Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Theories of why Societies Collapse

A Question of Blame When Societies Fall;
One day Yali asked Dr. Diamond, “Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?”

Thus began Dr. Diamond’s tale about the combination of geographical factors that led to Europeans’ colonizing Papua New Guinea rather than Papua New Guineans’ colonizing Europe.

“We think he gets Yali’s question wrong,” Dr. Gewertz said. “Yali was not asking about nifty Western stuff.”

With more of the cargo their European visitors so clearly coveted, the islanders would have been able to trade with them as equals. Instead, they were subjugated.

What Yali was really asking, she suggested, was why Europeans had never treated them like fellow human beings. The responsibility and struggle of anthropology, Dr. Gewertz said, is to see the world through others’ eyes.

In “Collapse,” Dr. Diamond proposed that a precipitating factor in the Rwanda genocide of 1994, in which hundreds of thousands of Tutsis were slaughtered by Hutu compatriots, was Malthusian. The country had let its population outstrip its food supply.

Christopher C. Taylor, an anthropologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, saw the tragedy through the other end of the telescope. One afternoon, he sat in the living room of Amerind’s old mission-style lodge, which looks out onto the desolate beauty of the Little Dragoon mountains, calmly describing how he and his Tutsi fiancée had fled Rwanda just as the massacres began. Safely back in the United States, he studied the country’s popular political cartoons, sensing that for many Rwandans, politics was tangled in a web of legends involving sacred kingship and fertility rites. The king, and by implication the president, was the conduit for imaana, a spiritual current symbolized by liquids like rain, rivers, milk, honey, semen and blood.

In times of droughts, floods, crop failures, infant mortality or other misfortunes, he might have to be sacrificed to spill his imaana back into the soil.

“In order to understand the motives of the Rwandans, you have to understand the local symbolism and the local cosmology,” Dr. Taylor said. “Because, after all, what Diamond is doing is imposing his own cosmology, his own symbolic system.”

From You-Tube; Diamond lecture on Collapse, The documentary Guns, Germs and Steel

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