Thursday, August 13, 2009

Environmental Trouble = Political Trouble -- Missing pieces from Jared Diamonds 'Collapse'

I have mentioned Jared Diamond before - professor of geography and author of several outstanding books. But so far I haven't mentioned the most obvious: the illustration on page 497 of (my Penguin Books paperback edition of) Collapse there is an illustration of two world maps, one highlighting "Political Trouble Spots of the Modern World" the other "Environmental Trouble Spots of the Modern World". The message is, of course, that those two maps highlight exactly the same countries.

Some of these I have already written and/or linked to stories about: Haiti, Iraq, Somalia, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Philippines. So far I haven't blogged about Burundi, Madagascar, Nepal, Mongolia and Solomon Islands but these places are also marked on Diamonds map. What did I miss?

Catching up: Diamonds trouble spots

Burundi is on Diamonds map because it was involved in the Rwandan territorial dispute and overpopulation inspired genocide and seems to be in sort of the same situation. Solomon Islands is experiencing what some sources describe as the worst illegal logging in the world and so much corruption and violence of all sorts it is being called a "failed state". It has depended on Australia and New Zealand to intervene and restore some order. Basically consisting of rain forest and beach it is also rich in minerals but most live from fishing and subsistence farming.

The other three countries is in neither contents (chapter headlines) or index of the book. Weird. But Madagascar has experienced quite a bit of violence and struggle for control since its independence - including a period of military dictatorship and an coup d'état attempt November 2006 [Wikipedia]. It has a unique and rich ecology but is subject to massive deforestation due to both primitive agriculture, mining and logging. Don't forget corruption and poverty. Nepal we have all heard of, right? When the crown prince killed his parents the Queen and the King in 2001 from alleged love sickness. Now it's a young republic, still a biodiversity hotspot receiving many refugees from Bhutan, China and elsewhere. When Collapse was published it was still in civil war with a Maoist guerilla. Google quickly turned up Environment Assessment of Nepal – Emerging Issues and Challenges mentioning deforestation, hydropower income, melting glaciers and so on.

Regarding Mongolia I must be missing out on something. It's poor and basically a steppe with some mineral resources. But it seems to be enjoying rather peaceful relations with most countries.

That's all just from about half an hour of browsing Wikipedia and the CIA facts site.

Adding up: The World Map of Trouble

I gladly add the missing pieces you provide to my puzzle.

But Professor Diamond, why did you exclude Colombia, Ecuador, Chile, Peru, Zimbabwe, Egypt, Ethiopia, Liberia, Congo, Azerbaijan and many of the other countries featured on my Ecowar Battlefields map? My map is hardly Nobel Prize material - these conflicts and environmental issues are secret only to those who willingly close their eyes to them.

Vis The Ecowar battlefields på et større kort

In conclusions: Main issues and lessons

Jared Diamond seems to merely provide his map as an after thought, some left hand work. And it is only meant to underline one of many points of his book. Before reading this final chapter one has been painstakingly dragged through the major environmental and political convergences of known history. I'll just real quick sum up the main messages.

Deforestation, deforestation, deforestation. We never seem to learn though cutting down trees planting nothing in return has brought down many societies of our past. What we have erred in over and over throughout history we are now repeating on a global scale. People just can't seem to get into their heads that mankind is dependent on trees. Deforestation plus the fact that all the problems are linked, every corner of our ecosystem invaluable.

"Deforestation was a or the major factor in all of the collapses of past societies described in this book [that's Collapse ...] Other valuable natural habitats besides forests are also being destroyed. [...] But biodiversity losses of small inedible species often provokes the response, "Who cares?" [... But] Elimination of lots of lousy little species regularly causes big harmful consequences for humans, just as does randomly knocking out many of the lousy little rivets holding together an airplane."
[Collapse p. 488-489]

The problems are there and they are only growing in size. We can choose to ignore them for some time but sooner or later we will address them. But how?

"Thus, because we are rapidly advancing along this non-sustainable course, the world's environmental problems will get resolved, in one way or another, within the lifetimes of the children and young adults alive today. The only question is whether they will become resolved in pleasant ways of our own choice, or in unpleasant ways not of our choice, such as warfare, genocide, starvation, disease epidemics, and collapses of societies. While all of those grim phenomena have been endemic to humanity throughout our history, their frequency increases with environmental degradation, population pressure, and the resulting poverty and political instability."
[Collapse p. 498]

If you don't have the book there is always the internet. Here are three Jared Diamond related articles, just for starters:


  1. Earth Policy Institute / A CIVILIZATIONAL TIPPING POINT by Lester R. Brown is an excerpt of chapter one of Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization. Very Diamondesque. Mentions more countries.

    "Nearly all of the 80 million people being added to world population each year are born in countries where natural support systems are already deteriorating in the face of excessive population pressure, in the countries least able to support them. In these countries, the risk of state failure is growing. [...] Two failing states where overpumping water and security-threatening water shortages loom large are Pakistan and Yemen. [...] Could rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere prove to be as unmanageable for our early twenty-first century civilization as rising salt levels in the soil were for the Sumerians in 4000 BC? [...] Several converging trends are making it difficult for the world’s farmers to keep up with the growth in food demand. Prominent among these are falling water tables, the growing conversion of cropland to nonfarm uses, and more extreme climate events, including crop-withering heat waves, droughts, and floods. As the stresses from these unresolved problems accumulate, weaker governments are beginning to break down. [...] The risk is that these accumulating problems and their consequences will overwhelm more and more governments, leading to widespread state failure and eventually the failure of civilization. The countries that top the list of failing states are not particularly surprising. They include, for example, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia, Chad, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Haiti. And the list grows longer each year, raising a disturbing question: How many failing states will it take before civilization itself fails? No one knows the answer, but it is a question we must ask."

  2. It's not more Jared Diamond and it's not even a typical source for my Ecowar blog. Because rather than being a piece of information about a natural resource being fought over this is a "geopolitical" hitlist of possible conflicts. But they happen to all somehow involve one or more natural resources.

    See Six Crises, 2009: A Half-Dozen Ways Geopolitics Could Upset Global Recovery - some of it I have already blogged about, some of it is rather indirectly linked to natural resources. Here it is in brief, rearranged for my preferences:

    First: Iraq. The country that - for some, not others - have named our most recent "oil war". Motivations of the "Coalition of the Willing" aside, Kurds, Sunni and Shia could soon be fighting over oil rights as no clear deal is in place. Even the US is pulling forces out and they don't leave behind a picture perfect democracy. Any type of violent relapse could affect oil prices among other things.

    Second: Russia and neighbours. Russia sits atop massive natural gas fields and have shown no reluctance in turning off supply when unhappy with prices. Eastern and Western Europe depend on a steady flow. A shaky and shady neo-capitalist democracy Russia is experiencing increasing nationalism and shrinking economy which could prove a dangerous coctail. Europe is trying to establish a pipeline south of Russia which might also anger the Russians leading them to explore other tactical options.

    Third: Pakistan and Afghanistan. The article belittles the problem by its disconnectedness from the rest of the world mentioning the price of heroin as the main "problem". But both countries have environmental problems created and aggravated by war, they have more resources than just poppies and there is the whole territorial-strategic angle to it too.

    Fourth: Mexico. A huge concern to the US because as the army fights the drug cartels not only the price of the drugs (agricultural products in demand) but also the flow of refugees and the availability of oil is affected.

    Fifth: Israel vs Iran conflict. While not revolving a natural resource per se this issue all about energy / uranium. Plus indirectly, because it's about Iran, oil. As Iran trades with Russia any problem in one of the countries may affect the other.

    Sixth and last: North Korea. Continued mismanagement of its ecosystem services could very well lead to a final collapse of North Korea. Consequences would hopefully mostly be of economic character and probably mainly in South Korea and China.


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