There’s a lot being written about Jared Diamond’s new book Collapse (most recently the NYTimes). Mr. Diamond is of course the author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, in which he argues that societies rose or fell dependent on their ability to cope with warfare (both the impacts of and tools for), disease and industrial development. Guns, Germs, and Steel won the Pulitzer Prize, the first Pulitzer, I believe won by a geographer.

In his new book, Diamond argues that the success of cultures/colonies can be attributed to a culture’s willingness to face the limits of its local environment (and increasingly the global environment). Now I am no big fan of structuralist and determinist arguments, that civilization hinges on what it’s been dealt, such as an icy climate or on what it’s dealt out, such as a depleted rainforest, but I am obviously sympathetic to the cause.

What struck me was a little comment in an interview he did in Salon Magazine

Interviewer: Perhaps one difference between ourselves and the Inuit is that we can rely more on technology to buffer the effects of pollution. Many people these days, for instance, use Brita filters. To what extent can we and should we count on technology to protect us?

Diamond: That’s a really key question, and one that I’ve discussed with some of the most thoughtful people in the business and financial worlds. One was Bill Gates. Bill Gates is a very thoughtful person. I was really impressed by him. Nevertheless, he said — in a diffident, self-deprecating way — “Well, I think technology will solve our environmental problems, and so I’m not so concerned about them as I am other things.” But I think that he’s wrong — I know that he’s wrong.

Let me give you an example. I was born in 1937 so I remember the revolution in refrigerators that happened in my childhood, the introduction of Freon and CFCs [chlorofluorocarbons]. The refrigerator gases that were used in my childhood were things like ammonia. Of course, if they leaked they were toxic, and therefore it was hailed as a breakthrough when these supposedly nontoxic gases, the CFCs, were introduced. They were tested and under earth conditions they appeared to be perfectly benign. What people couldn’t predict was that under stratospheric conditions CFCs get broken down into substances that destroy the ozone layer, and it took 20 years to get that well established. And I see that as a metaphor for why technology alone won’t solve our problems, namely that there are lots of technologies out there and they have unexpected side effects.

So Bill Gates figures we’ll invent and compute our way out of environmental degradation and therefore collapse. We in the West have yet to reap the unintended consequence of electronics production and waste. However, the developing world keenly feels the effects of, for example, coltan in the Congo , computer waste in China). How do we compute our way out of that? Replace the coltan with something that’s potentially as destructive? Enforce green computing initiatives but ignore the damage that’s already been done to public health? Sometimes I think we’re in the midst of a collapse but don’t know it yet.

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