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Collapse, A Review

Cross-posted at Freethought Fort Wayne.

I have finally completed Jared Diamond‘s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Once again Jared Diamond has created a compelling and epic work detailing the reasons civilizations, modern and ancient, have chosen to collapse. Chosen being the operative word. The author details compelling reasons why societies have made choices that have direct and long-term negative impacts to the health of their societies.

I could blog endlessly about the stories and lessons that could be mined from this book. To spare everyone that grief I’ll simply highlight some of the… uh… highlights.

  • Montana, what are the lessons that can be drawn from the mining industry that has been the source of environmental problems practically in our backyard? And why are the executives of Pegasus Gold bastards.
  • Easter Island, What really happened to the original inhabitants of Easter Islands. Hint: It doesn’t involve alien astronauts (I’m looking at you von Daniken).
  • Vikings in Greenland, why were the Vikings able to last for centuries in Greenland and then “suddenly” disappeared. And perhaps more importantly why have the Inuit been so much more successful, sort of.
  • The Genocide in Rwanda, what were the underlying causes of the Rwandan genocide, primarily perpetrated by the Hutu on the Tutsi. What would explain the Hutu on Hutu killings?
  • Hispaniola, Why do the Dominican’s owe much of their stability, environmental good fortune and higher economic status to a brutal dictator? Why do the poverty-stricken and environmentally devastated Haitians owe their misfortune to French democracy?
  • “Mining” Australia, what are the consequences of British values on Australian soil. And what’s up with all those damn rabbits.

In addition to the previous stories are others that include, China, Japan, Indonesia, the Mayans and the Anasazi. Surprisingly the common threads that the author seems to tease from the history books and the clarity of hindsight are issues that modern man faces today. Climate change, intervention from outside societies and, perhaps most importantly, environmental mismanagement.

He goes on to detail in the last 100 pages or so the Practical Lessons that can be learned and immediately applied to this modern world. Mr. Diamond does an awesome job of applying the practical lessons directly to the stories he’s woven throughout the book. I could list out some of the reasons he comes up with but they lose their impact if they are not delivered to the reader within their proper historical context.

It’s easy to view this book (especially after this review) in a pessimistic light. And quite frankly there are a number of reasons why you should have a pessimistic outlook when you see some of the same disastrous choices being made today (ah-Bush-choo!). But Jared Diamond remains optimistic. He sees shafts of light, not only from “bottom-up” NGOs such as the World Wildlife Fund and the Forest Stewardship Council but also from “top-down” initiatives being instituted by governments who recognize the value of their environmental (and renewable) assets, such as the Dutch polders and off the top of my head the quotas imposed on crab fishing in the Bering Sea (most famous as the location of the Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch series).

If you pick up this book you will read about Chevron’s Kutubu oil fields in Papua New Guinea and their absolutely amazing and minimal environmental impact. It’s even more starkly contrasted with the environmental devastation of the Indonesian government’s Salawati Island oil fields off the coast of New Guinea. What you will hopefully learn from this book is that Chevron (the big evil oil company with an impeccable environmental record) is very much aware that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. It took Exxon years to recover their former standing with consumers after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. When you have a choice to purchase gas from Texaco or Exxon people still to this day will pick Texaco because Exxon “was that company that killed all those poor birds and poisoned those penguins”.  In fact, Exxon was recently in the news again because of that accident from literally 2 decades ago, the PR (and 2.5 Billion dollars in punitive damages, yes billion) from that one oil spill is still being felt today.

The question is who do you boycott when a lumber company clear cuts hundreds of acres of lumber from old growth forests? Whose products do you avoid when a mine in Montana declares bankruptcy to avoid the exorbitant environmental remediation necessary to prevent the abandoned mine from poisoning an entire watershed? I don’t know either. Those are commodities that are in everyday products. You don’t boycott your cellphone because it has copper in it. Do you not buy a book shelf at Home Depot because it might be from one of these lumber companies. These are obviously rhetorical questions because we all know we don’t because we don’t have that direct connection between those companies and your choices as consumers.

I want to leave those who read my review with the biggest take-away lesson for myself. There are things you and I can do to begin to apply social and economic pressures to industries. When you purchase lumber look for wood marked with the Forest Stewardship Council’s seal, for example. Find products that have some assurance that they are being harvested, cut, fished, bred and grown in a sustainable way. This will protect our fisheries, forests and future.

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Six Seconds

I have just finished the book entitled Conjuring Science: Scientific Symbols and Cultural Meanings in American Life by Christopher P. Toumey. This is a nice break after my religion binge of late. If you are wondering I’m debating whether I move on to the Jared Diamond books on my list (see Brain Food) or I do have Carl Hiaasen’s book Basket Case (which is probably completely unrelated to either science or skepticism). I may read Basket Case before some more weighty material, actually I just decided that’s what I am going to do.

Anyway, I haven’t quite finished yet but I figured I would start blogging some of the points that I found very interesting now. Just as a brief synapsis, I’ll quote from the back of the book,

What are the implications for Americans when actors who play doctors on television endorse medical products, or when an entire town in the Midwest prepares for an earthquake based on the specious advice of a zoologist?

Toumey argues that instead of comprehending scientific knowledge, methods, or standards, most Americans know science only in terms of symbols that stand for science and that stand between people and scientific understanding. He breaks this paradox down into three questions. First, what are the historical conditions that have caused the culture of science to be so estranged from other parts of American culture? Second, how does science fit into American democratic culture today? And third, if the symbols of science are being used to endorse or legitimize certain values and meanings, but not the value and meanings of science, then to what do they refer?

Throughout the book the author takes the media to task for the sensationalist and shallow science journalism whose effects “…break up the public’s understanding of science into a fragmented miscellaney of trivia, mystery and trinkets…”.

Early in the book during a discussion of what makes good and bad television and how the shallow nature of television’s visual media contributes to the phenomenon that viewers treat all images on the television as equally real. In one paragraph he makes the following statement,

Close-ups of peoples’ faces are good television, whether in soap operas, sitcoms, sports events, talk shows, news reports, or science programs. So, too, “hate, fear, jealousy, winning, wanting, and violence” are the essense of “good television” because these kinds of content required fewer details, starker backgrounds, and more obvious forms than do other kinds of content. Furthermore, competition between stations or between networks requires a large amount of visual razzle-dazzle to hold the viewer’s attention and thus dissuade him or her from switching channels or, God forbid, turning off the television. Technical events such as cuts, pans, zooms, dissolves, and split screens occcur about every six seconds during ordinary network television and much more during commercials. Again, this characteristic is not the intentional preference of those who own the medium but rather an artifact of television technology; this is the only successful way to organize visual images in a competitive market, for it holds the viewer’s attention, almost to the point of hypnosis, but says Mander, this visual razzle-dazzle is “technique as replacement of content” because the frantic pace of switching visual images makes it impossible for the viewer to follow any one thought for very long.

Six seconds. Try it, watch any show this evening on any network and start counting as soon as a new scene switches. Six seconds. Don’t even bother with a commercial, you’ll barely make it to one. I thought to myself that this applies to shows like Desperate Housewives (it does) but won’t for something from the National Geographic channel or some other science-based show (wrong!). Six seconds. I don’t really know what this means in the grand scheme of things and what the impact of that kind thing has on someone but it blows me away. I even popped in one of my favorite kung fu movies Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. There is one scene in which the two main characters, who clearly have the hots for each other but deny themselves to each other, are having tea. The director pans the shot out and you see both of them sitting there sipping tea, very still, total silence, in that one shot Ang Lee was able to convey the essence of the two characters relationship. Six seconds.

This book covers a number of topics related to the use of the Symbols of Science as substitutes for explaining or conveying the actual heart of the scientific method but I will save those for another time.

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