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Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed: Revised Edition [Paperback]

Jared Diamond
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Editorial Reviews Review

Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed is the glass-half-empty follow-up to his Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel. While Guns, Germs, and Steel explained the geographic and environmental reasons why some human populations have flourished, Collapse uses the same factors to examine why ancient societies, including the Anasazi of the American Southwest and the Viking colonies of Greenland, as well as modern ones such as Rwanda, have fallen apart. Not every collapse has an environmental origin, but an eco-meltdown is often the main catalyst, he argues, particularly when combined with society's response to (or disregard for) the coming disaster. Still, right from the outset of Collapse, the author makes clear that this is not a mere environmentalist's diatribe. He begins by setting the book's main question in the small communities of present-day Montana as they face a decline in living standards and a depletion of natural resources. Once-vital mines now leak toxins into the soil, while prion diseases infect some deer and elk and older hydroelectric dams have become decrepit. On all these issues, and particularly with the hot-button topic of logging and wildfires, Diamond writes with equanimity.

Because he's addressing such significant issues within a vast span of time, Diamond can occasionally speak too briefly and assume too much, and at times his shorthand remarks may cause careful readers to raise an eyebrow. But in general, Diamond provides fine and well-reasoned historical examples, making the case that many times, economic and environmental concerns are one and the same. With Collapse, Diamond hopes to jog our collective memory to keep us from falling for false analogies or forgetting prior experiences, and thereby save us from potential devastations to come. While it might seem a stretch to use medieval Greenland and the Maya to convince a skeptic about the seriousness of global warming, it's exactly this type of cross-referencing that makes Collapse so compelling. --Jennifer Buckendorff --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. In his Pulitzer Prize–winning bestseller Guns, Germs, and Steel, geographer Diamond laid out a grand view of the organic roots of human civilizations in flora, fauna, climate and geology. That vision takes on apocalyptic overtones in this fascinating comparative study of societies that have, sometimes fatally, undermined their own ecological foundations. Diamond examines storied examples of human economic and social collapse, and even extinction, including Easter Island, classical Mayan civilization and the Greenland Norse. He explores patterns of population growth, overfarming, overgrazing and overhunting, often abetted by drought, cold, rigid social mores and warfare, that lead inexorably to vicious circles of deforestation, erosion and starvation prompted by the disappearance of plant and animal food sources. Extending his treatment to contemporary environmental trouble spots, from Montana to China to Australia, he finds today's global, technologically advanced civilization very far from solving the problems that plagued primitive, isolated communities in the remote past. At times Diamond comes close to a counsel of despair when contemplating the environmental havoc engulfing our rapidly industrializing planet, but he holds out hope at examples of sustainability from highland New Guinea's age-old but highly diverse and efficient agriculture to Japan's rigorous program of forest protection and, less convincingly, in recent green consumerism initiatives. Diamond is a brilliant expositor of everything from anthropology to zoology, providing a lucid background of scientific lore to support a stimulating, incisive historical account of these many declines and falls. Readers will find his book an enthralling, and disturbing, reminder of the indissoluble links that bind humans to nature. Photos.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From School Library Journal

Adult/High School–This powerful call to action should be read by all high school students. Diamond eloquently and persuasively describes the environmental and social problems that led to the collapse of previous civilizations and threaten us today. The book's organization makes researching particular regions or types of damage accessible. Unfamiliar words are defined, and mention of a place or issue that has been described in greater detail elsewhere includes relevant page numbers. Students may become impatient with the folksy Montana fishing stories in part one, but once the fascinating account of the vanished civilizations begins, readers are taken on an extraordinary journey. Using the Mayan empire, Easter Island, the Anasazi, and other examples, the author shows how a combination of environmental factors such as habitat destruction, the loss of biodiversity, and degradation of the soil caused complex, flourishing societies to suddenly disintegrate. Modern societies are divided into those that have begun to collapse, such as Rwanda and Haiti; those whose conservation policies have helped to avert disaster, such as Iceland and Japan; and those currently dealing with massive problems, such as Australia and China. Diamond is a cautious optimist. Some of his most compelling stories show how two groups of people sharing the same land, such as the Norse and Inuit in Greenland, can end up in completely different situations depending on how they address their problems. The solutions discussed are of vital importance: how societies respond to environmental degradation will determine how teens will live their adult lives. As Diamond points out, in a collapsing civilization, being rich just means being the last to starve. Black-and-white photos are included.–Kathy Tewell, Fairfax County Public Library, VA
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Scientific American

According to scripture, "How are the mighty fallen in the midst of battle" (II Samuel 1:25). To war, Jared Diamond in his new book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, adds self-inflicted environmental degradation, climate change, disastrous trading relations, and unwise responses to societal problems. In his earlier, Pulitzer Prize–winning Guns, Germs and Steel, Diamond, a professor of geography at the University of California at Los Angeles, celebrated the rise of communities and nations despite microbial and self-imposed adversities. Collapse is the downside of those dynamics, the societies that didn't make it, barely made it, or are destined, as Diamond sees it, for the fall. In this exhaustively researched new book, he pre-sents carefully detailed case histories of failed societies—islands in warmish waters (Easter, Pitcairn, Haiti), an island in coolish waters (Greenland), a continental semidesert (the Anasazi of the Southwest U.S.), a continental tropical forest (the Maya of Mexico). Diamond begins with the failed state of Montana. Montana? Well, a Pulitzer Prize–winning tenured professor can take the liberty of giving priority to his passions. So Diamond the ardent fly-fisherman, defender of ecological pristineness, sympathetic friend of the farming "locals" has come to the sad conclusion that Montana is going to the dogs. Once one of the richest states of the union, it now ranks among the poorest, having squandered its nonrenewable mineral resources and savagely over-logged its forests. Maybe worst of all, some cad put pike into the trout waters. Although Montana is not about to fall off the map, leaving us with 49 states, the elements responsible for its decline are also responsible for societies that have fallen by the wayside. Diamond's central proposition is that wherever these globally disparate societies failed the chief cause had been anthropogenic ecological devastation, especially deforestation, imposed on ecosystems of limited resources. Those other western Americans, the Anasazi, settled in the New Mexico area about A.D. 600. There they built spectacular cliff housing, worked their marginal agricultural land, and chopped down all the trees without any plans for reforestation. Starving to the desperate point of cannibalism, wracked by internecine warfare, they met their end some 600 years later. To the south, the Maya mostly had it all: technological knowledge to build architecturally wonderful cities, writing, and crops of corn. What they did not have were large domestic animals, or the foresight to replant after they clear-cut forests, or the political sense to refrain from inter-city warfare. Mayan soldiers and city dwellers were, as Diamond puts it, "parasites on farmers," who could no longer produce surplus food on their now barren, treeless land. The Maya began to go into decline about A.D. 1000 and said goodbye to the world about 1675, mopped up by the Spanish. Diamond argues that the isolated island societies suffered a similar fate to the Anasazi and Maya for similar reasons. Pitcairn Island, Easter Island and Greenland all collapsed after the settlers had exhausted the fragile food and timber resources. Deforestation was particularly critical; after the larger trees were harvested, nothing was left to make the seagoing canoes needed for voyaging to other sources of food and material and for recruiting new people, especially wives, into their dwindling, interbreeding populations. In these historical accounts of fallen societies, untrammeled population growth did not play a significant role. Not until the section on modern societies with modern troubles does Diamond invoke Malthus, offering Rwanda as the prime Malthusian model of too many people with too little land. He makes an unconventional interpretation of the savage Rwandan conflict. It was not a mutually genocidal affair propelled by ancient hatreds. At the village level the Hutu and Tutsi had lived together amicably—until geometric population growth far exceeded the arithmetic increase in land and improved agricultural technology, fulfilling the thesis of Malthus's 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population. The brutal killing was, according to Diamond, primarily over your neighbor's land, not his tribal affiliation. As the book' s subtitle suggests, there are societies that have come to success by right thought and action. The Japanese, for example, saw the light and preserved and replanted their forests (although they have not renounced their national wood esthetic; the trees now come from the forests of vulnerable states such as Papua New Guinea). The Dominican Republic preserved its forests and prospered. Its neighbor Haiti ravished both land and forests. And look what happened to them. I wrote these last words while flying home from a National Academy of Sciences meeting called to reconsider bringing back that contentious, effective and dirt-cheap chemical, DDT. Now the choice will have to be made between the ultraconservationists' prohibition of DDT and the equally ardent arguments of a new coterie of American scientists who are demanding the return of DDT to try to halt the carnage of the malaria parasite, which kills two million to three million children and pregnant women every year. Sorry, Professor Diamond, even in our time of enlightened science, societies don't always have an easy, clear choice to survive, let alone succeed. Collapse is a big book, 500-plus pages. It may well become a seminal work, although its plea for societal survival through ecological conservation is rather like preaching to the choir. It is not a page-turner, especially for slow readers of short attention span (like this reviewer). Some of Diamond's "case studies" may be overkilled by overdetail. The last section, on practical lessons, seems disconnected from the central Collapse story and almost constitutes a separate book. But, having discharged the reviewer's obligation to be critical, my recommendation would definitely be to read the book. It will challenge and make you think—long after you have turned that last 500th-plus page.

Robert S. Desowitz is emeritus professor of tropical medicine at the University of Hawaii. He is author of five books on ecological and political issues relating to infectious diseases, the most recent being Federal Bodysnatchers and the New Guinea Virus (W. W. Norton, 2003). --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Bookmarks Magazine

Are we doomed, or can the next generation save us from ecological suicide? UCLA geography professor Diamond’s provocative, interdisciplinary picture of social decline paints a bleak vision of our future. He writes well, has done impressive research, and tells fascinating stories. Yet, his thesis failed to convince many critics. He connects his stories with common themes, but often draws tenuous links between past and present, especially given today’s use of technology and global markets to help solve environmental problems. Many critics also found fault with Diamond’s case studies. Some primitive societies like Easter Island, for example, left few clues to their demise. Other examples, like his population-based analysis of Rwanda’s genocide, raised questions about the relative role of ecological factors in societies’ collapses. Finally, despite Diamond’s cautious optimism about our ability to "choose" our destinies, a strain of environmental determinism runs throughout the book. You’re doomed if you do—and perhaps doomed if you don’t.

Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

Defining collapse as "extreme decline," the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997), which posed questions about Western civilization's domination of much of the world, now examines the reverse side of that coin. Diamond ponders reasons why certain civilizations have collapsed. With an eye on the implications for the present and future, he bases his analysis on his newly phrased version of an old maxim about what history teaches: "The past offers us a rich database from which we can learn." Drawing examples from this database, from Polynesian culture on Easter Island to the Viking outposts in Greenland to the Mayan civilization in Central America, the author finds "the fundamental pattern of catastrophe" that is apparent in these populations that once flourished and then collapsed. The template he holds up is a construct based on five factors, including environmental damage, climate change, and hostile neighbors. In addition, Diamond casts his critical but acute and inclusive gaze on the issue of why civilizations fail to see collapse coming. A thought-provoking book containing not a single page of dense prose. Expect demand from civic- and history-minded readers. Brad Hooper
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"Mr. a lucid writer with an ability to make arcane scientific concepts readiily accesible to the lay reader, and his case studies of failed cultures are never less than compelling." —The New York Times

"...Collapse is a magisterial effort packed with insight and written with clarity and enthusiasm." —Businessweek

"Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse represent one of the most significant projects embarked upon by any intellectual of our generation. They are magnificent books: extraordinary in erudition and originality, compelling in their ability to relate the digitized pandemonium of the present to the hushed agrarian sunrises of the far past. I read both thinking what literature might be like if every author knew so much, wrote so clearly and formed arguments with such care." —Gregg Easterbrook, The New York Times Book Review

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From the Back Cover

"Diamond’s most influential gift may be his ability to write about geopolitical and environmental systems in ways that don’t just educate and provoke, but entertain."
—The Seattle Times

"Extremely persuasive . . . replete with fascinating stories, a treasure trove of historical anecdotes [and] haunting statistics."
—The Boston Globe

"Extraordinary in erudition and originality, compelling in [its] ability to relate the digitized pandemonium of the present to the hushed agrarian sunrises of the far past."
—The New York Times Book Review --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

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. Among his 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 The Rockefeller University. His previous books include Why Is Sex Fun?, The Third Chimpanzee, Collapse, The World Until Yesterday, and Guns, Germs, and Steel, winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.


A Tale of Two Farms

Two farms
Collapses, past and present
Vanished Edens?
A five-point framework
Businesses and the environment
The comparative method
Plan of the book

A few summers ago I visited two dairy farms, Huls Farm and Gardar Farm, which despite being located thousands of miles apart were still remarkably similar in their strengths and vulnerabilities. Both were by far the largest, most prosperous, most technologically advanced farms in their respective districts. In particular, each was centered around a magnificent state-of-the-art barn for sheltering and milking cows. Those structures, both neatly divided into opposite-facing rows of cow stalls, dwarfed all other barns in the district. Both farms let their cows graze outdoors in lush pastures during the summer, produced their own hay to harvest in the late summer for feeding the cows through the winter, and increased their production of summer fodder and winter hay by irrigating their fields. The two farms were similar in area (a few square miles) and in barn size, Huls barn holding somewhat more cows than Gardar barn (200 vs. 165 cows, respectively). The owners of both farms were viewed as leaders of their respective societies. Both owners were deeply religious. Both farms were located in gorgeous natural settings that attract tourists from afar, with backdrops of high snow-capped mountains drained by streams teaming with fish, and sloping down to a famous river (below Huls Farm) or 3ord (below Gardar Farm).
Those were the shared strengths of the two farms. As for their shared vulnerabilities, both lay in districts economically marginal for dairying, because their high northern latitudes meant a short summer growing season in which to produce pasture grass and hay. Because the climate was thus suboptimal even in good years, compared to dairy farms at lower latitudes, both farms were susceptible to being harmed by climate change, with drought or cold being the main concerns in the districts of Huls Farm or Gardar Farm respectively. Both districts lay far from population centers to which they could market their products, so that transportation costs and hazards placed them at a competitive disadvantage compared to more centrally located districts. The economies of both farms were hostage to forces beyond their owners’ control, such as the changing affluence and tastes of their customers and neighbors. On a larger scale, the economies of the countries in which both farms lay rose and fell with the waxing and waning of threats from distant enemy societies.

The biggest difference between Huls Farm and Gardar Farm is in their current status. Huls Farm, a family enterprise owned by five siblings and their spouses in the Bitterroot Valley of the western U.S. state of Montana, is currently prospering, while Ravalli County in which Huls Farm lies boasts one of the highest population growth rates of any American county. Tim, Trudy, and Dan Huls, who are among Huls Farm’s owners, personally took me on a tour of their high-tech new barn, and patiently explained to me the attractions and vicissitudes of dairy farming in Montana. It is inconceivable that the United States in general, and Huls Farm in particular, will collapse in the foreseeable future. But Gardar Farm, the former manor farm of the Norse bishop of southwestern Greenland, was abandoned over 500 years ago. Greenland Norse society collapsed completely: its thousands of inhabitants starved to death, were killed in civil unrest or in war against an enemy, or emigrated, until nobody remained alive. While the strongly built stone walls of Gardar barn and nearby Gardar Cathedral are still standing, so that I was able to count the individual cow stalls, there is no owner to tell me today of Gardar’s former attractions and vicissitudes. Yet when Gardar Farm and Norse Greenland were at their peak, their decline seemed as inconceivable as does the decline of Huls Farm and the U.S. today.

Let me make clear: in drawing these parallels between Huls and Gardar Farms, I am not claiming that Huls Farm and American society are doomed to decline. At present, the truth is quite the opposite: Huls Farm is in the process of expanding, its advanced new technology is being studied for adoption by neighboring farms, and the United States is now the most powerful country in the world. Nor am I claiming that farms or societies in general are prone to collapse: while some have indeed collapsed like Gardar, others have survived uninterruptedly for thousands of years. Instead, my trips to Huls and Gardar Farms, thousands of miles apart but visited during the same summer, vividly brought home to me the conclusion that even the richest, technologically most advanced societies today face growing environmental and economic problems that should not be underestimated. Many of our problems are broadly similar to those that undermined Gardar Farm and Norse Greenland, and that many other past societies also struggled to solve. Some of those past societies failed (like the Greenland Norse), and others succeeded (like the Japanese and Tikopians). The past offers us a rich database from which we can learn, in order that we may keep on succeeding.

Norse Greenland is just one of many past societies that collapsed or vanished, leaving behind monumental ruins such as those that Shelley imagined in his poem “Ozymandias.” By collapse, I mean a drastic decrease in human population size and/or political/economic/social complexity, over a considerable area, for an extended time. The phenomenon of collapses is thus an extreme form of several milder types of decline, and it becomes arbitrary to decide how drastic the decline of a society must be before it qualifies to be labeled as a collapse. Some of those milder types of decline include the normal minor rises and falls of fortune, and minor political/economic/social restructurings, of any individual society; one society’s conquest by a close neighbor, or its decline linked to the neighbor’s rise, without change in the total population size or complexity of the whole region; and the replacement or overthrow of one governing elite by another. By those standards, most people would consider the following past societies to have been famous victims of full- fledged collapses rather than of just minor declines: the Anasazi and Cahokia within the boundaries of the modern U.S., the Maya cities in Central America, Moche and Tiwanaku societies in South America, Mycenean Greece and Minoan Crete in Europe, Great Zimbabwe in Africa, Angkor Wat and the Harappan Indus Valley cities in Asia, and Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean (map, pp. 4–5).

The monumental ruins left behind by those past societies hold a romantic fascination for all of us. We marvel at them when as children we first learn of them through pictures. When we grow up, many of us plan vacations in order to experience them at firsthand as tourists. We feel drawn to their often spectacular and haunting beauty, and also to the mysteries that they pose. The scales of the ruins testify to the former wealth and power of their builders—they boast “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” in Shelley’s words. Yet the builders vanished, abandoning the great structures that they had created at such effort. How could a society that was once so mighty end up collapsing? What were the fates of its individual citizens?—did they move away, and (if so) why, or did they die there in some unpleasant way? Lurking behind this romantic mystery is the nagging thought: might such a fate eventually befall our own wealthy society? Will tourists someday stare mystified at the rusting hulks of New York’s skyscrapers, much as we stare today at the jungle-overgrown ruins of Maya cities?

It has long been suspected that many of those mysterious abandonments were at least partly triggered by ecological problems: people inadvertently destroying the environmental resources on which their societies depended. This suspicion of unintended ecological suicide—ecocide—has been confirmed by discoveries made in recent decades by archaeologists, climatologists, historians, paleontologists, and palynologists (pollen scientists). The processes through which past societies have undermined themselves by damaging their environments fall into eight categories, whose relative importance differs from case to case: deforestation and habitat destruction, soil problems (erosion, salinization, and soil fertility losses), water management problems, overhunting, overfishing, effects of introduced species on native species, human population growth, and increased per-capita impact of people.

Those past collapses tended to follow somewhat similar courses constituting variations on a theme. Population growth forced people to adopt intensified means of agricultural production (such as irrigation, double-cropping, or terracing), and to expand farming from the prime lands first chosen onto more marginal land, in order to feed the growing number of hungry mouths. Unsustainable practices led to environmental damage of one or more of the eight types just listed, resulting in agriculturally marginal lands having to be abandoned again. Consequences for society included food shortages, starvation, wars among too many people fighting for too few resources, and overthrows of governing elites by disillusioned masses. Eventually, population decreased through starvation, war, or disease, and society lost some of the political, economic, and cultural complexity that it had developed at its peak. Writers find it tempting to draw analogies between those trajectories of human societies and the trajectories of individual human lives—to talk of a society’s birth, growth, peak, senescence, and death—and to assume that the long period of senescence that most of us traverse between our peak years and our deaths also applies to societies. But that metaphor proves erroneous for many past societies (and for the modern Soviet Union): they declined rapidly after reaching peak numbers and power, and those rapid declines must have com... --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From AudioFile

In everyday language, Professor Diamond writes of the ecological collapse and subsequent decline of past societies. From the ravage of Australia by rabbits to the inability of the Mayas to supply their armies with food, we learn from the historical record how the misunderstanding and abuse of natural resources have destroyed cultures and made places on Earth uninhabitable. In a firm and raspy voice, Christopher Murney keeps a comfortable pace and doesn't stumble on a single word from the rich vocabulary. By finding the right tonal balance between being informative and entertaining, he renders a stimulating performance of science with a vital lesson for our future. J.A.H. © AudioFile 2005, Portland, Maine-- Copyright © AudioFile, Portland, Maine --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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