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May 22, 2006

"Collapse" Idea #2: Biodiversity

A second quote from Collapse by Jared Diamond, this one from page 488-489:

But biodiversity losses of small inedible species often provoke the response, "Who cares? Do you really care less for humans than for some lousy useless little fish or weed, like the snail darter or Furbish lousewort?" This response misses the point that the entire natural world is made up of wild species providing us for free with services that can be very expensive, and in many cases impossible, for us to supply ourselves. Elimination of lots of lousy little species regularly causes big harmful consequences for humans, just as does randomly knocking out many of the lousy little rivets holding together an airplane.

There is a term that environmentalists use called "charismatic megafauna", which refers to large animals of the type that people tend to want to protect. Examples are elephants, pandas, and whales; people donate much more money to protect these than to protect smaller, less cute animals which nonetheless may be just as important in the circle of life. Although the term is not nearly as widely used, you could also think of "charismatic megaflora", large plants such as giant sequoias which people want to protect more than simple weeds.

If we view Microsoft as an environment, then the company may be favoring certain groups (people at the partner level and above) over others. Yet you can make the same argument for a company as for an environment; everybody is important, and we have to protect the other "species" at Microsoft from extinction: the Journeyman Developer, the New First-Level Manager, the Nontechnical Program Manager, the Experienced Tester. Unlike animals, Microsoft people can all become partners, so the temptation may be to expect everyone to do so. But as with biodiversity, we need to celebrate and encourage all those roles to flourish as they are, not mutate into something else, because all of them are important in the Microsoft ecosystem.

In this model, where high-ranking employees are charismatic megafauna and highly-visible projects such as Xbox and MSN Search are charismatic megaflora, Channel 9 has an interesting role. I maintain that Channel 9 functions exactly like a zoo/arboretum, with all the aspects (good and bad, and I won't comment on how I personally feel) of those institutions.

Posted by AdamBa at May 22, 2006 10:35 PM

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Where oh where is the hookworm that solves this problem?


In conclusion: Disgusting as that article is, sometimes it's beneficial to one's end goals to befriend or even host parasites. I'm not even going to go into how that fits the model of MSFT; I'll let you create your own analogies. Whatever those analogies are, not doubt they are apt. Maybe these species (I'm one of 'em.) will adapt. Then again, maybe not. So it goes.

From my brief reading of Jared Diamond reviews he writes something between Chrichton and science popularization. With a leftist (Marxist?) political bent. Am I wrong about that? And have you seen any worthwhile *objective* (nonpolitical) insights in his writing?

Posted by: Drew at May 23, 2006 01:17 AM

I think whether you feel Diamond has a political agenda depends on your personal politics. If you're naturally politicially inclined (as I am) to believe his thesis that money spent on environmentalism makes good business sense, then you will likely think he is making a clean objective argument. If you feel that the book quote I pulled out in the "Software Quality as Environmentalism" post is wrong, then you will think "Collapse" is all just a ploy to oust the Republicans.

He certainly avoids any overt statements that the Bush administration is messing up the planet, despite numerous opportunities (presumably very tempting ones) to make that point. He merely points out in a few places that Bush is not yet convinced on issues like global warming.

A lot of the book is about Easter Island and the Greenland Norse and all that, which is interesting historically even if you ignore any relevance to today. Yes, it does end in a charge for all of us to be more concerned about the environment--but for economic reasons, not moral ones.

- adam

Posted by: Adam Barr at May 23, 2006 08:02 AM

So it's only "political" if you disagree? I would seriously question that. As much as I would question "Democrat vs Republican" is the only political debate.

Your politics are your own and I'm not in any way attacking them. For all you know I agree with you. (Probably do on most points, though I suppose that's not apology enough.)

Posted by: Drew at May 24, 2006 12:24 AM

What do you mean by political. I took that to mean that Diamond was a left-wing/Democrat and that he was writing to criticize the policies of the right-wing/Republicans. I don't think that's his goal, since he doesn't mention the current administration except in a few places. He doesn't come across as someone who has been radicalized since the year 2000.

I think it's common that people who agree with someone think they are being "pure" and those who disagree accuse them of having a political motive. Nothing special about Diamond in that respect.

- adam

Posted by: Adam Barr at May 24, 2006 09:31 AM