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Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed Hardcover – December 29, 2004
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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
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.
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Top Customer Reviews
"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. These comprise certain behaviors and characterstics, namely, environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbors, friendly trade partners, and a society's responses to its environmental problems. With these tools in hand, Diamond travels to Montana, Easter Island, the Pitcairn and Henderson Islands, the ancient and medieval Anasazi cultures in North America, the Maya, Norse Greenland, New Guinea, Tikopia, Tokugawa-era Japan, Rwanda, Hispaniola, China, and Australia. Each of these societies, both past and present, receive analysis in terms of the five point framework. For example, the Greenland Norse collapsed, according to Diamond, due to all five factors. Whereas Easter Island collapsed only due to three. But Diamond also discusses past successes such as Tikopia and Tokugawa Japan. These two societies managed to control their resources and avoid the others' fate. And those fates included horrifying ends in wars, mass starvation, and sometimes cannabalism.
The discussion of Norse Greenland receives three full length chapters (which at times seems a little too lengthy). Why? In a talk that Diamond gave for the Long Now Foundation in 2005 (downloadable from the Foundation's website), he claimed that he wanted to show that collapse doesn't only happen to non-europeans. Some skeptics may claim that collapse only happens to so-called "primitives". But the Norse Greelanders were medieval Europeans who desperately tried to hold on to their European Christian roots in Greenland, but they all ended up dying sometime in the 15th century. The reasons why remain somewhat mysterious, though archeologists have found evidence of starvation and cannabalism at the long abandoned sites. By contrast, the Greenland Inuit long outlasted the Norse.
Diamond thinks that societies also need to re-evaluate their values to survive in different climates. In addition, when the elite begin isolating themselves that often spells trouble for a society. Diamond sees this happening in our world today (in "gated" communities and private funding for personal amenities) as well as evidence for all of the above listed five points. He argues that our current course appears unsustainable unless we take action. In the end, he does leave room for hope (as evidenced by the societies that "saved" themselves and peoples).
Diamond also addresses the refutations often leveled against the environmental side of the spectrum. One-liners such as "technology will save us" or "the environment must be balanced against the economy" receive their own refutations. Finally, he presents justifications for his comparative method of juxtaposing and extrapolating the problems of past societies onto our own.
Diamond never argues that the contemporary world will inevitably collapse. He does admit to seeing many danger signs. In the end, whether or not readers agree with Diamond's conclusions, the book does a good job of presenting collapse as at least one of the possible outcomes of a society's actions. Much of the modern world doesn't seem to accept or even to realize this possibility. At the very least governments and citizens need to be aware that irresponsible actions could lead to a collapse. Infinite progress and expansion isn't a given. Though this book could have included much more information (along with analyses of many more now extinct societies), it provides a good foundation for thinking and debate on this increasingly important subject. And though it has its flaws "Collapse" nonetheless represents a book that environmental skeptics will have to contend with.
Some of the chicken-little stories were interesting, but at the end there was little sense of scale, little ranking of urgency or relevance. The reader is left to choose between despair and dismissal, while I'm sure there's plenty of room for middle ground.
It would have been better, to me, if Diamond had built the book around a projected narrative, based on his research, on which Societies will Fail or Succeed, in what order and by what mechanism.