Gourevitch makes a really well-done narrative from dozens of interviews with Abu Ghraib prison guards, as well as some of the officials involved in it...moreGourevitch makes a really well-done narrative from dozens of interviews with Abu Ghraib prison guards, as well as some of the officials involved in its planning. I was consistently impressed with the skill he had in distilling the interviews into plot, character, tone, and a fascinating exploration of the psychology and causation of the prisoner abuse there.
The only issue I had was that Gourevitch never attempts to analyze the cause of the atrocities. He thoroughly undermines the "one bad apple" excuse offered by the Bush administration but never replaces it with a more comprehensive systemic explanation. Officers are at worst described as passing the buck, overlooking the atrocities, and failing to implement policies to avoid them. Even the appalling SOP from Guantanamo Bay is rejected, never implemented for some reason. Yet ending the conversation here makes it seem like the whole thing was caused by a psychological disorder that emerged among the group and was simply never addressed. It is never tied to the larger theme of American brutality in pursuing imperial aims abroad, a pattern it is frighteningly at home in. Compared to some of the US military's worse abuses, Abu Ghraib actually comes off as rather tame - just somewhat weirder and a lot better documented than most.(less)
Massacre at El Mozote is an extension of a New Yorker article, so it's fairly short and not particularly dense. It chronicles the course of the Salvad...moreMassacre at El Mozote is an extension of a New Yorker article, so it's fairly short and not particularly dense. It chronicles the course of the Salvadoran civil war leading to the massacre and the response by the US government to the news. It's a standard Cold War imperialist atrocity narrative - the US gave arms, advice, and training to the Army of the military junta government to keep them in power against a popular rebellion supported by the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, who presumably had something to do with Communism. Danner starts with the background: 12-year civil war, starting with a purge of the urban left (first union leaders and activists, then teachers, then girls in jeans and tennis shoes), evolving into a counterisurgency against guerillas in the mountains. As with any of these cases, there's no question who's on the right side here, and no excuse for the US to fall so heavily on the wrong one.
The interesting thing is that the focus on El Mozote somehow undermines the atrocities of the rest of the war. El Mozote is interesting because they were born-again Protestants, immune to the Liberation Theology inspiring the guerillas. They supported the Army, had contacts within it, and expected to be spared in the scorched earth campaign in the area. An officer friendly to El Mozote's shopkeeper advised him to keep everyone in the village - those who fled would be presumed guilty. However, this ends up seeming like a deliberate trick (though it's not obvious that the massacre was so planned), when troops show up and kill 99% of the village and those who had fled there from neighboring towns, seeking its promised asylum. It's almost as though Danner is suggesting the massacre was bad because it was a betrayal, because they were "innocent." There seems otherwise no reason to focus on it - it was slightly larger in scale than previous incidents, but otherwise not particularly noteworthy. This is unfortunate, because it is not obviously more "atrocious" than the rest of the government's US-encouraged war, nor was it the only opportunity the US had to learn about the Salvadoran military's violation of human rights conditions on which military aid was legally supposed to depend.
It's instructive for me to come back to US military regime change and intervention stories after letting my ideology cool a bit, because I can now see the cause of these things in a clearer light. Before, I would have jumped at the Embassy, the Military, and the CIA for conspiring to hide these things from the public, trying to avoid getting caught with the hands in the blood jar, so to speak. But it is now quite obvious that the whole operation, the utter stupidity and willful blindness about the relationship between the rebels and Communism (they apparently believed that ANY atrocity on the part of the government would pale in comparison to what the rebels would do if they took power), were in part a product of media-amplified public fear of the Soviet Union, of changes in the power balance that might threaten their hemisphere.
This explains the Congressional schizophrenia: members needed to maintain the pretense that they were basically decent human beings without making decisive inaction that could lead to them being called out for "losing El Salvador to the Communists" - a situation that would be perceived as directing threatening US security. Imperialist atrocities weren't just an plot that greedy corporate-purchased politicians and revolving-door civil servants pulled over the public's eyes. They were that, but they were also well within the spirit of the foreign policy many Americans wanted the government to pursue.(less)
Mintz and DeRouen try to summarize a broad set of literature that models and tries to understand the key criteria in foreign policy decisions. The goa...moreMintz and DeRouen try to summarize a broad set of literature that models and tries to understand the key criteria in foreign policy decisions. The goal is admirable, trying to bring a scientific objectivity to an ideologically cluttered subject matter. As so often happens in social sciences, however, the answers they give are a series of theories and lists and categories, which are occasionally brilliantly explanatory but more often tedious and self-important.
There a lot of insights to take away from this book, but it was a tedious slog to read, because it is organized by broad categories like "media marketing," "psychological factors," and "models of decision making." This means that it often covers the same ground over and over and over again. It seems like the authors might have been better off structuring the book around the historical development of FPDM's explanatory techniques, looking at how major models were created and verified and later challenged, refined, and replaced, using a synthesis of all these aspects. This would have emphasized the broad set of phenomena to be explained (which is really the interesting bit).
Further, presenting the theories and categories themselves as the meat of the book, with history-of-poli-sci and case studies as examples to support them, belies the self-evident fact that each model or point of view can never stand alone - they are not competing with each other but simply apply to different extents in different situations. The authors acknowledge this throughout, but the way the book is set up frames the theories as possible facts, not useful tools.
One of the key insights from the class I read this for (US Foreign Policy) was that FP is not just about conflict and other major events. For a book about FPDM in general, the emphasis on US/Israeli examples, particularly those involving invasions and conflict, was somewhat disappointing. It prevented the book from achieving a broader synoptic view of foreign policy.
The insights that I found valuable concerned the network of constraints that limits possible decisions: a leader's first priority is to maintain his power (essentially, self-preservation); after that, a series of domestic lobbies, the media, and the way foreign institutions perceive various actions, effectively limit the number of things a head of state can realistically do. Poltical science, like any science, shows the determinism of the world (by definition, since it actively seeks out these patterns and explanations).(less)
For a book with such a bland, uninspired title, "Conservation and Globalization" is packed with insights and compelling narratives. The book's central...moreFor a book with such a bland, uninspired title, "Conservation and Globalization" is packed with insights and compelling narratives. The book's central thesis is that conservation in East Africa has been just one more way that colonizers have imposed their cultural constructions and economic imperatives on their subject peoples. Igoe documents first the traditional Maasai pastoral land use techniques in the Tarangire-Simanjiro area (his study site). Then he examines how this system was disrupted by the imposition of the national park. The conclusion: excluding Maasai and their cattle from the Tarangire River forced the Maasai to overgraze pastures they formerly only grazed in the wet season, that are really only grazeable then, since they are otherwise too dry. The lack of dry season watering holes bottlenecked Maasai livestock populations, reducing herd size below what the Maasai needed to survive, forcing them to switch to subsistence farming of very marginal lands. As farmers, the Maasai then had an incentive to exclude wildlife from the area, something they had never done before.
The unjust theft of the Tarangire River resource could perhaps be justified by effective conservation outcomes - if it were really a case of Maasai v. elephants, perhaps elephants might win. However, Igoe's evidence suggests that the national park conservation model has accomplished precisely the opposite of what it was intended to. It has increased active conflicts between humans and wildlife by causing poverty (which drives poaching, for meat and for ivory) and overuse in areas outside of parks (which are also the wet season pastures of the animals the park is meant to protect). Thus, many of the modern issues facing conservation in East Africa are results of conservation in East Africa.
The next part of the book is a broad but effective explanation of why Western conservationists imposed the national park model and why they continue to suggest it even after Western science has proven they are destructive. He cites the English enclosure movement, which similarly alienated peasants from their land, aristocratic game parks (Kenya and Tanzania were popular places for aristocrats like Teddy Roosevelt to go prove their manliness by shooting Rhinos etc), Romantic ideals of wilderness and sublime landscapes, and the racist notion that poor and indigenous peoples are not sophisticated enough to appreciate nature or to effectively manage their resources. The last idea especially is traced to Garrett Hardin's "Tragedy of the Commons," which is more ideology than science, and the main examples from which are directly opposed by historical evidence. Thus the national park in Africa is a misguided notion from the start, a mixture of good and selfish intentions informed by no realistic understanding of the land.
Igoe raises a really wonderful point here about the way power dichotomies between the Maasai and British colonialists (or any other colonized-colonizer pair) privilege the Western viewpoint as "scientific, informed, and objective" where knowledge of the Maasai, is downplayed as unscientific, culturally specific, and ignorant of how the world works. This despite the obvious, inevitable fact that the Maasai have spent centuries observing the land where they live. While the Maasai could surely stand to learn plenty from Western science - its techniques and its accumulated observations - they should clearly be regarded as the experts on conserving resources in their homeland - again, over and above their right to the self-determination of their landscape. Thus, while in this case the English were being thoroughly unscientific - justifying their cultural and economic desires with "science" that was uninformed and precisely backwards - their position as the civilized arbiters of knowledge (and their guns) gave their theft legitimacy.
So far so obvious - colonizer steals land to benefit themselves culturally (tourists get to see landscapes clean of primitive natives and/or "civilization") and economically (rich investors get to run lucrative hotels) and the natives "are moved into the money economy without the means to participate in it fully . . . and assimilated into the lowest ranks of national cultures." But the story gets really interesting when Igoe traces the ideologies and realities of post-colonial conservation.
After colonialism, the backlash against economic imperialism became vogue in charity circles. Gradually, aid money became enlightened, at least theoretically, so the days of chasing people from their homes to make room for tourists in the name of conservation should have been over. However, “the problem is that the ideas attached to [aid] money are almost always those of powerful people who run the institutions in this global network [NGOs and TGOs]. The ideas of marginalized people are almost never considered or implemented, although there are important exceptions to this rule.” Even native-run NGOs became oriented to Western donors' ideas and values rather than their missions and visions and the needs of their communities.
“This situation is complicated by the fact that money needs to be spent and accounted for within a certain period of time. . . . Community participation takes a lot of time. Involving local people in every stage of the process would thwart the funding cycle. . . . Consulting with communities, and doing a really thorough job, takes so much time that producing quantifiable results at the end of a year or two is nearly impossible. The unfortunate outcome is that community consultation is reduced to a very superficial process. . . . many organizations targeting Maasai communities worked hard to construct an appearance of popular participation without actually involving local people very much.” Thus, while the ideals of conservation in regards to indigenous peoples had experienced a 180 degree flip, the realities for communities were often exactly the same.
The next important point Igoe makes is that his result is generalizable. There are substantial differences between the contexts of national parks around the world, but in most cases, especially in the third world, conservation follows this unfortunate model. The final chapter surveys other examples of community-led conservation, from cases in Australia and Alaska where indigenous communities hold some title and direction over parks co-managed by national park services to parks wholly established and designed by indigenous communities. Each of these models is better in certain ways than the standard exclusionary one implemented most places in the US and around the world. However, none of them achieves the goals they were established for - to protect the autonomous sustainable use and lifestyle of an indigenous community from exploitation.
The reason for that is intuitive from a relativist point of view. Creating gazetted parks, with trained administrators, visitors' centers, educated conservation biologists, and fighting the legal battles to establish and defend the integrity of a park are all activities that are firmly outside the skill set, comfort zone, and resource capacity of indigenous communities. They give the exploiters a heavy handicap. Further, they are premised on the notion that conservation must be an assertive use of land. The whole situation is entirely backwards. This is the value of a system of human rights, since a community doesn't need to be in a park to legally have its resources protected from extractive industry and alienation.
This point, made more assertively by Mac Chapin in "A Challenge to Conservationists" - http://watha.org/in-depth/EP176A.pdf - leads to the conclusion that global biodiversity will only be effectively protected if conservationists stop attacking indigenous land rights by establishing protected areas and start attacking the people who are actually destroying global biodiversity - extractive and polluting industries, chiefly. The problem for conservationists is that those industries are their funders, so they are effectively precluded from attacking them. They justify this unforgivable silence by claiming that such issues (often mediated by corrupt post-colonial national governments) are "too political" for them to speak on.
Igoe makes all these points in clear, comprehensible language and without recourse to academic jargon. The stories that comprise his evidence are humanized and often rather hilarious or otherwise interesting. While it may be somewhat problematic that his own viewpoint is so prominent in the text (it really reads more like political advocacy than anthropology, since his field data is almost invisible), it's clear that his viewpoint is considerably more informed than at least most of the voices opposing his conclusions (advertising and fundraising materials from the conservation NGO community and misguided apologists for the status quo). This book is highly recommended.(less)
In my Independent Study on the works and thought of Derrick Jensen last year, we imagined the utility of an "Intergovernmental Panel on Global Collaps...moreIn my Independent Study on the works and thought of Derrick Jensen last year, we imagined the utility of an "Intergovernmental Panel on Global Collapse," a group that could use models and environmental and economic data to form a set of rough constraints and scenarios about the path industrial civilization could take. Collapse theorists like Aric McBay and John Michael Greer offer their near-certain prognosis that "collapse" is either with us now or on the near horizon.
However, for lack of data and computational power to predict the future, such analysts end up falling a bit flat because their scenarios and arguments differ only in the personality of the teller - Greer has little evidence to support his claim that collapse is gradual, and McBay and the other catastrophists find it difficult to support their interpretation that there will be a more-or-less datable collapse in the future. They struggle to pin down the specific nature of collapse - will it be a collapse of the American Empire, of the global financial market, of the industrial food distribution system, of fossil fuel extraction as an enterprise? This is not because they don't see the need or value of such predictions, but because they're basically impossible.
Randers seemed to offer the next best thing to a serious, well funded and interdisciplinary effort to examine this most important of all possible questions. The disappointing truth is that his model apparently writes out the possibility of unforeseen state shifts like sudden catastrophic collapses in ecosystem service delivery, financial markets, nuclear war, or the discovery of abundant new gas reserves (some of which are more likely than others).
The nature of modeling is to take existing trends and extend them into the future; thresholds and deep feedbacks can only be elucidated by serious research. Randers further disappoints by extending his forecast only to 2052: as he points out, all the interesting and catastrophic things are likely to happen in the second half of the century and beyond, when climate change feedbacks kick into gear.
The result is modestly interesting - Randers predicts no reduction of carbon emissions until peak oil, increasing use of renewable energy and biofuels, stable and then declining global population, China's emerging hegemony, rising GDP in the developing world, increasing starvation and malnutrition, etc. Nothing new or interesting or particularly compelling. That's why I just skimmed the bulk of the book.
Early in the book, Randers recounts the time he realized that humans weren't going to change their behavior in time to avoid the worst effects of climate change, biodiversity loss, and global poverty. He says that at that time, he kept the realization a secret: some more optimistic people needed the hope to keep doing good work that he wanted them to do, so he felt it would be ill-advised to spread his bad news. However, now he apparently sees more value in coming to terms with our place in the vast machinations of history. This book represents that coming-to-terms, moving beyond the cloying and obnoxious need most authors of such books have to craft a narrative that compels readers to vague, likely short-lived, and ultimately ineffective action.
In contrast, his advice at the end of the book is actually quite refreshing and seems rather helpful. Most serious environmental writers who acknowledge the hopelessness of the situation either conclude that we should fight anyway, because trying is the only moral option (Deep Green Resistance: Strategy to Save the Planet), or that we should do some vague environmental value-building for our selves and communities (http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.ph...). Randers instead offers pragmatic advice: learn to accept the tragedy, and ride it out as best you can.
He suggests that we base happiness on non-monetary satisfaction, learn to enjoy video games and movies, avoid teaching children to enjoy wilderness, and move someplace with a reasonably proactive government and away from the worst projected impacts of climate change. Overall, he suggests learning to like the way the world will be in 40 years in advance, to save you the trouble of adjusting when that future comes. (less)
I don't want to dismiss this book too hastily, for they do make a lot of nice points that are worth stating. It's true that history is a complex, fuzz...moreI don't want to dismiss this book too hastily, for they do make a lot of nice points that are worth stating. It's true that history is a complex, fuzzy thing and no one understands it well enough to be *too* confident making grand theories. It's true that Jared Diamond could probably have spent more time acknowledging the limitations of his theories, the complications involved, the existence of descendants from the collapsed societies he studies and their complex relationships with the modern world, and above all the factors of oppression involved in the modern distribution of wealth and power.
That said, however, I found this book to be somewhat incoherent, often baffling, and full of special pleading. For one thing, the overall message was scattered because the authors never attempted to replace Diamond's environmental determinist thesis with an explanation of their own. The conclusion was rather that the matter is simply too complex for general explanations that can be abstracted out of context. This may be true, but it is not the feeling many anthropologists seem to have, largely because it is not very useful assumption on which to predicate investigations of cause and effect (ie, explanations and predictions - the very stuff of science). I interpret this as an unfortunate damage-control response to the perceived widespread belief in Diamond's popular thesis, which they see as overly simplistic. Since they fail to advance any argument of their own (other than "it's complicated") the evidence each essay provides about its own case study often feels superfluous and irrelevant.
An even stranger trend throughout the book attacked Diamond's attempt to explain inequality and conquest as justifications for that conquest. This is obtuse - Diamond is clearly not an imperialist (he's far too nice for that) and he clearly understands the unfortunate dynamics of colonialism. By confusing any explanation of oppression for a justification, the authors preclude inquiry into its causes. If scientists like Diamond are to make any contribution to confronting oppression, it will be through understanding and explaining their causes and the factors that allow them to be perpetuated.
While this may be merely a result of the diversity of authors present, it was also ambiguous whether Diamond was to be criticized for being too deterministic (thus painting humans as robots with no agency) or not deterministic enough (and therein blaming eg Haitians for destroying their environment). These may both be valid arguments in their own ways, but their juxtaposition added to the confusion of the book.
Worst of all was the pleading question of definitions: Diamond was wrong not because his scholarship was inadequate or his interpretation faulty, but simply because the authors didn't like his definitions (of collapse, of success/failure, etc). Emphasizing that languages, races, and many other cultural traits are perpetuated after most collapses does not make collapse irrelevant or unreal. While perhaps Diamond's definitions are flawed (aren't all such definitions?), this seems a rather childish and unproductive way of addressing the works. It essentially precludes discussion, since the differences between the scholars is fundamental, not specific. It willfully introduces the confounding factor Will Durant (I believe?) identified as the root of most philosophical debates.
Many of the articles do in fact introduce evidence to directly contradict Diamond. I could take little from such discussions, however, since the conversation devolved to a he-said, she-said in which I could only discover "truth" by looking at the primary sources (which I have insufficient drive to do at the moment). For example: "Another chapter contends that the ancient people of the American southwest, the Anasazi, did not deforest Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, that “there was never a forest in the canyon” and that analysis of plant remains in ancient pack-rat middens there “reveal a climate and ecology almost exactly like that which exists today”. Yet the opposite is true: radiocarbon dating of middens revealed a former pinyon-juniper woodland that is now absent from the canyon." - from Diamond's excellent response - http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/...
Overall, the volume feels like a knee-jerk response to Diamond's popular work. It offers no alternative perspective, its critiques often feel inconsistent and half-baked, and the sentiment of jealousy, though often denied, is occasionally detectable. This is unfortunate, since a response that attempted to integrate Diamond's contribution to the debate, find its flaws, and continue working towards a better explanation would be quite valuable.(less)
I just skimmed this book to find the essence of its argument and pick out excerpts for my Jensen tutorial. The main thesis is that natural capitalism...moreI just skimmed this book to find the essence of its argument and pick out excerpts for my Jensen tutorial. The main thesis is that natural capitalism can do things better for people and the planet in the long term. The premises of natural capitalism are of course intuitive and appealing. However, the book ends up being a bundle of great individual ideas masquerading as a plan for saving the whole economy/society. The ideas on offer could and would be picked up by individual entrepeneurs and make them a bundle of money while saving the planet and helping people. Hawken and the Lovins seem to believe that that's all they can or need to do (which is fine, if that's what they want to accomplish).
Yet their unbridled optimism pushes them to go further and assert that business owners who don't adopt natural capitalist principles will be left behind by the new wave; that the economy will simply shift on its own in the same way that it shifted from coal to oil or into industrial capitalism. I looked through the whole book and came to the conclusion that this is simply an article of faith: they never discuss its likelihood or any evidence about the question. Since natural capitalism is predicated on system-level design and shifts in high-level political policy, this is a startling omission. Individual business owners might make some money using resources more efficiently, but natural capitalism won't come about unless systemic change occurs, and this book offers nothing but faith and optimism about that. They don't even exhort readers to lobby for those system level changes – they seem to think that would be a waste of time, since it's inevitable anyway.
That said, the evidence they marshal is rich and great, and they really do have some great specific concepts and ideas in here. It's just framed in a really idiosyncratic way that makes it seem like more than it can really be.
It was also interesting to me that Hawken just treats the course of history as this series of brilliant innovations that solve engineering and distribution problems, coupled with all these bumbling errors and clumsinesses that cause all these mishaps and make the whole thing fail to achieve its real potential and true goal (which he asserts is to make everyone happier or whatever). What's interesting is that he doesn't ignore social inequality and racism and these issues - he clearly cares about them deeply. But he doesn't ever engage in a class analysis or something that would show that these problems are caused by some to benefit themselves at expense of others. This precludes him from addressing the fact that those who benefit might try to influence the growth of natural capitalism away from the social and environmental values he sees it creating towards a more or less sustainable version of today's social order.(less)
Tainter begins by swiftly and often mercilessly batting aside all available explanations for collapse in the market at his time. (This perceived paucity seems to be his inspiration for the book.) These are, for the most part, very nicely done and quickly key in to the major flaws each theory has as an explanatory device. This clarity is extremely gratifying and I wish more thinkers would drink from Tainter's cup, so to speak. However, this incisiveness may come at the expense of nuanced, cautious, and case-specific history: Tainter is very much set on finding a 'global theory,' which can explain the recurring phenomenon of collapse found in any given place. He has no patience for theories that are overly dependent on the specific nature of each case, a trait that many historians and anthropologists would take issue with (cf. Questioning Collapse: Human Resilience, Ecological Vulnerability, and the Aftermath of Empire).
After dispensing handily with the crowd of existing theories, Tainter offers his own suggestion: diminishing marginal returns (DMR). That is, any given strategy of social organization has large initial benefits that are easily obtained - this is why the transition occurs in the first place (as in Earle and Johnson). As time goes on, the most easily obtained benefits become the status quo, or are exhausted, or demand increases, forcing ever-higher costs to maintain the same level of growth/maintain stasis. This theory is handy in its versatility - it can apply to whatever the most fundamental resource of a society is, from soil nutrition to fisheries to information flow to technical development to oil. It works in tribal and chiefdom societies as well as state and industrial ones.
It is so versatile, in fact, that I'm almost uncomfortable with it: based on the definitions offered in Earle and Johnson, and by Tainter himself, collapse is essentially synonymous with the cheapest strategy when costs of complexity begin to exceed benefits. DMR theory is thus uncomfortably tautological. As noted above, Tainter critiques other theories for being too parochial. His theory is so abstract and general, that in every application Tainter must call back the theories he eschewed and ask them to fill in the specifics of his theory, as subordinates to it.
Tainter has nothing positive to say about the modern global situation. He concludes that, since the collapse of any one state would only result in its incorporation into a competitor, all the states must collapse at once if collapse does occur. He also sees no way out - with no new territory to conquer and no new energy subsidy to replace oil, the industrial lifestyle will outlive its value and be replaced by a more adaptive organization at some point (he wisely declines to say when he thinks this will happen).
As an aside, John Michael Greer premises The Long Descent: A User's Guide to the End of the Industrial Age on the idea that, by Tainter's requirement that collapse occurs "within a few decades," collapse is rare. Instead, societies tend to decline over a period of a century or more. This is a strange oversight in Tainter's book, since most of the examples of "collapse" he uses don't fit his own definition. (less)
"How Chiefs Come to Power" is a more thorough and somewhat more modern look at the chiefdom category examined in Earle's earlier book, The Evolution o...more"How Chiefs Come to Power" is a more thorough and somewhat more modern look at the chiefdom category examined in Earle's earlier book, The Evolution of Human Societies: From Foraging Group to Agrarian State. Earle's premise changed slightly over the decade between the two. No longer does he assert that population density drives all change. However, while the increased nuance is appreciated, I'm not convinced that this book represents a substantial explanatory advance over the previous work.
In this book, Earle focuses on only three case studies at this narrow margin of political "evolution" - from big men collectivities to chiefdoms, more or less. He expounds on their archaeological histories in much greater detail than he did in "Evolution." This seems to have been at the expense of thesis-driven argument. His analyses are well-made and credible, but often seem to elide interesting discussions that were addressed in the other work.
For instance, the way that bronze imports allowed a chief class to take power in Thy, Denmark is logical enough, but Earle never discusses the logic that moving to a herding system to support this economic endeavor might have for the non-chief class, a perspective I found very enlightening in "Evolution."
In another, perhaps more irresponsible case, Earle discusses the transition from warring neighbor states to the Inka empire and the consequences this had for political economy, but never addresses why this transition might have come about. In "Evolution," he claims that gradually rising population densities finally allowed one group to dominate the rest, bringing the area to the new stable state of empire. Earle never addresses this or the evidence for it one way or another in this book.
In other ways, Earle's treatment here does benefit from the greater nuance of age, experience, or more modern paradigms. He explores the mutually complementary nature of economic, military, and ideological power and shows how each can be more or less crucial in different ecological situations. He thus still establishes clear connections between the political state of the group and factors that aren't exclusively cultural like climatic and soil conditions, trade networks, etc. He does sometimes seem to go too far in discrediting population. He explains that warfare in the Wanka highlands isn't correlated with changes in population, so therefore warfare must not be caused by competition over scarce resources. Yet at the same time, he tells us that the Wanka themselves assert that warfare is done in order to take land and women - clearly, competition for scarce resources, which is of course driven by population density in combination with cultural factors.(less)
"Cannibals and Kings" is a sort of strange book. It tackles a variety of seemingly unrelated topics of popular interest in a sort of seamless flow, al...more"Cannibals and Kings" is a sort of strange book. It tackles a variety of seemingly unrelated topics of popular interest in a sort of seamless flow, all through the lenses of environmentally-centered determinist forces. Harris has an authoritative authorial voice - there is always "no doubt" that the explanation he gives is The Explanation to this human mystery.
Harris is an environmental determinist, which I like, and his arguments often presage those of the later, more famous determinist Jared Diamond - for instance, regarding the lack of good domesticable animals in Mesoamerica and the role of environmental degradation in the Mayan collapse. He uses this nimble set of instruments to explain phenomena as varied as warfare, patriarchy, civilization, capitalism, the sacrality of cows in India, cannibalism in the Aztec empire, and vegetarianism.
In all cases, the evolutionary-environmental model claims that cultural choices can't "maintain [themselves] successfully for any material period of time counter to fundamental economic resistance." They seek adaptive explanations for everything. Harris applies this model adroitly and provides intuitive, satisfying explanations for all the phenomena examined. That said, however, it's been 35 years since this book was published, so I'm sure much of it has been proven overly facile or wholly false in the interim.
I read this as part of my Anthropology tutorial with Prof. Peregrine regarding the anthropological claims of Derrick Jensen. To that end, Harris' claim that "The majority of hunter-collectors known to modern observers carry out some sort of inter-group combat in which teams of warriors deliberately try to kill each other," swiftly refutes Jensen's claim that "even for many of the warlike indigenous peoples--that is, those who are ahistorical, uncivilized--to kill noncombatants was unthinkable, and even killing combatants was a rarity, an event." Jensen may be correct that some indigenous groups dealt with war in the way he claims, but portraying the whole thing as a matter of civilized v. indigenous conceals the diverse manifestations of war in indigenous peoples and the other factors that might be responsible for that diversity (e.g., certain manifestations of population pressure).
Harris explains war as a result of population pressure through a creative mechanism: he believes wars control population by encouraging families to keep male children (to raise as warriors) but to kill female babies. This creates a culture that values men over women, resulting in all sorts of patriarchal nastiness. However, he also advances the idea that war cultures favor male combatants over females (rather than simply choosing the strongest, bravest individuals regardless of sex) is because they need war to justify female infanticide. This seems like an untenably circular argument to me, but perhaps I don't understand it fully.(less)
I was explicitly reading this book as part of an IS course investigating Derrick Jensen's anthropological assertions. The particular premises I was ho...moreI was explicitly reading this book as part of an IS course investigating Derrick Jensen's anthropological assertions. The particular premises I was hoping this book would address are as follows:
“a civilization as a culture that both leads to and emerges from the growth of cities, with cities being defined as people living more or less permanently in one place in densities high enough to require the routine importation of food and other necessities of life.” - Endgame Vol. 1, "Civilization"
There is an ecologically and culturally meaningful distinction to be drawn between “civilized” and “non-civilized” peoples.
Earle and Johnson's analysis was an eye-opening whirlwind tour of some real case studies with bearing on Jensen's assertions. They create a much more nuanced and serious analysis of the "evolution of human societies" from family level to local groups to chiefdoms to states. This transition is already much more nuanced that Jensen's civilization/not dichotomy! However, the truth of Jensen's argument stands in some sense. The poles he identified do more or less gel with the ideas presented in the book. Stratification, control, conflict, malnourishment, environmental degradation, etc, are much more pronounced in more integrated societies.
The strength of Earle and Johnson's evolution metaphor is to show that while these traits and their potentials are present in all societies, they are expressed differently in adaptive response to local conditions. While Jensen never questions why civilization should have emerged in the first place, Earle and Johnson deftly explain the logic of each sacrifice of family autonomy to group control.
Their argument, in brief, is that population growth forces the intensification of resource use, which requires one or more of four things: risk mitigation - when societies are living at the edge of what their environment can provide, they risk starvation in particularly dry/wet/stormy/etc years, so they must develop social systems that store wealth and redistribute it in bad periods, which requires a leader to coordinate
warfare - when concentrated resources people depend on to live become scarce, communities sometimes find it advantageous to take them from neighbors by force, despite the high costs of war. Thus groups living at higher densities must provide for defense and offense, which requires the coordination of a leader.
technology - often resources are available only through substantial capital investment beyond what any individual family can muster. For instance, a whaling canoe costs many resources but brings back more than any family can eat. Leaders are required to accumulate resources and coordinate construction of these technologies. At higher levels these include irrigation works, etc.
trade - trade can provide food security, so a community can transform wealth accumulated in good years into food accumulated in bad ones, as well as non-locally available resources like stone, etc. Interestingly, Johnson and Earle never identify it as a mechanism to increase efficiency on its own.
This analysis is intuitive and has a great degree of explanatory power, at least it seems to me. For instance, it explains what Jensen and others refer to as "collapse" as a reversal of the cost/benefit conditions that justify higher integration, which in turn provides a handle for the investigation of that phenomenon.
Thus while Jensen's argument has elements of truth to it, it is shown to leave out many nuances and narratives that add substantially to discussion of the question. While it's true that hierarchy, repression, and domination increase with civilization, as do slavery, inequality, and environmental damage, Jensen never explores the trade-offs these negatives are a part of, the reasons why anyone ever agreed to them. In Endgame, Derrick discusses the idea that population is the variable that must come down for the planet to live, and concludes that population is more or less tangential, since technology and consumption are so much more important. Yet this ignores the strong likelihood that those latter are direct results of population growth, and don't exist in abstraction from high population densities.
However, the book also shows Derrick's specific claims are also more or less untrue. For instance, warfare is not "a relatively non-lethal and exhilarating form of play," but rather a very deadly means to secure scarce resources, often at the expense of the very existence of neighboring social and ethnic groups. Other claims, as in those about child abuse and other social values, are not addressed.
Throughout the book, I got an interesting sense of fatalism - if population growth is inevitable, and the negatives critiqued by Jensen are nigh inevitable adjustments to population growth, then the element of human choice seems negligible - a lack of free will I find intuitively satisfying. Moreover, it makes ideology seem superfluous, which I like. And it sort of presented things in an objective way, that gave me the amoral perspective that if civilization is inevitable, why bother trying to destroy it? Not that this is really an intellectual argument - I believe Jensen's contemporary activism advocacies stand apart from the validity of his historical analysis, and deserve to be critiqued on their own merits.
One small thing I felt the authors could/should have discussed more is the extent to which integration as an adaptation is effective or not. That is, while each level of integration is justified economically and ecologically through the arguments outlined, they may still involve negative tradeoffs well beyond the submission to dominance. They discuss near the end the fact that peasants live on a knife-edge between malnutrition and starvation, but they never discuss whether earlier transitions involved a similar shift - it seems like they would, since the very need for a social food security net implies higher risk of starvation, and that net isn't necessarily secure enough to completely prevent starvation/ensure complete nutrition.
Incidentally, based on what Professor Peregrine told me today, apparently anthropologists now think population growth isn't just something to be taken for granted, which puts a kink in the basic premise of Earle and Johnson's thinking. Apparently archaeologists have identified counter-examples to their model, in which population declines preceded (and seemed to cause) increased integration. Some modern thinkers apparently believe it is sudden change in population, rather than only growth and pressure, that causes these kinds of changes.
[Edit 12/25/12: The last revelation seems rather obvious in retrospect - the relevant variable is relationship of food production to consumers, and since labor is a key determinant of food production, a rapid reduction in labor availability could have some of the same consequences as a rise in consumer population. Insight from John Reader's ]Africa: A Biography of the Continent, in which the issues stemming from Africa's labor shortages are discussed frequently.](less)
I read Ishmael Beah's memoir because of my trip to Sierra Leone in winter, 2011. It is a simple story, about his experience as a victim of the war, fl...moreI read Ishmael Beah's memoir because of my trip to Sierra Leone in winter, 2011. It is a simple story, about his experience as a victim of the war, fleeing from his home, losing his family, and finally being taken in and enlisted by the Army to fight the rebels. Eventually he is taken to Freetown for rehabilitation from being a child soldier through some UN-Catholic relief program and experiences the trials of reintigration into normal society. Perhaps due to his experiences performing rap and Shakespeare monologues in his village and school, he becomes a decent public speaker and is chosen to visit New York for a conference on children's issues. There he meets a professional storyteller, a woman who later adopts him after he flees the war once it finally reaches Freetown. It's obvious that it is her profession and influence that got Ishmael to write this book, and she probably helped to shape it and edit it substantially.
As a memoir, there's not a whole lot to the book other than that story. If you want to get some vague idea of what it's like to experience that, read it. It's not a particularly *good* way to jump into a child soldier's head, but it's a start, giving me a way to conceptualize how someone can go from refugee to blood-thirsty murderer to rehabilitated Western citizen without any fundamental disjunction in self-perception. I can't really criticize Beah for it, but A Long Way Gone is not a psychological book, and it's not a sociological book. It doesn't explore themes or try very hard to communicate the subjectivity of Beah's experiences. It's just a sympathetic, personal narrative of a very unique and unfortunate experience.(less)
Consuming Nature examines the role accelerating development and consumerism as a paradigm for understanding one's relationship to nature influenced an...moreConsuming Nature examines the role accelerating development and consumerism as a paradigm for understanding one's relationship to nature influenced and in many ways enabled the environmental movement of the middle 1900s. To do this, he chooses the Fox River Valley, where I go to school, as a case study. His thesis is that, somewhat ironically, the increasingly intense use of nature for production enabled the consumerist culture that obscured that dependency and enabled people to view nature as a commodity for recreation.
To prove his thesis, he examines the history of both production and attitudes towards nature in the valley between 1850 and 1950. The former is interesting to me largely because I have now lived here for two years, and because it sheds some light into nationwide transitions in technology. The latter tells a more interesting story. In the 1800s, people largely thought of nature as a set of resources to be developed and exploited to fuel societal "progress." The conservation movement arose as a way to continue and expand the exploitation of nature in the future, driven by emerging shortages of many formerly abundant resources and by the growing availability of scientific knowledge that could inform sustainable management. The conservation movement was fundamentally pro-business and pro-development.
In the 1900s, people began to see nature not as something to be exploited for industry but as a huge park for them to go out and recreate in. The modern tourism and outdoor recreation industries grew up in this period, and Wisconsin's development for both mirrored the patterns of industrial development and exploitation typified by the timber and paper industries. Citizens thought of the matter differently, however, and sought a pristine wilderness that no longer existed and whose creation was at odds with the development and exploitation their lifestyles depended on. This discrepancy led to the election of some radical politicians who demanded unreasonable things of all Wisconsin industries, like the elimination of all pollution.
Even after taking Environmental Economics last term, it wasn't until reading this book that I finally grasped fully why zero pollution and zero externalities aren't, in many cases, the socially optimum outcome.
It's a very interesting story, and it's very well told - as, it seems, all environmental histories are. Both Summers and William Cronon, whose Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England we read previously, exhibit all the best traits I could ask for in an intellectual. Their prose is elegant and clear. Their theses and generalizations are always tempered by acknowledgments of their limitations - both are circumspect in avoiding overstating their case. They are fabulous at stating and minimizing the influence of their own biases, avoiding the kind of ideologicalism that has plagued some of my previous world-views. Finally, the entire way of thinking that is environmental history seems to be precisely the way of looking at the world I'd been trying to develop on my own for two years now. That is, it is inclusive of all the myriad and involved factors implicated in the movements of human and ecological history. It views history as a natural, deterministic system driven by real, observed forces rather than vague, ideological abstracts. Yay!(less)