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Apocalypse Soon

New Books Parse Out Details of the End of the World as We Know It

Smell of Steve Inc.

By Scott Carlson | Posted 1/26/2005

We Americans have a morbid fascination with apocalypse and disintegration. Odd as it might sound, we fantasize about societal collapse—in entertainments as different as Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Left Behind. Even Fight Club’s Tyler Durden—the personification of American Id—foresaw people “stalking elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockefeller Center.”

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed
By Jared Diamond
Viking, clothbound

Diet for a Dead Planet: How the Food Industry Is Killing Us
By Christopher D. Cook
New Press, clothbound

Jared Diamond shares this fascination and understands the “spectacular and haunting beauty” we see in places like the Maya ruins. “Lurking behind this romantic mystery is the nagging thought: might such a fate eventually befall our own wealthy society?” Indeed it may, he writes in his polemical new book, Collapse, a series of case studies of extinct societies—the Easter Islanders, the Anasazi, the Norse of Greenland, the Maya, and other people. Whether modern America, Europe, or China will collapse is up for debate, but the picture Diamond paints is not good.

In a recent interview on National Public Radio, Diamond said that he had toyed with the idea of calling the book Ecocide, as environmental destruction leads to societal collapse in every case. In a pre-emptive strike on critics, Diamond, who won the 1998 general nonfiction Pulitzer Prize for his study of the impact of environment and geography on human history, Guns, Germs, and Steel, is careful to point out that, although he is an avid bird-watcher and hiker, he did not set out to write a tree-hugger’s tract. From the beginning, Diamond advocates a true “wise use” of resources—and shows how unwise use leads, directly or indirectly, to self-destruction. (Later in the book, a section on “one-liner objections” addresses the critics’ dismissals, like: “We don’t need to worry about the environment because technology will solve our problems.”)

For the reader with apocalyptic obsessions, history’s collapses are given such compelling archeological, biological, and historical detail that they might cure one of any survivalist fantasies. Consider the collapse of the Anasazi, a group of advanced, Southwestern Native American people who died out around 1200 A.D.: After cutting down all the trees in their valley and improperly irrigating their fields, the Anasazi devolved to starvation, warfare, and cannibalism, as evidenced by the discovery of human flesh in preserved human fecal matter. Such waste remains also suggest that hunger got so desperate for the Anasazi that some people were catching mice, lopping the heads off, and swallowing the furry little rodents whole. So much for elk hunting on Madison Avenue.

With each historical collapse, the descriptions of which compose the first half of the book, Diamond intends to show different factors that work with environmental degradation to contribute to a fall. Trade with neighbors, or lack thereof, might be a factor, as might be war. He leads the book with a discussion of Easter Island, the “perfect” collapse: So remote was Easter Island that the Polynesians there were completely cut off from the rest of the world. Upon their arrival, the island was covered with some of the biggest trees in the world, but the people cut them all down and used them to help erect massive stone idols to ancestors and chieftains. Without the trees, the soil eroded and there were no materials to make boats for fishing trips. War, famine, and death ensued.

With the last half of the book, Diamond connects events of the past with trends in the present. Although we have much more advanced tools and knowledge than Stone Age Polynesians, Diamond says, we are also destroying our environment at a much faster rate and introducing much bigger problems. And like the societies that depended on trade of stones or turtle meat, we depend heavily on precious imports, too—like oil. He points to Haiti and Rwanda, where factors like overpopulation and environmental degradation have led to political upheaval, strife, and genocide. In fact, he points out, all of the world’s politically unstable hot spots are also environmentally degraded hot spots.

Occasionally, this analysis stretches a bit, or seems incomplete—one can think of many politically unstable areas that aren’t on Diamond’s list, such as North Korea. Here and there, the book is numbingly complete; Diamond, a professor of geography at UCLA, tends to follow scholarly tangents, like explaining in detail the process of accurately dating archeological sites through tree rings or rat feces.

But on the whole, the book is relevant, well-argued, important—and not entirely discouraging. Diamond discusses countries like New Guinea, Australia, Japan, Iceland, and the Dominican Republic, where people sensed the danger of ecocide and took steps to reverse it. He opens his book in Montana, where strong feelings about environmentalism, land rights, and livelihoods in mining, logging, farming, real estate, and tourism are pushing and pulling the state toward a yet undecided fate—either collapse and failure or sustainability and success.

Many of the breakdowns in Collapse hinge on agriculture, so what better book for companion reading than Diet for a Dead Planet? Compared with the tone of Collapse, Christopher D. Cook, an investigative journalist for magazines like Mother Jones and Rolling Stone, has written a far more polemical book about all that is wrong with American agriculture, food production, and food sales. A perusal of the footnotes shows that Cook hasn’t done any firsthand research—he didn’t visit slaughterhouses, like Eric Schlosser did for Fast Food Nation. In fact, his book relies heavily on the work of Schlosser, Michael Pollan, Wendell Berry, and scores of journalists and government regulators.

That is not to say Dead Planet doesn’t have merits of its own. In the end, it’s a cogent synthesis of arguments against industrial farming and agribusiness monopolies and the government policies that enable them. Cook piles on statistics, history, and other facts in every sentence, rarely pausing for the sort of scene-setting you might get from journalists with a literary flair, like Schlosser. The facts here pound like jackhammers—showing, for example, that supermarket chains mark up food by as much as 900 percent, or that agribusiness dumps half a million tons of pesticides on food every year. Even people who pay attention to issues in sustainable agriculture will learn something.

Like Diamond, Cook tries to end on a high note—the good and hopeful news of food in America. But the solutions—to buy local and organic, to fight against genetic modification—seem tiny compared to the problems we face. Even spending lavishly at Whole Foods will not save us, Cook points out, because the organic oranges burned gallons of gas getting from Florida to Maryland.

After getting through both books, one can’t help looking at a pile of citrus fruit, a wood floor in a house, or a new subdivision down the street without a sense of unease or a desire to do something—but what? Maybe move to a plot of land, get off the grid, learn how to butcher an elk, and develop a taste for mice.

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