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Reviews

Protect and Survive

Jared Diamond: Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive. Penguin £9.99.

This is another erudite yet readable book by Jared Diamond, following on from The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee and Guns, Germs and Steel. His theme this time is how and why past societies have or have not collapsed, and how an understanding of such issues may be of help in the present-day world. The Maya civilisation of central America, for instance, collapsed in the early tenth century CE, after a period of 700 years or so. A number of contributing causes can be distinguished: population outgrew available resources, deforestation reduced the amount of available farmland, fighting among the Maya increased, a severe drought occurred, and the rulers had no interest in long-term concerns.

Diamond distinguishes five points that are generally relevant to societal collapse: environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbours, friendly trade partners, and a society’s responses to its environmental problems. Often, for instance, forest will be removed and soil eroded, or newly-introduced animals may eat native species or destroy crops: all this may cut the numbers who can survive in a particular area. Destroying unrenewable resources is particularly crucial. Unfriendly nearby societies can also play their part in disrupting production and everyday life. Globalisation has increased the importance of other (not necessarily nearby) parts of the world: China, for instance, accepts untreated garbage, including toxic waste, form other countries (for a fee, of course).

Like his other works, Collapse is wide-ranging and thought-provoking, containing much material that we can’t do justice to here. A useful chapter on the Rwanda massacres of the 1990s makes the point that it was not a simple matter of Hutu against Tutsi. Many other factors played a part, including population pressure and falling world coffee prices. The final chapter asks what all the facts and theories that have been marshalled before mean to us today, emphasising ‘the unsustainability of a world in which the Third World’s large population were to reach and maintain current First World living standards.’ Diamond’s conclusion is that we need ‘the political will to apply solutions already available’, as if it were merely a matter of convincing politicians to do the right thing.

In fact he is far too uncritical in his acceptance of capitalism as the framework within which present-day problems have to be solved. He is well aware that companies exist to make profits, not as charities concerned to protect the environment. Yet, he says, it is not enough to blame companies, for ‘ultimate responsibility’ lies with us, ‘the public’, since we supposedly have the power to make destructive environmental policies unprofitable, e.g. by means of consumer boycotts or pressurising politicians to pass laws that force businesses to clean up the mess they have created. Sadly, this ignores the fact that capitalism needs profits and, while companies will sometimes be keen to play the environmental card if it suits them, they have to put profits first. No amount of legislation or boycotting can change this.

So the c-word to ponder is not ‘collapse’ or ‘climate’ but ‘capitalism’. And the political will that matters is the will to replace capitalism with a sensibly-organised society, within which problems can be tackled in a way much more likely to yield effective solutions.

PB

Media review

 

Alternative voice

Democracy Now! Pacifica Radio. http://www.democracynow.org/

“Independent media has a crucial responsibility to go to where the silence is to represent the diverse voices of people engaged in dissent.” Thus is the journalistic philosophy of Amy Goodman, host and executive producer of the New York–based radio/television news programme Democracy Now!, now in its tenth year. True to her vision, Goodman’s one-hour show covers the stories ignored or suppressed by the corporate-sponsored media, and provides a platform for the politically underrepresented to give their views and commentary on stories reported by the mainstream news. Artists, leftist academics, peace activists, whistleblowers, union representatives, and independent journalists make up the majority of those interviewed. In many respects, then, Democracy Now! is like a daily edition of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, reporting on the activities of various segments of the working class to resist political and economic oppression.

Each show begins with Amy Goodman delivering ten minutes of headline news; while there is a tendency to focus on American politics, the show is much more international in scope than most other American news programmes. The remaining fifty minutes explores one or two stories in further detail via interviews or a live debate between a prominent activist or academic and a government spokesperson. Past guests have included academics Norman Finkelstein, Noam Chomsky, and Howard Zinn; authors Alice Walker, Arundhati Roy, and Salman Rushdie; and spokespeople from civil rights and activist groups such as Greenpeace and the American Civil Liberties Union. The plethora of voices critical of the government and society is a welcome diversion from the business and government cronies featured on most corporate news programmes. (And unlike other so-called “independent” or “public” media outlets, Democracy Now! is funded entirely by listeners, viewers, and foundations; they run no advertising and do not accept donations from corporations or governments.)

If the show has one fault, it is that it sometimes assumes a particular political group or ideology must have merit simply because its views are in the minority. Such was the case with a February show commemorating the assassination of black nationalist leader Malcolm X. Guests were brought in to heap praises upon the man, and a long excerpt from his speech “The Ballot or the Bullet” was played. No comment or criticism was made on his racist-separatist agenda, nor on his suggestion that the “black community” would be better off if blacks ran their own economy. Goodman, who is usually unafraid to pose hard-hitting questions, neglected to challenge the ludicrous implication that black workers would be any less exploited serving black masters than white ones.

Nonetheless, Democracy Now! serves a useful purpose in bringing underreported stories and views to the forefront. Until socialists can establish their own news programme, Goodman’s show is a good supplement or even outright replacement for the corporate nightly news.

Democracy Now! is broadcast in London on Resonance 104.4 FM Thursdays at 11:00; across Europe on Sky Digital channel 0122 Monday to Friday at 15:00; and on the Internet via RealAudio, RealVideo, MP3, or Ogg Vorbis at http://www.democracynow.org/.

TRISTAN MILLER