Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond

I collapsed after reading this. What a slog. Good, but dense, detailed, and darn long. I don't particularly care for Jared Diamond's writing style. He's detailed, scholarly, and repetitive. There is so much information I had to take frequent breaks and snatch some quick reads in-between chapters. I almost abandoned it a few times but then I'd find a different chapter interesting and get hooked again. Diamond has solid arguments for explaining why societies collapse and while fascinating, he's overly detailed in spots - at least for me. His thesis shows five factors that influence the collapse of a society: environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbors, decreased support by friendly neighbors, and society's response to environmental problems. The book is full of great information and I can see recommending students to read certain chapters, but not the whole shebang - unless they are persistent readers.

Many of the societies he examines collapsed because of their fragile environments. While Diamond doesn't play judge and is sympathetic toward those who made decisions that were wrong and caused the downfall of their societies from ancient to modern times, he is judgmental against those who obviously don't care about the environment, who "rape-and-run" making quick cash and leave environmental disasters for citizens and governments to clean up. He balances this analysis of greedy businesses with stellar businesses whose good practices show how everyone can benefit when a company creates a product that respects the environment.

"Environmental determinism" looks at the physical environment such as climate and geography trying to determine how it affects societies. This concept has had negative press over the years and has led to some people using racism or superiority of intellect over other cultures based the oppressor being smarter than the suppressed group of people. Diamond is always refuting this and he also takes his studies further looking at multiple aspects of a hypothesis that include climate, geography, botany, science, economics and more. It is one reason his books are so dense and slow to read. But they are fascinating and require thoughtful reflection.

He has quite a few great quotes and I would have expanded on them if my Nook eReader hadn't deleted all my highlights. I will try to remember some from my bad memory. The genocide in Rwanda was a product of land disputes, deforestation, exports, and too many people living in extreme poverty. There was a direct correlation between starvation and increased crime. Diamond explains how the ethnic violence was not based solely on ethnic hatred but tied in with land disputes. The argument is compelling and interesting. Australia's fragile environment is a great chapter to read as well.

Diamond discusses the rarity of a leader who has the courage to anticipate a potential problem and take steps to solve it before it becomes a crisis. "Such leaders expose themselves to criticism or ridicule before it becomes obvious to everyone that some action is necessary." Think of all the leaders you've come across in your life that surround themselves with people that tell them what they want to hear. The ability to listen to criticism and use it constructively and not be corrupted by power is not the norm.

I thought "Collapse" and "Gun, Germs, and Steel" both had first chapters that were hard to get through. This one is too detailed on Montana and slowed the pacing. The ancient societies that collapsed were not quite as interesting as the modern ones as his analysis is more complex because he has more information to prove his hypothesis. The author is quite brilliant and worth reading.

3 Smileys

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton

We are moving to South Africa so I thought I had better read this bestseller from 1948. I listened to the audiobook performed by the actor, Michael York. His incredible voice changes helped me visualize the characters; however, I should have read the book as my weakest learning style is auditory and it took me awhile to get the African village names and characters sorted. The Reverend Stephen Kumalo, who lives in Ndotsheni, a village in eastern South Africa, receives a letter saying his sister, Gertrude, is ill and he should come to Johannesburg. Kumalo hopes to find his son, Absalom, who has also gone to Johannesburg and he has not heard from in a few years. In Johannesburg, Kumalo is assisted by Msimangu, the priest that sent him the letter, and the two set off to find Gertrude and Absalom. Along the way they see economic and social conditions that gave rise to apartheid. Alan Paton's writing is lyrical and full of emotion; a social protest novel that reveals the political and social issues of the time. I think it would be good paired with "Things Fall Apart," that shows the breakdown of the tribe from a black man's perspective; whereas, "Cry the Beloved Country," is from a white man's perspective that reveals postcolonial attitudes of liberalism and Christian paternalism.

Kumalo and Msimangu are good men that travel from place to place observing how the black man has lost "his tribe" and support system since white men has colonized Africa. Kumalo comes from the country and views the city as a corrupting influence on young people. Traditions with a chief as head of the tribe and support system of others members who teach moral behavior has been replaced by the white man's influence and this is represented in the lawless city of Johannesburg. The result is corruption as people live in fear.

Kumalo begins his journey rooted in the old ways and once he travels to Johannesburg he discovers that the world has changed and he must change with it. The erosion of African society is symbolized in representations of a barren land and the erosion of the red soil that bleeds into the rivers like an open wound. Stephen Kumalo's home is decaying with his sister turning to prostitution and his son committing murder. Kumalo clings to the old ways at first realizing that he must change by the end to adapt to a changing world, but he suffers terribly along the way and like Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Kumalo must lose his son, sister, and family before gaining a new one. He realizes that he must reach out to help those in need or suffering and give to them selflessly; hence, creating a new tribe.

Kumalo meets his brother, John, who has rejected the tribe but who has an incredible voice or speaking ability that others listen to, but he is corrupt and only thinks of himself. He is hollow and unreliable as a friend or relative. A foil to him is Dubula, a man that is the voice of the boycott. His motives are unselfish and Kumalo and Msimangu realize that he would make a great leader because power would not corrupt him. He's morally stable, unlike John Kumalo. Many times throughout the novel the power of corruption is brought up and it is the self-sacrificing men that are held up as examples to emulate.

The economic and deplorable social conditions are revealed throughout the journey, but it is mainly through James Jarvis that the white person is supposed to recognize actions he or she can take to help mend the gap with blacks. James Jarvis is a country man like Kumalo and when his son is murdered he reads his notes discovering his son thought deeply about the racial problems and was trying to change the world to be a better place. James is changed and decides to work for a solution toward helping the tribe. He introduces a man that shows the blacks agricultural methods that will help till the soil or heal a broken land by beginning something new for the blacks.

When I read, "Huckleberry Finn," as an adult I could see why others took offense at the stereotypical portrayal of blacks. In Paton's novel, the whites are superior and the blacks are left with the whites making morally correct decisions to benefit them. Stephen calls James Jarvis an angel because he's showing the natives agricultural techniques and he's building a new church which allowed him to remain a pastor there. This is supposed to help them with the tribal displacement but it is always the whites in this story that have the knowledge and vision for the tribes. Paton wanted South African natives to embrace Christianity because this would lead to moral living and he suggests farming as a way to get back in touch with the land.

I've been reading Jared Diamond's book, "Collapse," about elements that lead to a society's demise. Poverty, over farming, deforestation, climate, and environmental issues are usually significant factors along with different catalysts that cause the collapse. Paton focuses mostly on moral decay and the break down of the tribe. While Paton's attempt to change racial injustices is noble, his story shows at the same time the attitudes of the day full of colonial views of an enlightened Western civilization replacing a barbarian one. Many find his book outdated because of his portrayal of blacks. For further reading on this topic, I put the article at the bottom of the page. This is a story that will lead to plenty of discussions.

5 Smileys

Source: Paternalism, Ideology, and Ideological Critique: Teaching "Cry, the Beloved Country" Author(s): Patrick Colm Hogan
Source: College Literature, Vol. 19/20, No. 3/1, Teaching Postcolonial and Commonwealth Literatures (Oct., 1992 - Feb., 1993), pp. 206-210
Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press Stable URL: Accessed: 08-06-2016 15:44 UTC