on July 18, 2005
Diamond's _Guns, Germs and Steel_ and his earlier _Third Chimpanzee_ were both masterpieces of popular science writing: they brought home truths unfamiliar or not-fully-accepted even to people who followed science, and did so in a manner that was brisk and readable without seeming _too_ brisk.
_Collapse_ is not brisk. And it's message, while perhaps far more important that the message of the earlier books, is not news. There are interesting bits: the stuff about the struggles in Montana amongst miners, ranchers and newcomers is well-observed and surprisingly balanced.
But other parts of the story drag: for instance, do any general readers need to know this much about precisely how the Easter Island ecology was depleted? One begins to lose patience with the theme with only the second illustrative case of environmental collapse in the book!
The fascinating question for me is NOT whether environmental collapse is possible or precedented or whether we may be headed for it (I'll give my assent to all three propositions, and Diamond will win over few deniers regardless of how voluminously he writes on the subject).
The question I find fascinating is the one touched upon in the Montana story. Here we have a bunch of people, all of whom have understandable motives for what they are doing, who are collectively destroying their environment.
Diamond's thesis emphasizes the cultural factors that have led to collapse in the past. What I wonder is whether we aren't more or less doomed to destroy and over-exploit our surroundings if left to our own individualistic devices. In other words I wonder if the "invisible hand" of capitalism inevitably leads us to use up all we can lay our hands on. In the 18th century one of the first capitalistic thinkers (Mandeville) argued that individual vice providentially represented a collective benefit. In the 21st, that is no longer true. Perhaps the only solution to our long-term environmental problems is a solution imposed from above, autocratically.
One of the great advantages of technology is that I think this sort of solution would be do-able. Society could be compelled to do other than what individualistic economic sense drove them toward. Not a pleasant thought, but more pleasant than some of the options we see in Diamond's book.
_Collapse_ is thought provoking, but not as good a read as his earlier works, and not at all as challenging.
on January 13, 2007
A virtually forgotten, but very good philosopher once commented that hypotheses derived by the inductive method, that is observation and experimentation, never can be proven absolutely, but are only as good as the last observation. ( Karl Popper,"The Logic of Scientific Discovery', Amazon.com). The reader would be well advised to keep this comment in mind when reading this book by Jared Diamond.
"Collapse", not counting an introductory section, consists of two parts. The first and most fascinating section consists of Diamond's observations of societies that consciously or unconsciously made life choices that either led to their destruction or long term survival. His account of the successes and failures of various Norse and Polynesian societies is especially fascinating. He chronicles very accurately how the fate of a number of societies was directly related to their abilities to sustain their environments, to adapt to changing conditions, and their awareness of their surroundings. It is difficult to fault his observations and conclusions on the good and bad fates of these societies.
The second part of the book is more problematic. Diamond attempts to formulate a hypothesis to predict the success or failure of societies based on a five point framework derived from his observations of societies outlined in the first section. It is not clear that this formulation necessarily really holds true for all human societies all the time. Clearly a sustainable environment is indispensable for a stable and successful social structure. Yet this reviewer remains unconvinced that Diamond's hypothesis alone will ever be an effective tool to predict the success or failure of all societies regardless of other variables.
Still this book is well worth reading. Diamond is a wonderful writer and an acute observer. The reader can learn a great deal from this book and have an enjoyable read in the process.
on April 19, 2006
I was persnally torn on whether I enjoyed this book at all, and if I would recommend it. Diamond's project is ambitious, covering numerous civilizations, many of which don't have any written records. For each chapter was a wonderful story and explanation of a civilization. Most memorable of these are the Easter Islanders, the Polynesians and the Norse people. He writes in such a simple and personal tone, it makes reading enjoyable, accessible, comprehensive while being dense with information.
His writing saved the book that is little more than what seems an endless list of examples to prove a thesis. The thesis in itself is a good one, it could have been proven worked through more briefly and structured in a more succinct way to avoid dragging example after example.
Overall however, it is an interesting book, the fun and random informations you learn about various civilizations and the methods used in archeology, ecology or anthropology are fun to learn about make it all worth it.I ended up reading the book over a long period of time, enjoying each chapter for its informative nature rather than in the context of diamond's greater thesis. It does give a consciousness of our relation with our environment but in the end I was more tempted on picking a book to find out more on the Mayas, Rwandans rather than pursuing Diamond's book.
Diamond tends to wander, at times aimlessly, around the globe searching for examples of societies that had succeeded or failed based on sustainable patterns of living. There was much in the way of anecdotal observations, often very interesting, about Greenland, Papua New Guinea and Easter Island that whetted my appetite for more information, but Diamond tended to skip lightly over his subject matter, leaving it up to the reader to search out more information. As a result, the book is really fodder for discussion moreso than a set of case studies on sustainable living.
He tries to give the book immediacy by relating his research to his present day experiences in Montana, illustrating that we are making many of the same mistakes that led to the downfall of great civilizations of the past. The big battle, as he correctly notes, is over water. Without it, any civilization is at a loss to sustain its development, but once again he treads lightly over the subject, which is the most important issue facing us right now. Water rights remain a major sticking point in most international disputes.
It is not to say that Diamond doesn't have an eye for detail, he presents compelling views of the internicine fights that led to the collapse of the formerly great civilization on Easter Island, and examines how Greenland failed and Iceland succeeded despite having similarly inhospitable climates. However, given Diamond's reputation I found myself longing for a deeper examination of the subject material, maybe even focusing specifically on a handful of case studies, which best exemplified his thesis that societies succeeded or failed based on their ability to maintain a sustainable pattern of living.
on June 11, 2006
Please don't take the four star rating wrong, this is a fascinating book and you should read it, if anything to get a broader view of cultural anthropological history. However, this does not nearly have the same cohesive thesis as guns/germs/steel. Diamond attempts to write a book from the flip side of success - why do some societies fall apart? He does try to put all of his wonderful stories from around the world and make the argument that it is (mostly) the environment and society's environmental choices that make the most difference, but anecdotal evidence does not fully convince. It is a step in the right direction and I do look forward to more solid, conclusive evidence one way or the other. As another positive side note, he does not harshly criticize the environmental movement, oil companies, or capitalistic society in general - only the choices they sometimes make.
on April 10, 2014
It is hard to imagine that in today’s technologically advanced society we might be on the brink of a world-wide disaster. Unsurprisingly, the world is increasingly becoming more and more strained with the exponential growth of the population, but we tend to be safeguarded by the irrational belief in technology's omnipotence. In his book Collapse, written in 2005, Jared Diamond delves into the history of several ancient and modern civilizations, paying close attention to the their demise as a consequence of poorly-thought out decisions. Broken down into four parts, Diamond’s book begins part one by establishing his experience in Montana, helping put into perspective the rest of the book. The subsequent parts study ancient and modern societies and conclude with the practical applications of his findings in today’s world.
Throughout the book, Diamond urges the reader to keep in mind the five factors with which he is analyzing each society: environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbors, friendly trade partners, and society’s responses to its environmental problems.
Beginning with ancient civilizations, Diamond delves deep into the Easter Islanders, the Anasazi, the Maya, the Vikings, as well as several others. Each of these groups provide illuminating examples of the problems that, though they might seem small or unimportant in the present, can become fatal in the near or distant future. In the case of the Easter Island natives, their unfortunate location and conditions along with their unrestricted cutting of palms, hunting of animals, and low crop-yields, result in a predictable demise. Similarly, the Maya faced deforestation, a low-protein diet, competition among tribes and noble fixation on building larger and grander monuments.
Not surprisingly, and along with other ancient societies like the Vikings and Anasazi, modern civilizations are facing environmental problems unlike those faced hundreds and even thousands of years ago. In China, the onset of their industrial revolution created an enormous amount of air and water pollution. Mega-projects like the Three Gorges Dam create population dissipation, loss of archeological sites, and the disruption of local wildlife.
While Diamond might come across as pessimistic, he simply is stating the past and current global issues. What seems compelling about most cases was that they all seemed to suffer form the effects of deforestation. A modern day example is Haiti. Their coal-driven energy production quickly exhausted their wood resources, resulting in erosion, loss of biodiversity, loss of valuable resources, and poverty. In much the same way, Iceland came close to the devastating effects that come with the decimation of trees.
Readers of Collapse cannot deny the daunting task that Diamond set for himself. Diamond himself knew that drawing a conclusion in one book would be a monumental task, especially after considering the number of societies that have fallen and persevered since the dawn of humanity. Yet Jared Diamond does well in keeping this in mind. He acknowledges that such a study could not possibly be condensed in one work, and furthermore, that the application of his studies unto modern day examples, have to be taken cautiously. In other words, not only is this book written on an exceptionally complex topic, but also a very controversial one since many people believe that ancient examples cannot be applied today and that environmental claims are exaggerated. As a response to this, Diamond makes clear that he wishes to adopt a “middle-of-the-road perspective,” one that studies both major and small civilizations both within their context, but also on a much broader scale. According to him:
“Only from the weight of evidence provided by a comparative study of many societies with different outcomes can one hope to reach convincing conclusions” (28).
Diamond does a fantastic job of framing his argument and tackling this colossal subject. By first educating the reader on the fates of past societies with the provision of evidence, one can more easily draw parallels between past failures and present day practices. His passive approach is evidence of his purpose as an educator. He is not out to preach to people, he simply wishes to point out stark similarities in the decisions we are making today and those made in the past. Much too often we get stuck in the false idea that our advanced technology and society is somehow immune to a collapse like those of the past. Yet if Diamond wants his reader to take anything out of this book, is that we are no more impervious to environmental damage than the societies in the past were. Sure globalization and modern-day advancements can help reduce our impact, but they can also magnify them. Many times over.
Though his conclusion seems rather obvious, Diamond is right in saying that hope lies in the inhabitants of this world. One cannot be upset at the mining companies in Montana that practiced cyanide leaching if they did not take action. People elect the officials that create the laws that have the potential of stoping the contamination of such habitats. Diamond in no way suggests that we are on the brink of collapse, but that if we continue on the same track, we can expect consequences unlike the ones experienced by the Mayans, the Anasazi and the Easter Islanders.
Nonetheless, a glimmer of hope persists. Just like there are stories of collapse, there is also stories of success. Iceland was able to reverse the potentially fatal outcome of their practices and and the Dominican Republic has implemented laws and parks that preserve their ecological beauty. Diamond does not deny that hard decisions will have to be made, but if success and restoration is to be achieved, they are essential. Collapse is irrefutably a great piece of literature, analyzing the past and current environmental issues, while maintaining a “cautious optimist” outlook.
on June 11, 2010
I went into Collapse with, if anything a slight bias towards liking the book. I had not read Guns, Germs and Steel but had generally heard good things about Collapse and it had, in fact, been suggested to me for my work with a sustainable design firm. I'm sad to say that this book was a big disappointment, there's a lot to express but I'm going to lay out the four big problems with the book.
I first realized something was ary when I got to his chapter on Haiti and the Dominican Republic's history. It was unlike the history I had grown up with, and unlike the history sketched out, for example, in Lies my Teacher Told me or any of the Paul Farmer's books. The former is particularly intriguing as the book is short and illustrates that one can both be broad and accurate in a small space.
The next red flag for me was when he discussed how Australia had difficulty exporting a good they had competitive advantage for - because there was such a strong cultural bias against it, so much so that the United States had banned import of Kangaroo because a Congressman's wife thought they were cute. I was confused because I had eaten Kangaroo meat, legally, in a restaurant in the United States in 2004 - the book was originally published in 2005. I googled it, Kangaroo meat was legal in the US in 2005.
The third red flag for me was that in his 'solutions' chapters he lay the blame on consumers instead of corporations for environmental problems. He did so even after explaining in the previous chapters how mining corporations, for example, tend to go 'bankrupt' when given their Bill for environmental damage. Fine. He goes on to list that people should sue in the face of environmental damage, and lists Bhopal as an example of public success through legal action.
Is he mad?
Putting aside the tens of thousands who died from the disaster, it took 26 years for court to pronounce the top managers of the Bhopal disaster guilty - they got two years of jail. Yes, they paid the Indian government 470 million in restitution, but they never cleaned up the environment, and Union Carbide now owned by DOW says they have no responsibility to do so. If your central thesis is that you should use the law to get companies to clean the environment, and you cite a company that has not cleaned up their environment and is using legal loopholes to avoid doing so... and that ignores the number of nations without democratic regimes and don't have the ability to sue corporations. In addition, many of the people directly affected by Bhopal never saw a penny or saw very little of the money. Nice.
Furthermore, he is selective in his data. He says that recent changes in fishing gear has reduced the rate of dolphin deaths in the Pacific significantly, but fails to mention that dolphin safe tuna, while fantastic for tuna is terrible for ocean biodiversity. There's actually an increase in by-catch but in other (less cuddly) species. He talks about certification, but fails to point out that since most consumer goods are not certified, and since certification is voluntary many companies are continuing to produce things unsustainably and even worse have muddied the waters with faux certifications.
Finally, this is a poorly edited book. I'm talking really egregious grammatical errors, and the book could have easily been 100 pages if the writing had just been made tighter.
on May 25, 2005
The first and probably most interesting part of this book looks at archeology and, in some cases, written records to explore the collapse of various past civilizations. Diamond's analysis is that they fell for similar reasons, generally linked to environmental stress. Some themes show up repeatedly in this section: cultures grow to high population density in years of good climate, leading to disasters when droughts or temperature changes make the environment less hospitable. When a given environment can no longer support its present population, the population often falls back not to the new maximum support level, but to much less or nothing at all, due to civil war and collapse of existing social structures. Diamond admires and explains the remarkably ingenious steps used by 'uncivilized' peoples to survive in extremely challenging circumstances; one chapter discusses how early Polynesians managed the incredible feat of setting up permanent homes on an island with no stable source of fresh water. He also points out how social elites have often responded to crises with hugely inappropriate projects: the classic example, discussed at length here, is the famous giant statues of Easter Island.
Subsequent chapters look at various modern societies and their responses to environmental crises. An interesting chapter points out that Rwanda, prior to the genocide there, was severely strained by overpopulation which left most subsistence farmers, the core of that nation's economy, working farms too small to feed even their families, much less sell excess for profit. He also discusses the distinct histories of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, arguing that strong environmental policies are crucial to why the latter is relatively well off, while Haiti is by far the poorest country in the hemisphere.
The final section gives an overview of various modern environmental problems and what can be done to address them. Diamond's decision to keep this section fairly short is understandable and probably correct - the book runs to over 500 pages as it stands. But going over so much territory so quickly makes this section the least satisfying. The final chapter in particular is really the outline of another book, but trying to pack all the material into a few pages leads to a superficial and unstisfactory treatment.
Overall, this isn't quite as strong as Diamond's justly famous "Guns, Germs, and Steel", but still a compelling and persuasive book.
on March 12, 2006
This book's punchiest lines come near the end when the author settles scores with a corpse, that of Julian Simon. While living, Mr. Simon had bad manners; he made leftist ideologues such as Paul Ehrlich and Jared Diamond look foolish by fumigating their smelly orthodoxies and pieties. Now that Simon is safely dead and can't fight back, Dr. Diamond gets mad and gets even. "All of our current problems," he writes, "are unintended negative consequences of our existing technology. The rapid advances in technology during the 20th century have been creating difficult new problems faster than they have been solving old problems ... An even larger fraction of the world's original wetlands than of its forests has already been destroyed, damaged, or converted."
Original? What point of origin does he mean? Big Bang? Formless & void? Pangaea? Diamond is entitled to draw his own baseline for his assertion, but he should tell us what it is. As for "All" of our current problems, Julian Simon would be ready to rumble if he were only alive. During the 20th Century technology almost doubled developed-world lifespans and had pulled up developing-world lifespans prior to the decimation of sub-Saharan Africa and SE Asia by AIDS. Increased lifespan during a period of almost-exponentially increasing population was thought to be impossible before the technological 20th Century. Just ask Malthus.
Dr. Diamond also gets some things right, particularly his chapters on business, and is more incisive as an economist than as a scientist. Parts of his intro chapter on Montana are also good. He's plowing old trails plowed under about Montana as a plundered province of extractive industry, but he plows well the parts about hard rock mining (still operating under 1872 rules -- that's why toxic heavy metals were permitted to pool behind dams a few miles from Missoula's water supply -- and about water allocation regimes adapted badly to the arid west.
He's unconvincing & unreliable about Montana agriculture, logging, and climate change. Here is how Diamond discusses the climatological collapse of the Big Hole Valley south of Missoula: " ... (I)t's difficult to recognize that each successive year is on the average slightly worse than the year before, so one's baseline standard for what constitutes "normalcy" shifts gradually and imperceptibly. ..."
Reading further in the excerpt shows that Diamond's baseline standard for what constitutes normal is Diamond's own experience. Old boomers will be flattered that his baseline decade for identifying subsequent shifts and deviations from the norm into the abnormal and the "worse" is also their decade, the 1950s, but it's most peculiar that a Pulitzer-winning scientist didn't check his egocentricity at the door. Anything can be proved, or nothing, depending on where the lines and baselines are drawn.
There was human activity and climate in western Montana before young Jared Diamond first hiked to snow fields in the Big Hole. And there was climate, changing, before people from somewhere moved in about 12,000 years ago when the landscape was dominated by ice. About 8000 years ago climate changed so assiduously toward warmth that there's little evidence of anyone living in Montana or much of the west for 2000 or 3000 years. Had Diamond drawn his baseline then, the "worsening" abnormal climate he sees in 2005 would look, in comparison, like global cooling.
In recent times there was a prolonged period of hemispheric global cooling that coincided with the collapse of the 450-year Norse settlements in Greenland to which Diamond compares the collapse of Montana "civilization" as we know it. The Little Ice Age, mimicking the big ice ages that dominated global climate for most of the last 100,000 years (our data for that baseline comes from Greenland ice cores that Diamond hardly talks about) faded away by about 1850 - 1900, and we've reverted to one of those rare warm interludes that suduced the Norse into settling Greenland during one of those rare interludes when Greenland was green.
Greenland's 100,000-year database correlates with what's known or suspected about hemispheric or global trends, and suggests that cooling was so dominant and destructive that civilization among humans, something apparently unprecedented in our multi-million-year evolution, gained a grip only when climate belatedly deviated away from the cold norm. Here's Diamond on Greenland's collapsing climate, for which the only constant is change; all the pre-industrial changes he recounts are inconvenient for his later assertions about industry-driven global warming:
"(W)e can reconstruct past Greenland climates from Icelandic records, pollen, and ice cores, and the latter let us reconstruct climate on a year-to-year basis. ... (W)e've learned that the climate warmed up after the end of the last Ice Age around 14,000 years ago; the fjords of Greenland became merely "cool," not bitterly cold," and they developed low forests. But Greenland's climate hasn't remained boringly steady for the last 14,000 years: it has gotten colder for some periods, then reverted to being milder again. ... Hence the history of the Arctic, including that of Greenland, is a history of people arriving, occupying large areas for many centuries, and then declining or disappearing or having to change their lifestyle over large areas when climate changes bring changes in prey abundance. Such consequences of climate changes for native hunters have been observed firsthand in Greenland during the 20th century. A warming of sea temperatures early in that century caused seals almost to disappear from southern Greenland. Good seal hunting returned when the weather got cooler again. Then, when the weather got very cold between 1959 and 1974, populations of migratory seal species plummeted ... Similar climate fluctuations with consequent changes in prey abundance may have contributed to the first settlement by Native Americans around 2500 B.C. , their decline or disappearance around 1500 B.C., their subsequent return, their decline again, and then their complete abandonment of southern Greenland some time before the Norse arrived around A.D. 980. Hence the Norse settlers initially encountered no Native Americans [but the Inuit returned, 'with big consequences for the Norse', during the warming period around A.D. 1200.] Between A.D. 800 and 1300, ice cores tell us that the climate in Greenland was relatively mild, similar to Greenland's weather today or even slightly warmer. Those mild centuries are termed the Medieval Warm Period. Thus, the Norse reached Greenland during a period good for growing hay and pasturing animals -- good by the standards of Greenland's average climate over the last 14,000 years. Around 1300, though, the climate in the North Atlantic began to get cooler and more variable from year to year, ushering in a cold period termed the Little Ice Age that lasted into the 1800s. By around 1420, the Little Ice Age was in full swing, and the increased summer drift ice between Greenland, Iceland, and Norway ended ship communicaiton between the Greenland Norse and the outside world. Those cold conditions were tolerable or even beneficial for the Inuit ... (W)hy didn't the Norse learn to cope with the Little Ice Age's cold weather by watching how the Inuit were meeting the same challenges? ...
"What about relations between the Inuit and the Norse? Incredibly, during the centuries that those two peoples shared Greenland, Norse annals include only two or three brief references to the Inuit. (A) 15th-dentury manuscript explains how the Norse first encountered Greenland natives: 'Farther to the north beyond the Norse settlements, hunters have come across small people, whom they call skraelings. When they are stabbed with a nonfatal wound, their wounds turn white and they don't bleed, but when they are mortally wounded, they bleed incessantly. They have no iron, but they use walrus tusks as missiles and sharp stones as tools.'
** [In fact, nothing in the scant record shows that this was a first encounter. Nor does the 'brief reference' state that a Norse colonist stabbed an Inuit colonist, but Diamond leaps to that conclusion.]
"Brief and matter-of-fact as this account is, it suggests that the Norse had a "bad attitude" that got them off to a dreadful start with the people with whom they were about to share Greenland. "Skrailings," the Old Norse word that the Norse applied to all three groups of New World natives that they encountered in Vinland or Greenland (Inuit, Dorset, and Indians), translates approximately as "wretches." It also bodes poorly for peaceful relations if you take the first Inuit or Dorset person whom you see, and you try atabbing him as an experiment to figure out how much he bleeds. Recall .., that when the Norse first encountered a group of Indians in Vinland, they initiated friendship by killing eight of the nine. These first contacts go a long way towards explaining why the Norse did not establish good trading relationship with the Inuit. ... If you hope to persuade an Inuit woman ... you have to establish a friendly relationship in the first place. But we have seen that the Norse had a "bad attitude" from the beginning, referring to both North American Indians in Vinland and Inuit in Greenland as "wretches," and killing the first natives they encountered in both places. As church- oriented Christians, the Norse shared the scorn of pagans widespread among medieval Europeans ... Still another factor behind their bad attitude is that the Norse would have thought of themselves as the natives in the Nordrseta, and the Inuit as the interlopers. The Norse arrived in the Nordrseta and hunted there for several centuries before the Inuit arrived. ... "
Nothing in Diamond's thin narrative supports these conclusions. Nothing in the scant written record of Norse/"native" contact supports either the 'bad attitude' assertion or the assertion that these were first contacts. Nothing supports the conclusion that Norse Christians initiated contact with the "Other" by killing him. Diamond displays ignorance & arrogance here, together with fashionable anti-Christian bigotry and bias. I cannot say that Greenland and Vinland didn't happen the way he pretends they happened. I'm saying only that, using Diamond's own evidence, Diamond is pretending. He's stretching the scientific record like Silly Putty to assert things that the record doesn't prove.
And I believe he's dabbling in reverse racism, the currently fashionable supposition that, in any interaction between the melanin-challenged and the melanin-enriched, the pale people are at fault. This is the flip side of fashionable racism from a century ago when eugenicists such as Theodore Roosevelt and Margaret Sanger believed and preached that civilization was the special project of God's special people, pasty-white, Anglo-Saxon, Nordic northern European Americans.]
If only the arrogant and ignorant whites had listened, Diamond seems to sigh, if only they had learned from the dark-skinned invaders (not one culture, but many) who drifted transiently through their changing seasons ... Arrogant and ignorant whites built an improbable cow-centered settlement that lasted 450 years, through global warming and global cooling, until it crashed in the crushing years after 1350. Diamond calls it a failure for crashing, like the failed cow-centered culture of Montana. I call it a success. Its collapse after 450 years was a possible consequence of the devastating Black Death that Diamond hardly mentions.]
It's strange that that the author of Guns, Germs and Steel gives negligible credit to germs for the collapse of Greenland. In pages of stuff about the settlements Diamond gives one part of one sentence to the plague of 1350, and seems curiously incurious about the plague's effect on the Greenland Norse or on the Norse of Norway. Did the plague touch Greenland? How did it affect trade patterns with the home country & other Viking colonies? Diamond doesn't say. He doesn't even ask.
Our best guess is that the Black Death killed over half of white Norway and even more of the Norse in Greenland. That's how Greenland collapsed, I guess, and not from arrogant cultural imperialism. Although I enjoyed & learned much from parts of this book, the rest made me want to hurl: a rock, my lunch, or the book.
This is an outstanding piece of work, in some ways even better than Diamond's Pulitzer Prize winning Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (1997) which I highly recommend. Here, instead of explaining why wealth and power accrued to European states and not, for example, to South America states, Diamond demonstrates mostly how some societies failed. Along the way he contrasts the failures with some successes, and in the latter part of the book addresses current problems and possible solutions.
He begins with modern Montana, specifically Bitterroot Valley, a society in danger of failing because of deforestation, pollution, loss of productive top soil, and other factors. He follows this with Part 2, "Past Societies" in which the melancholy history of Easter Island and some other Pacific Islands is retold in fascinating detail. I was especially interested in the material on Easter Island, which, because of its relative isolation from the rest of the world over many centuries, has always served in my mind as a microcosmic cautionary tale for the entire planet. Although I have read other books about Easter Island and have seen a couple of documentaries, I found Diamond's exposition full of new information, offering fresh insights into how that society collapsed.
Also delineated in remarkably readable detail are the collapses of the Anasazi of the US southwest, the Maya in Mesoamerica, the Viking-founded colonies in the north Atlantic and especially in Greenland. There is some excellent material on how Iceland succeeded (barely) and how the New Guinea highland people managed to avoid the fate of some other Pacific Island societies, and why Japan succeeded in saving its forests and croplands in the time of the Tokugawa. Note that these stories are primarily about ecological successes or failures, not successes or failures due to political or military misadventures.
What surprised me about the failed societies is that the most destructive thing the people did was cut down their forests to plant food crops. Again and again, from Easter Island to Greenland, the effect of cutting down trees was devastating because it allowed wind and rain to remove the topsoil, either blowing it away or washing it down gullies and rivers into the sea. In the case of Easter Island, using up all the timber resulted in an inability to fish since without wood the people could not build boats.
People also clear forests to create pastures for grazing their livestock. This also proved disastrous in some cases, especially when the animals were sheep and goats, who typically graze right down to the roots of plants, and can thereby quickly strip the vegetation from great tracks of land.
But the common link between all societal ecological disasters is simple, and one of great importance to us all today. All those societies--Easter Island, the Maya, the Anasazi, etc.--allowed their populations to grow beyond the carrying capacity of their environment. That is the bottom line for all of humanity. Hungry people do desperate things, as Diamond recalls in the chapter on Rwanda. When too many people share too little space and resources, laws and morality break down, governments fall and people kill one another massively. All peoples do this. No human race or ethnic group is exempt. It could happen here. Diamond's book is a warning that we all need to hear and appreciate. We are part of the ecology, and not above it. We need to live in harmony with the rest of the planet and not imagine that we can treat the planet and its resources with carelessness, abuse and neglect.
Toward the end of the book, Diamond gives his prescription on how we might avoid the fate of the failed societies. He notes on page 214 that bad things can happen "when parents take good care of their individual children but not of their children's future." He is referring to the parents of European friends "who bought life insurance, made wills, and obsessed about the schooling of their children," but "blundered into the disaster of World War II."
I think Diamond nails it with this observation. Today's soccer moms (and dads) with all our affluence and all the care we put into our children's and grandchildren's future may be failing because we are not electing the kind of leadership that will provide for their future. High deficients (greedily borrowing from our children and grandchildren) and lack of consideration for the environment, through the depletion of fossil fuels and the pollution of fresh water sources and the air, etc., may completely override anything we might do for our children.
Diamond also says that at some point societies have to realize which core values are worth maintaining and which no longer make sense in light of current circumstances (p. 440 and elsewhere). He cites the example of the Greenland Norse who maintained their European values and lifestyles and died out when they might have survived had they taken on the Inuit lifestyle and learned to hunt ringed seals and whales and build igloos. Additionally there is the sad example of Easter Island where they continued to worship greedy gods (and their priests) and built statues instead of using their resources to maintain their forests and topsoil.
I think Diamond's argument especially applies to the false gods some people follow today, the Bronze Aged gods of fundamentalist religions who fear progressive change and continue to seek solutions through violence, intolerance, and the defeat of "enemies."
In reading about the various collapses here one is struck by what they had in common. In every case there were too many people chasing too few resources. At peak times on Easter Island or among the Maya, great monuments were build to celebrate the society's success. And then came the fall soon after. Diamond warns that the crash is typically not gradual like human senescence, but abrupt, following fast on the heels of the society's finest hour.