If the Fertile Crescent started out with so many early developmental advantages over all other parts of the world, why, according to Guns, Germs, and Steel, did it lose out to Europe as the politically and economically dominant region in more recent times?   

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The key to Jared Diamond’s explanation for this claim is the concept of “ecological suicide.” Diamond is an ecological determinist, so he phrases all of human development in terms of humans’ relationship to their natural environment. Because he emphasizes the natural characteristics of any environment as the main reason that civilizations flourished there, he also must attribute their demise to natural characteristics. Lack of sustainability undergirds the idea of “suicide” that he promotes.

In the Epilogue to Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond explains “ecological suicide” (p 411). “Fertile Crescent and Eastern Mediterranean societies had the misfortune to arise in ecologically fragile environments. They committed ecological suicide by destroying their own resource base.” Europe, by contrast, he portrays as less fragile, in part because it has higher rainfall.

Among the ways this “suicide” occurred were deforestation, as people cleared the woods for agriculture and/or to obtain wood for construction timber firewood. Grass cover was also removed, especially for grazing, and vegetation did not regrow quickly. Diamond attributes the latter to low rainfall. Erosion and silting also followed.

The question of human agency is largely side-stepped in his explanation. Why people did not realize the problems were occurring, and why they did not change their behavior remain unaddressed. Critics have frequently pointed out that “misfortune” does not explain what people did or failed to do to improve their situation.

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The answer to this question can be found in the Epilogue of Guns, Germs, and Steel.  Specifically, it can be found on pages 410 and 411 of the paperback edition of the book. 

In this book, Diamond explains most things through geography.  This issue is no different.  The Fertile Crescent had developmental advantages because of its geography.  Sadly for the people of that area, though, its geography was not “good enough” to allow it to maintain its advantages.

On p. 411, Diamond says that the Fertile Crescent

…had the misfortune to arise in an ecologically fragile environment.

He says that the environment was good for early agriculture, but it was much too fragile to maintain and support a large population.  Its people cut down its forests and it lacked the rain to regrow ground cover.  This led to erosion, particularly because goats kept the grasses from growing back.  This meant that

…valleys silted up, while irrigation agriculture in the low-rainfall environment led to salt accumulation.

In other words, the Fertile Crescent was not fertile enough.  Its geography was not good enough to support a large civilization.  Therefore, it lost out in terms of wealth and technology to other places, like Europe, whose geography was better. 

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