response to ecological bottlenecks

I am an economist who shares [Jared] Diamond’s worries, but I think he has failed to grasp both the way in which information about particular states of affairs gets transmitted (however imperfectly) in modern decentralised economies – via economic signals such as prices, demand, product quality and migration – and the way increases in the scarcity of resources can itself act to spur innovations that ease those scarcities. ….

Here is an example of what I mean. Forests loom large in Diamond’s case studies. As deforestation was the proximate cause of the Easter Islanders’ demise, he offers an extended, contrasting account of the way a deforested Japan succeeded, in the early 18th century, in averting total disaster by regenerating its forests. Now consider another island: England. Deforestation here began under the Romans …. In the mid-18th century what people saw across the landscape in England wasn’t trees, but stone rows separating agricultural fields. The noted economic historian Brinley Thomas argued that … England became the centre of the Industrial Revolution not because it had abundant energy but because it was running out of energy. France, in contrast, didn’t need to find a substitute energy source: it was covered in forests and therefore lost out. I’m not able to judge the plausibility of Thomas’s thesis … but the point remains that scarcities lead individuals and societies to search for ways out, which often means discovering alternatives. Diamond is dismissive of the possibility of our finding such alternatives in the future because, as he would have it, we are about to come up against natural bottlenecks. We should be persuaded by the evidence that has been gathered over the years by environmental scientists that he is right, but simply telling us that we are about to hit bottlenecks won’t do, because environmental sceptics would reply that discovering alternatives is the way to avoid them.

Partha Dasgupta, “Bottlenecks“, London Review of Books, 19 May 2005.

Recycled from 17 May 2005.

Cambridge University Professor Partha Dasgupta is reviewing Jared Diamond’s book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive (2005). Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo, in a new book, argue convincingly that the Easter Islanders managed to survive and thrive despite deforestation, and that their ‘discovery’ by Europeans – not deforestation – was the proximate cause of their demise. The book by Hunt and Lipo is The Statues that Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island (Free Press, New York, 2011).

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