Friday, January 07, 2005

Collapse

Just for the sake of balance, my new book is Jared Diamond's Collapse (I can't remember the last time I read two current best-sellers in a row, but . . .).

I have a lot of respect for Diamond. He's a guy who seems to me to have an excellent understanding of things like genetics and "evolutionary psychology" with the rare addition of having the good sense not to make grandiose claims on the basis of these things. Diamond is also a very good writer, who has something of the intellectual scope of someone like Stephen Jay Gould or Peter Medawar, but whose style is far more spare and simple than Gould's peripatetic intertextuality or Medawar's donnishness.

Diamond is fairly good at dealing with Crichton's sort of environmental skepticism in a fair-minded sort of way, but he's foursquare in the court of those who believe in global warming and in the potential for a global environmental meltdown on the horizon.

That specter on the horizon is the point of the book actually. Through historical examples, Diamond seeks to persuade us to see that that specter of environmental collapse exists and by analyzing the present he hopes to show the much greater scale such a collapse would have in our case.

Diamond also hopes to show us that we oughtn't give up hope for ourselves just yet. Effort and wise stewardship can see us through this potential crisis, and he has historical examples of isolated societies succeeding in such efforts.

I've jumped around in the book a great deal, but I haven't far enough in my cover-to-cover reading just yet to give you an evaluation of Diamond's success in persuading a marginally skeptical reader.

One thing I can say having read several other pieces that respond directly or indirectly to Crichton is this: scientists still have a very difficult time expressing themselves regarding scientific issues that are surrounded by uncertainty. The public expects answers from scientists, not uncertainty, unfortunately what science has to offer are often not certainties, but well-educated guesses and insight into likely and unlikely outcomes for any particular course of action. The lay public hates this--they want science to decide issues for them, not to give them a more information-rich dilemma.

Unfortunately, a lot of scientists seem to have responded to this situation by speaking to the public as if the uncertainty weren't there. To themselves they seem to say "I am a scientist. I have looked over the data. There is some degree of uncertainty, but I feel confident in interpreting the data in such-and-such a way."

In public though, what we get is "I am the expert and I say such-and-such is going to happen and we damn well better do something about it!"

This is one of the things Crichton seems most irked by in the public discussions of global warming: everything gets dumbed down. Discussion is structured in such a way that the scientists are figured as initiates and the public as hopelessly incapable of real participation. Diamond, though, is not really of that ilk. He himself is a poacher across the borderlines between faculties and fields of study (he's now a professor of geography--a classic resting place for thinkers who can't seem to stay in one division of the faculty). So I have high hopes for this book as a clear and honest statement about the environmental crisis we in the 21st century may face.

OPK