Ted Kaczynski’s Critique of Jared Diamond’s Collapse

This critique was originally published, in Spanish, in the internal bulletin of a network of anti-tech radicals with whom Kaczynski had correspondence. The following is the editorial comment on Kaczynski’s critique. Because the article was re-translated into English it may not reflect the original exactly.

In this case, as is the case with any other review of a book or article [in this bulletin], we recommend that readers, if possible, read the reviewed work themselves and, after coming to their own conclusions, compare them to the conclusions in the author’s review.

Having said that, it should be noted that although, fundamentally, Kaczyski is right in calling Diamond a reformist, the main point of the critique, on a more concrete level Kaczynski commits an error. Perhaps the most serious is that he accuses Diamond of arguing that it is morally acceptable to maximize benefits at the cost of the environment, when, as I understand it, the only thing Diamond does is quote an author (David Stiller, Wounding the West: Montana Minning and the Environment, University of Nebraska Press, 2000), who doesn’t seem to justify anti-ecological behavior from businesses so much as to explain the hows and whys of that behavior (that is, companies, in their scale of values, put benefits before environmental conservation, since the economic system demands it and society allows it). Between explaining and justifying there is often a great difference. [End of editorial note.]

Certainly, this book deserves to be read, as it contains an abundance of interesting and useful information, some of which is quite scary; for example, the fact that mining companies have created conditions that will require water to be treated “in perpetuity” to avoid poisoning of rivers and streams (pages 589-591).[2] I do not know how long “perpetuity” is, but Diamond must mean at least a thousand years or, probably, more. Of course, those streams are not going to be treated, uninterrupted, for the next thousand years. It’s highly unlikely that industrial society will be able to last that long.

The fundamental problem with Collapse is that Diamond is a reformist, and not even a vigorous reformist, but a weak one. For example, compare Diamond’s chapter on Montana (chapter 1, pp. 51-111) with Todd Wilkinson’s book, Science Under Siege:[3] The Politician’s War on Nature and Truth, Johnson Books, Boulder, Colorado, 1998. Wilkinson and the people who provide the information that appears in his book (for example, David Brower) are reformers, but they are vigorous reformers. If their information is reliable, then the U.S. Forest Service (including, in particular, its delegations in Montana, with which Wilkinson’s book deals) is in large measure a tool of politicians and timber and mining companies, and it has betrayed its role of protecting forests. But Diamond portrays the Forest Service as if it were essentially an organization that benefits the environment. It is possible that information in Wilkinson’s book may be biased, since it is obvious that both he and some of those who contributed information have very strong feelings about the subject. However, it must be clarified that Wilkinson’s book cannot simply be treated as if it does not deserve to be taken into account. Diamond may have had reasons to disagree with Wilkinson and others who have harshly criticized the Forest Service, but I would have at least responded to these arguments. Instead, he ignores these arguments and refers to the Forest Service without even mentioning the accusation that it has betrayed its function.

Diamond states that “since U.S. businesses must produce profits for their proprietors” (page 64), it is morally acceptable to do anything in business that maximizes profits, regardless of whether or not it damages the environment (pages 64 and 625-628). Similarly you could argue that, since the concentration camps and Nazi gas chambers were created with the purpose of making Jews disappear from Europe, it was morally acceptable that they were used for that purpose, regardless of the consequences to the people who were gassed. However, I don’t think Diamond, who is Jewish, would appreciate this argument.

In Chapter 15 (pages 571-629), Diamond gives a kind treatment to large companies that take steps to reduce the damage they cause to the environment. In a letter sent to me on May 18, 2009, F[…] [4] writes:

Professor Diamond … gave a talk in my conservation biology class in which he defended the practices of some U.S. oil companies that have tried to “green” their drilling operations. His argument was that attempts to drill cleanly are better than the alternatives. He almost seemed to be apologizing! I had to pressure him regarding oil transportation, which seems to me to be the area in which most oil-related ecological disasters occur. He could only assure the class that the oil companies are developing new means to make oil transport safer, and posited the questionable example of double-hulled ships. Although the classes I’ve taken of his on primitive societies were enormously interesting and rewarding, this talk left a bad taste in my mouth.

So it’s clear that Diamond wants to stay well-integrated into the dominant social current and avoid bringing on the resentment of powerful people. I guess he would answer that in order to solve our environmental problems, it is better to try to kindly persuade polluting industries and politicians. But it should be obvious that that is not going to be enough — not in general. Although he probably wouldn’t recognize it, I believe that Diamond would rather see how the world as a whole goes to hell within fifty years before losing his position as a respected member of society now.

In summary, I would like to say that Diamond’s book is useful for people like us because of the abundance of information it contains, but that its value to most readers is questionable, as it may incite them to believe that our problems can be solved without our way of life being affected.

Collapse can also be criticized in more detail. For example, Diamond attributes the diseappearance of Viking settlements in Greenland, in part, to the inability of the ancient Scandanavians to adopt the survival techniques of the Eskimos (Inuit) (pages 294, 318, 348-351, 362 and 364-65). But I believe Diamond does not fully appreciate how difficult it would be to learn Eskimo techniques. The Eskimos were able (for example) to harpoon ringed seals[5] from a kayak because they had learned when they were still children and had rehearsed for years. If a Viking had gone out in a kayak and tried to harpoon a seal, they probably would have failed miserably. The Vikings might have been able to learn the technique anyway, but I don’t think doing it would have been anything like easy.[6]

Diamond seems wrong about the chemistry of iron from the bogs, which, he says, is “iron oxide that has dissolved in water and is precipitated […] by acidity conditions or the action of bacteria. ”(Page 253). But acidic conditions would not cause the iron in a solution to precipitate. It is just the opposite. Acidic conditions would dissolve iron oxide, and iron would precipitate later due to a decrease in acidity, or (more likely in the case of peat bogs), because of oxidation, which would transform the iron from state Fe2+ to Fe3+. Some time ago I sent [Último Reducto] an article about the iron of the peat bogs [7], and the article might say something relevant about such chemistry, although I don’t remember it clearly. Probably the tannic acid or some other organic acid present in the oxygen-poor water of the peatlands dissolves small amounts of iron. At the point where the water leaves the bog, air exposure would oxidize the iron from the ferrous state to the ferric state and, therefore, causing its precipitation, perhaps in the form of a goetite, HFeO2. In this way, goetite or other insoluble iron compounds would concentrate near the point where the peat drains. Or that is what I believe.

Of course, for the purposes of this book, Diamond’s mistake about iron chemistry is insignificant and I wouldn’t even have bothered to point it out if it wasn’t because I am irritated because of his other more serious failures. It would be a waste of time to criticize other details of Collapse, and what matters to me fundamentally is to point out that Diamond is a reformer, and that he is one of the lazy ones.


[1] [Note to the title:] The original title in English is Collapse. [Note by the translator.]

[2] Kaczynski, in the original, references the pages from the original English edition. The pages referenced in this translation correspond to the Spanish edition: Colapso, second edition, Random House Mondadori S.A. 2007. [Note by the translator.]

[3] The “science” referred to in this title is only the science that is related to conservation: study of wildlife, inland water biology, study of forests, etc.

[4] F[…] is a friend of Ted Kaczynski who lives in Los Angeles. [Note by the translator.]

[5] Pusa hispida. [Note by the translator.]

[6] Compare this to Gontran de Poncins, Kabloona, 1980, pages 38-39: “When the traps were full of fish, the Eskimos shod their boots and harpooned the fish. One of them handed me his harpoon, but the fish I tried to reach with it moved so fast inside the trap that I missed the shot over and over again, causing great joy among the spectators. After my display of ineptitude as a white man, they all jumped into their traps and began harpooning fish left and right with incredible aim…”

[7] Attached to my letter #60 to [Último Reducto]: Christopher Geist, “The Works at Falling Creek,” Colonial Williamsburg (magazine), Fall 2007, pages 78-83.

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