What caused some of the great civilizations of the past to collapse into ruin, and what can we learn from their fates? Diamond weaves an all-encompassing global thesis through a series of historical-cultural narratives. Moving from the prehistoric Polynesian culture of Easter Island to the formerly flourishing Native American civilizations of the Anasazi and the Maya, the doomed medieval Viking colony on Greenland, and finally to the modern world, Diamond traces a pattern of catastrophe, spelling out what happens when we squander our resources, when we ignore the signals our environment gives us.
The majority of the book is taken up with case studies of different societies, ranging from ancient times (Easter Island, Pitcairn, Greenland, etc.) to modern (Rwanda, Australia, Montana, etc.). Most are used to look at some facet of the problem, and also at the environmental issues involved. These really could have gotten tedious, and there are a couple of points towards the end where you feel like there's a refrain. "Oh, deforestation... depletion of habitats... population impact... yeah... mhmm... sing it, Jared..."
Still, there's something to it, and the sections at the end about why societies might make choices that are in hindsight disasterous are very interesting. Like most environmental books, I finish them, and feel like I should be doing more, but there's not tons more that I could be doing. I'll try something, though. One main thing at the end that he points out is that with the advent of globalization, we have to solve all of these problems everywhere, since societies are in no real sense isolated in their collapses anymore. Sending environmental problems somewhere else might not have repercussions in the immediate future, but he predicts it'll come back to bite the First World in the end. Still, if he's cautiously optimistic, I don't see why I shouldn't be.
Anyway, I can give this one a recommendation; it's a different sort of book from Guns, Germs and Steel, but it's still very interesting, and has a similar scope.
To prove his point Diamond undertakes a brilliant comparative study of some civilizations of the past which became extinct: Easter Island, Norse Greenland, Maya and Anasazi civilizations and puts them side by side with the contemporary global society. He examines patterns in human's interaction with their environment such as: the
conversion of forestland into farming land causing irreversible damage; over-hunting and over-fishing; ignoring the warning signs of
environmental and ecological damage; and the inability to change beliefs as leading to starvation and collapse. Then he examines a
few trouble spots in the contemporary world, and comes to the conclusion that we are on the same course as the civilizations which went extinct in the past, except this time on a global scale.
We still have a choice. We can learn from Japan and Germany how to save our forests, or from Papua New Guinea how to live a sustainable life. We can also show our preferences through buying ecologically sound products and organically grown food.
There has been criticism of the book (I believe it was The New York Times reviewer who said that) that in his societal collapse theory he does not deal with the social and political factors. I did not find that true. There is plenty of consideration given to the social and political factors when Diamond examines contemporary societies like Rwanda, Haiti, Dominican Republic, and China. Also, for the past societies he examines the cases: "societal collapses involving an environmental component, and in some cases also contributions of climate change, hostile neighbours, and trade partners, plus questions of societal responses." (P. 15)
You will be hearing a lot about this book. Jared Diamond has been compared to Darwin. His previous Pultzer-winning book, "Guns, Germs and Steel", debunked racial explanations for cultural success, and was deemed one of the most important scientific works ever written. His works are strikingly original, carefully researched, and free of polemic. An antidote to both the know-nothing corporate boosterism and denial on the right, and the wishful thinking and anti-science of the left, his ideas are criticized/lauded by both sides.
In "Collapse", success or failure as a society depends primarily on its management of resources. To analyze historic and modern societies, Diamond establishes 5 criteria: environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbors, friendly trade partners (any of which can be significant), and a society's response to environmental problems (always significant).
Diamond writes for an educated general audience. He is a superb guide for his world tour, tracking the fates of Montana, Easter Island, Greenland, New Guinea, Japan, the Anasazi and more, applying his five criteria to explain failure and success. Stories unfold of unappreciated success (prehistoric New Guinea's invention of silviculture), societal self-transformation (Japan has reforested over 70% of their islands), and brute force success (China's enforced family planning achieved an enviable 1.3% population growth).
It is also the most coldly sobering book on the environment ever written. China is a train wreck, environmentally. Average blood lead levels exceed western limits for developmental impairment, they have a small fraction of their viable agricultural land left, they will have plowed under their largest wetland within a decade, and their seacoast fisheries are nearly gone from siltification and pesticide buildup. There is little hope for change.
Australia, facing similar agricultural failures, is making headway but slowly, inconsistently. Salinification (salting) of soils will take 500 years to self-repair if they stop certain practices now. They haven't.
Every society has the resources it was dealt, geographically, and natural weakness (poor soil, slow tree growth, inadequate water, etc.). Diamond demonstrates that similar societies meet different fates -- or not -- based on their willingness to adapt, or their hubris in refusing to do so. All societies have in common, however, a certainty that they are doing enough. Diamond gives us the means to test that optimism.
Diamond’s most forceful writing is directed toward the “non-sustainable course” on which he believes the current globalized society is going. Even if over population can be limited, he argues that the environment could not support the increase in energy and natural resource usage that would occur if suddenly the living standards of the third world or even just China rose to those of the United States.
The book contains a lot of good history, written from a unique perspective. It is well-argued, if just a bit dry. It contains important lessons for national leaders and planners.
My main issue with the book is length. It would have benefited from fewer case studies and less repetition. Ultimately, there wasn't enough differentiation between the issues within case studies, so this felt like retreading the same ground. Add in repetition within chapters - while this isn't a consistent problem, but is sporadically a big problem (I'm going to tell you about X; now I'll tell you about X in detail; having told you about X...) - and poor structure in others, and you have a recipe for intermittent boredom, which was almost enough for me to give up completely.
Which is a shame, because in between are chapters that are fascinating, horrifying, thought-provoking and interesting. I think a damn good edit could have improved the whole thing, packaged it up a bit better, and actually made the message stronger rather than weaker. I can't recommend it as it stands unless you're interested with a strong stomach; an abridged version should probably be required reading for everyone.
The "past" portion of the book covers such societies as the Anasazi, the Mayans, and certain Viking settlements. I found this half of the book riveting- the filter of ages past allows a more linear narrative- this happened, then this, due to X Y Z- as well as an amount of emotional detatchment that allows the reader to take these in as cautionary tales, sad ones to be sure, but not with a frightening immediacy. And of course, some of the societies DO succeed, often through creative and ingenious methods, providing some relief from the pathos of famine and wars.
The second "half" of the book is a tougher read. These examples are happening today, and the problems these societies face, when laid down cold hard fact style in print- pretty overwhelming! Australia, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and China are a few of the societies examined. Again, fascinating information and a LOT of it - I learned SO much from this book! -but much more difficult to take without getting slightly hopeless or giving up & deciding that the Human race is a scourge upon the earth and hoping for it's demise sooner than later! There are "hopeful" examples of stewardship here, as well, but we don't have the luxury of knowing whether they will succeed in the long run, and frankly sometimes they seem like a drop in the bucket.
The final section of the book is titled "Practical Lessons" and attempts to determine why societies make decisions that allow a collapse. Again, very well researched and thought out, with a mix of deadly depressing and slightly hopeful examples, plus a few suggestions on how one might go about influencing positive change. My book edition (2011) also included an "Afterword" about the rise and fall of the ancient city of Angkor, really interesting stuff so make sure you get the second edition!
The best part of the book for me was Diamond's writing style and even-handedness. He is able to present page after page of intensively detailed facts without coming off as dry and boring, everything is brilliantly organized and presented. He presents information without passing judgment or pulling punches when such observations will be unpopular. One of my favourite quotes comes while discussing the environmentalist dictator (!) Balaguer: "The struggle to understand Balaguer reminds me that history, as well as life itself, is complicated; neither life nor history is an enterprise for those who seek simplicity and consistency. ". Awesomeness!
Starry-eyed idealists will probably abhor this book, fling it across the room and cry "Pessimistic Bastard"-but he does devote a good several pages to debunking "one-liner" objections to what they might consider his alarmist views on environmental problems, should they care to read on. Hard-nosed realists (whom no doubt some would call "pessimists") like myself MAY be in danger of becoming irretractable misanthropes, fair warning! Regardless, I think everybody should read this book. Politicians should be forced to read it at gunpoint, then take a test on it at gunpoint untill they get a passing grade. Then they should be shot anyway. Hah hah, just kidding (sorta).
If I have one tiny complaint about this book, it's that I would have liked to have seen more emphasis put on the population growth side of the equation, though in fairness it is not the focus of the book (environmental impacts), and he does admit briefly, when listing his 12 sets of problems societies face, that "human population growth affects all 11 other problems" (#12 being population growth itself) - though only in passing.
I love this book. I love it so much I'd marry it if I weren't already married to "Ishmael" by Daniel Quinn. Luckily, that makes a great companion book to this one, so I'll happily continue my torrid affair with "Collapse" & pray to any & all gods that tons of other people will read it!
And, every once in a while in the process of escaping your box, you run across someone like Jared Diamond. I must admit, having read Diamond's "Big Three," that I've found him thoroughly engrossing...even when I vehemently disagreed as I did in his analysis of the social uses and accompanying value of religion.
In a sense, this work is probably the most "preachy" of his books; he is very pointed in his analysis of areas where WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) societies have gone amiss. The range of issues addressed is broad: from elder and child-care to social justice to food sourcing and preparation. This breadth gives the book a slight "piece-meal" feeling...as if we may be reading a collection of chapters that were cut from his other two books by a myopic editor. However, it IS cleverly brought together.
So, why would I-a Christian who rejects the theory of atheistic evolution-find so much...well...pleasure in reading Jared Diamond? Well, for one thing, many of his theories about social development are plausible if you simply "unplug" his chronology (e.g. think "thousands of years" when he writes "billions"). But the real reason is Diamond's gift of writing: he thinks clearly within the parameters of his assumptions but is able to express those ideas with astounding simplicity. Few academic writers achieve the clarity that seems so natural in Diamond's work. Even if you don't agree with WHAT he thinks, you must admire HOW he thinks. And how he challenges you to express with equal force your own views.
This book seems to more explicitly recognise the multiple dimensions involved in the issue than GG&S did.
While it's downright terrifying at times, Diamond is clear that there are causes for optimism and ways to draw on past experience to make a difference.
Having read the previous book and not completely agreed with the premises, I expected to struggle with this one somewhat. I wanted to read it because it came highly recommended and because I have this quest to have something topical to talk about when I am not among the geeks that are my normal associates.
In fact, it was a good read. It took me a while because it’s pretty dense going. I don’t have a lot of time for recreational reading, so I didn’t spend time doing a lot of fact checking on this one so I can’t comment on it’s accuracy other than it rung a lot more true than his previous book.
Diamond starts out with the assertion that while it’s difficult to directly compare one culture and it’s situation to another, there are some basic characteristics in the way a culture operates that we can use. He went through history and rated every culture against these 9 factors and claims they validate his thesis that it’s possible to predict the success or failure based on these factors and how a society copes with them.
To illustrate this, he presents case studies of nearly a dozen cultures, some who have collapsed, some who have succeeded and other about which time will tell. It’s useful to note Diamond’s definition of “collapse” here: the society ceased to function, the political entity generally vanished and there was a dramatic (at least 50%, usually 90-100%) drop in the population. So the fall of the Soviet empire, for instance, wouldn’t qualify here. Things changed, but it’s mostly the same too. There was a change in government but not a huge change in living conditions. The collapse of the Mayan’s however, does qualify. More than 90% of the people disappeared within a decade or two and the culture ceased to exist.
The first case study is the Bitterroot valley region of Western Montana. It’s an area the author has visited many times over the past few decades and one faces with more environmental challenges than one might expect. Actually, it also serves to point out the struggle between what is good in the short term of the local inhabitants versus the good of the greater society (economically, typically). And how things like farming or mining subsidies are pretty murky territory.
The book goes on through some of the usual suspects of failure (Easter Islanders, Greenland Norse, Mayans, Pitcairn Islanders). It also has a few success stories (New Guinea, Dominican Republic) and a few one the bubble (Montana, China).
I felt the case studies held up rather well. Again, I didn’t do a lot of fact checking here, but it all sounded pretty good. In this particular book, I think Diamond backed off from making the sort of generalizations and predictions that drew criticism in Germs, Guns and Steel. In fact, the closing chapter has a bit of the feel of, “we need to tact on something uplifting here so my nuts don’t get roasted over the fire again.” And I say that not because the message changes that dramatically (although there is a little of that), but the tone does.
Overall, I give this a 4.5 stars and a strong read recommendation. There is a lot to think about with this one and that’s a good thing.
Clearly the examples are selective and the interpretations of events are inferred. Nevertheless some conclusions are obvious. Once a society becomes fragile, many triggers can precipitate the end. The fragility can be directly or indirectly ecological. Not all weakened societies fail; some pull back as the first major damage becomes visible. This message is important because humanity currently faces an unprecedented list of serious environmental problems. We have to avoid that slippery slope to an ignominious end.
I must admit that I didn’t like parts of this book. Despite having lived overseas, his descriptions of other cultures suffer from chronic tunnel vision. Yet despite that drawback, the conclusions are compelling and overall I give the book a tick.
Get this book into the hands of all those "cornucopians" who think that a free market can get you out of any looming disaster.
Let me get the bad out of the way. While the length doesn't faze me in of itself, this book could have used a great deal more editing. A number of sentences were mangled, clumsy messes that kicked me right out of the prose. Some of the sections were poorly organized and there were a handful of redundant passages that explicated what had already been explained. Perhaps this book was meant to be devoured in reader fashion rather than straight through so that each individual section stood independently? In any case, some parts are a chore to get through.
That out of the way, it's a fascinating book. Admittedly, it starts off slowly with a lackadaisical run-through of Montana, but then it expands to explore past civilizations in Polynesia and the US Southwest as well as Viking Greenland. Some people may complain about the level of detail Diamond included, but I found it all interesting and relevant. He paints pictures as best he can of these older civilizations so as to humanize them and help us to relate and connect.
That is, after all, what the book is about: a shared humanity and the shared environmental struggles thereof. His description of the past is used to posit an argument regarding the present situation. In all honesty, I thought that was the weakest part of the book. I'm a fairly radical environmentalist, so it's not the message so much as the execution. The lack of editing weighed especially heavy in the last section of the book, and Diamond's foray into Sociology 101 grated for me (I'm a sociology student). After the prolonged care taken in the earlier sections to detail ancient and modern civilizations, the final section wherein Diamond makes an environmental appeal almost feels like an afterthought.
The lack of focus makes me think that this book would have been better as a general overview of collapsed societies without the attempt to tie it all together with a green message.
Yet, the one thing that was missing for me, is the effect of the sudden increase of our global population in the last 150 years, on the stresses that the world's environment must face today. The pressure on the world's resources is so dramatically different from the pressures of all the centuries ago. I am sure that with the seeming decrease in western populations, global migrations etc, the ways in which we will regard the problems of today, be different from the world of 200 years ago.
All in all, a highly recommended book. It is a book to be read slowly, with care. The lessons are to be absorbed, not forgotten when the book is put down.
Diamond takes these lessons and applies them to modern situations and attitudes. He also explores how society's can be blind to the obvious because of deeply ingrained values that they are unable to challenge and change.
This is a powerful book that took me time to read and ponder.
It forced me to look at my biases against American capitalism and business decisions and to see past them to solutions that we need to implement.
The most difficult thing for me to accept is that it is the Public's responsibility to see that business behaves in accord with what is in the best interest of society. Business does not have the ability to do this because it is governed by another set of criteria, to turn a profit and to meet its fiduciary responsibility to its investors. Thus it is the Public that must formally define the values of clean air, water, food, etc., as regulations which business can then incorporate as costs of doing business: meeting expectations of both society and investor.
Diamond provides numerous examples of public pressure that resulted in significant positive changes in business behavior.
The best thing to do is read Jared Diamond's book and see how we, the Public, can produce positive change.
This is one of the few books I'd describe as "Everyone should read".