in most of the world for most of time. What I actually believe is that the United States was a very difficult, lucky thing for the world to have, and it does not at all represent the natural state of affairs for societies. Like I said, I don't think our society is on the verge of collapse, or anything like that. I think the danger is that we'll gradually surrender freedoms, and underinvest in the long-term fundamentals of our economy, and turn away the best and brightest foreigners who want to work here because we are afraid of the competition/terrorism, and give in to vested interests that represent the past and not the future, and continue to work with a gigantic regulatory monstrosity until we look just like any other mediocre, mismanaged European country.

That's my fear, anyways.

Comments:
My hope is in Barack Obama. A first(ish)-generation American who people seem to universally like, and who people on the left and the slight-right-of-center can like. If more Democrats were like him (and more Republicans like McCain) we'd have a lot more going for us.

There is some hope in the ammend for Arnold movement. I don't think Schwartzenegger would be particularly good as a president (he'd only be as good as his advisors, and hopefully he wouldn't pick total failures like Condi Rice), but changing the rules to allow foriegners run for office could change the way we view immigration. At least, it's a start, and that's why I contacted my congresswomen about it.

As for civil liberties, I invite you to join the ACLU like I did. I know several others who have joined, shortly after the results of Nov 2.

My biggest fear is not that people care less about freedom and liberty. My fear is that cronism, protectionism and collusion (politcal, labor, or business-forms) become the real controlling forces. In a sense, cronism, protectionism and collusion are all the same thing: One small group seeking to enjoy a nice position at the expense of everyone else. Not everyone gets sweet deals like Haliburton, and not everyone gets pointless subsidies like agribusiness. Only those heavily connected do. (Is this an argument for term-limits? I'm not sure. It seems we need some political reform other than just campaign finance.)
 
As you read Jared Diamond the author of Guns, Germs and Steel, keep in mind the diversity of his positions, such as his published work in Nature on ethnic differences in testis size.
 
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