World Views and Determinism

World Views and Determinism

Understanding why the Earth looks the way it does is an important part of any effort to make it something else, regardless of your particular view regarding what that something else should be. In this regard, Jared Diamond is clearly batting cleanup these days. His recent book Collapse has met generally favorable reviews from the great and the good, and National Geographic has just released their three part film of his previous book, Guns, Germs, and Steel to laudatory reviews in both Science and Nature.

Diamond's view in sum is that geography determines a society's progress. Thus, the evolution of agricultural surpluses, and resistance to many diseases because of proximity to livestock, gave Eurasian peoples a clear evolutionary advantage over other cultures -- tropical ones, for example -- thus explaining why the dominant global culture is Eurocentric. Similarly, geography, location and to some extent management of resources explains why some island cultures prosper over time (are "sustainable") while others, such as Easter Island, collapse. Accordingly, some accuse Diamond of being a "geographic determinist" or an "environmental determinist."

There are, of course, other theories purporting to explain the current structure of world systems. Marx, for example, argued that economic structure, especially means of production, is determinative. Less well known, perhaps, is the book that came out about the same time as Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Landes, entitled The Wealth and Poverty of Nations. Landes argued that culture was the critical determinant of the strength of societies, and that Western culture in particular had a number of features that gave it competitive advantages, such as belief in, and respect for, the equality of individuals (powerfully embedded in Christianity with the assumption of individual souls). Of course, who counts as an "individual" varies over time (slavery and discrimination against women being obvious examples), but the principle allows for growth and evolution.

If you haven't heard of Landes, it's not a surprise; the cultural argument is generally not regarded as politically correct. In fact, I remember talking to a professor at an Ivy League school who remarked that he had his students read Landes as an example of a right wing cultural apologist for Western values, as contrasted to Diamond’s respectful treatment of difference. He would not even comment substantively on the Landes book, seeming to regard anyone who was interested in its arguments as ethically challenged to begin with. I found it fascinating that the professor saw these works as mutually exclusive, because neither text attacked the other or, as far as I could tell, intended to answer the other. Moreover, both were well written and scholarly, and attempted to grapple with difficult and fundamental questions in different ways.

And therein perhaps lies the danger in unquestioning adulation of Diamond’s work. It is not that it is flawed as far as it goes, and the critics that accuse him of determinism do not, I think, give him enough credit. He is not wrong -- but he is inadequate. No single variable explains why the world has developed as it has. Economic determinism, cultural determinism, geographic and environmental determinism -- all are threads of a complex argument, but none are sufficiently explanatory in themselves. Each has explanatory power, but the world is understood only as an emergent product of mutually exclusive yet valid "determinisms". Yet those that adopt a single perspective somehow feel it necessary, like the professor, to reject others, often in highly normative terms. This tendency seems to be encouraged by the groupthink that disciplines occasionally fall into, but if the world as we see it is an emergent product of the vast complexity of human activity through history, it is a radically flawed intellectual position.

Similarly, an environmentalism that clings to a particular determinism, or a single ontology, is doomed to inadequacy. Oversimplification may be an aid to effective activism; over time, it is a prescription for failure -- first intellectual, then pragmatic failure. An environmentalism that embraces even those who have mutually exclusive worldviews is far more likely to be robust. More challenging, perhaps, is the implication that environmentalism is only one of many discourses contributing to the future, and in some cases at least not the most important or even valid one, and that a sophisticated worldview will reflect this reality. Diamond, yes -- but also Marx and Landes, and those many others, from different cultures and religions, who find it hard to be heard amidst the certainty of the self-anointed enlightened.

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Brad Allenby is professor of civil and environmental engineering at Arizona State University, a fellow at the University of Virginia's Darden Graduate School of Business, and previously was AT&T's vice president of environment, health, and safety.