February 5, 2005

Jared Diamond, Collapse, Deforestation, Haiti, Dominican Republic

Diamond's Collapse: A reader writes:

I flipped through "Guns Germs and Steel" earlier today and noticed that Diamond (correctly) refers to the Greenland settlement as a "tiny marginal colony." Little could the Iceland-Greenlanders have known that their tiny marginal colony in fact foretold the end of civilization, according to the New and Improved Diamond.

As an side, what is this fetish with deforestation? Diamond bases a book on it, that African woman scored a Nobel Prize for planting trees, and a coupe of weeks ago an (Asian-)Indian-British professor claimed in a letter to the FinancialTimes editor that Western wealth was built on deforestation.

Geez. I have cut down a few trees and planted hundreds more but I have neither a Nobel Prize nor much wealth to show for it. What am I doing wrong?

Many of the most beloved landscapes in the world, Tuscany, the Cotswolds, the Loire Valley, and so forth, are largely deforested. People love trees, but with the exception of specially adapted cultures like the Yanomamo and the Andamanese, they don't much like forests, which most people find dark and depressing. Actually, what humans really like are grasslands at the edge of forests: that's what the typical American golf course provides, and look how much money is spent on them.

On the other hand, this is not to argue that the near total deforestation of, say, Haiti was a good thing. Diamond has an interesting chapter comparing the two halves of the island of Hispaniola: basket case Haiti and mediocre but still viable Dominican Republic. In the DR, the megalomaniacal dictator Trujillo stole most of the forest land, which he then proceeded to exploit cautiously in a rational manner, thus avoiding the tragedy of the commons. (Surprisingly, Diamond even gets around to gingerly mentioning the most obvious difference between the two countries, mentioning that Trujillo encouraged European immigration. Indeed, Trujillo was the only world leader to look forward to admitting large numbers of Jewish refugees, asking for 100,000, although only 645 ever made it, but that wasn't Trujillio's fault.)

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