Jared Diamond is a professor of geography at the University of California, Los Angeles. He began his scientific career in physiology and expanded into evolutionary biology and biogeography. He has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society. Among Dr. Diamond's many awards are the National Medal of Science, the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, Japan's Cosmos Prize, a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, and the Lewis Thomas Prize honoring the Scientist as Poet, presented by Rockefeller University. He has published more than six hundred articles and several books including the New York Times bestseller "Guns, Germs, and Steel," which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.
Additional information about Dr. Diamond may be found at his personal website, www.jareddiamond.org.
"Collapse" is a wonderful book! Prof. Diamond combines hard science, rigorous historical research, and his own personal knowledge of people from the Bitterroot Valley of Montana to the west coast of Greenland to Rwanda to the highlands of New Guineau. He pulls together clear and compelling explanations of how events unfolded (and are still unfolding) in various parts of the world.
His accounts of various human communities draw on real data from a wide variety of academic fields, including isotope analysis, pollen analysis, tree-ring analysis, seismology, agronomy, archaeology, sociology, and even the history of religion. His explanations of each of these disciplines are lucid without oversimplification. But, the strength of the book comes from the the way he combines results from all these fields to create straightforward narratives of what might have happened as various communities rose and fell.
If I were I high school "social studies" teacher I would be talking to my principal today, saying "I want to put together an honors-level geography course and I want to use this as the textbook."
I do have one criticism. The subject matter of the book is tremendously consequential to people alive today, and hopefully "policy wonks" in governments will study the book and take it seriously. But, the title is a bit inflammatory. What's more, Prof. Diamond makes sure to explain the significance for the United States of his accounts of the demise of various ancient communities. Some of these explanations extrapolate from ancient situations to modern in a way that isn't quite as solid as the rest of the book. Diamond's extrapolations are very cleary marked as such. However, I am still afraid that they, combined with the title, will provide an excuse for people to dismiss the book as a "pro-environment anti-business" ideological polemic. That would be unfortunate, because it is actually balanced and nuanced in its explanation of the human condition.
About 15 years ago, I was shocked to read the results of an American aerial survey of roads in remote areas of the country, which concluded that there is (in 1990) no place in the continental United States that is more than about 20 miles, as the crow flies, from the nearest road. At Philmont Scout Ranch in the Sangre de Cristo range of the Rockies in NE New Mexico, to which many hundreds of Scouts travel each summer for an extended "wilderness" hike, the paths, directions and speeds of each of the flood of hiking parties is managed on a wall-size map in their war room, much like a flight control room of a modern airport. The conscious purpose of the war room is to present "the illusion of wilderness" to the hikers, by preventing them from seeing that there are crowds of other hikers nearby in every direction, only hidden by a bend, a ridge, a ravine.
In one of Jared Diamond's earlier books, Guns, Germs and Steel, he explored the role of man's natural environment in shaping the unique nature of the human societies that emerged in different regions of the world. It was backed by a prodigious body of research spanning anthropology, physiology, botany, archeology, animal behavior and climatology, to name only a few fields. Although his conclusions were satisfying and plausible, the subjects were too remote in time to garner more than a smile and a nod of the head. The paucity of detailed evidence regarding the biologic emergence of man, and man's development of agriculture, animal domestication and civilization, dooms Dr. Diamond's conclusions on those subjects to the realm of conjecture.
Now we are presented with the other side of the equation: the role of man's behavior in shaping the environments in which he lives.Read more ›
A debate between two camps continues to rage. One side thinks that the modern world continues to careen toward a non-sustainable future and impending doom. The other group thinks that "environmentalists" exaggerate their claims about a coming ecological crash. As usual the sides remain somewhat unproductively polarized with neither giving an inch to the other. This book's title exposes where Jared Diamond's sympathies stand, but he also takes some surprisingly neutral views. For one, he claims that some contemporary businesses have in fact successfully taken environmental concerns into consideration, and that these concerns have made them money and boosted their respect globally. Diamond doesn't believe that big business and environmental groups necessarily remain indissoluble enemies. And he goes further by suggesting that environmentalists should unabashedly praise those companies that have suceeded in balancing economics with ecology. "Collapse", though admittedly more slanted towards the environmental side of the continuum, nonetheless tries to narrow the gap between the two aforementioned camps.
"Collapse" takes the reader on a dizzying historical and global tour. The chapters weave in and out of modern, ancient, and medieval worlds. Along the way Diamond extrapolates which behaviors have threatened (or arguably are currently threatening) a significant inexorable decline in a particular society's population. By juxtaposing past and present societies he hopes to reveal the simularities between societies that no longer exist and the trends of the world today. The book surreptitously asks whether our current world is threatened by a global collapse.
Diamond uses a "five-point framework" to analyze various societies.Read more ›