Friday, January 20, 2006

Blaming geography for 'progress'

On PBS, Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs & Steel" suffers from standard academic blinkering. Asked by a New Guinean why "white men have so much cargo, but we have none", he doesn't look at the power projection he represents in this aboriginal culture. He doesn't say: "because some people in my world make a lot of money from that disparity".

No. He starts to insult their food supply: not enough protein. In a strange oversight, somehow he doesn't mention that river & coastal-dwelling New Guineans eat fish. He says their food supply (he mentions mostly roots) "is viable, just not abundant". And he contrives a correlation between powerful civilizations and large domesticated animals. Somehow, Incan civilization was due to the Llama. I suppose Mayan civilization was fueled by magical-realist dreams about future cows? He's a biologist, but somehow hasn't noticed that 'progress' often happens because of scarcity, not abundance. And there's no questioning, in this show, of whether "cargo" is progress. Although, from the name of the series, we'll be seeing that western 'progress' is violent. I'd give him points for that, if it was a new idea.

Of course luck plays some role in the development of extreme power inequality. Or else there would be none. But power inequality develops to some degree in all human communities ... it exists on Papua New Guinea too. He just doesn't show it. With larger populations, the inequalities grow, as does the accumulation of habits & technology for conquest. He hints at this, but the overwrought presentation of his weak geographic evidence clouds over it. This is really a missed opportunity.

We live in a material world built on inequality. The system thrives upon it, and fools its intellectual class, who don't want to think of themselves as vampires, into instead thinking that inequality was an accident, and that it is lessening. In fact it is increasing dramatically, everywhere, continually. The only cases where this reverses, historically, are when mass opinion and action push back, against the inequality imposed upon it by the wealthy, powerful & violent minority.

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