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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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For example, if people attempted to colonize an area that had poor soil, that would lead to a variety of problems for the society. The fields there would only be fit for farming or animal raising for a couple of years before the resources were depleted, and it would take a very long time for them to grow back due to poor soil quality. This would mean growing food would have to take place on a very small scale, limiting resources greatly and increasing the risk of starvation. The poor soil would also lead to slow tree growth, meaning that if a society wasn’t careful then they would use up their lumber supply quicker than they can grow it back, and without wood a society will risk failure due to lack of supplies. Therefore, poor environment quality as well as quick exhaustion of the lands resources helped cause the collapse of a number of societies in the past.
Why would societies of the past overuse their natural resources so fast? Couldn’t they see that their ways of life were destroying the landscape? Diamond answers questions such as these, explaining that while it’s easy for us in the future to see what the problems were, they weren’t so clear for those colonizing the land at the time. Many of the societies that collapsed happened to first settle their while the land was at its best, when the soil was rich and the climate was good for growing, and a time that wouldn’t last. The settlers made their homes there and took advantage of the prosperous times, thinking that that was how life always was in that environment. However, when the climate changed back to its poorer state of being, the settlers were unprepared for the rapid degradation of their environment and experienced a tragic collapse. So the settlers of these collapsed societies didn’t necessarily exhaust their soils and cut down all of their trees on purpose or out of greed, rather it was due to an unexpected change of events for them that left them unprepared for a harsher climate than the one they were used to.
Diamond also discusses modern day societies, those that have been around for centuries and may or may not continue to live on in the future. Examples of such societies range from the lowly populated fields of Montana to the bustling and highly polluted cities of China. Exhausting the soil and other resources of an environment is not just a problem of the past, but rather it lives on today as prevalent as ever before. Resources such as oil, fish and wood are becoming scarce in some areas which will lead to problems in the future if not soon dealt with. Environmental degradation due to abuse by big businesses is a major problem at home and overseas. Pollution from cities and industry are starting to cause problems on a global scale, causing for a need to act to avoid potential collapse.
The well-being of the environment today lies in the hands of government, businesses and public opinion. Governments have the power to create regulations about how the environment can be used or preserved in order to stop resource depletion. Businesses have the choice to abuse the environment around them or try their best to remain a clean company. Public opinion helps shape the ideas of both government and big business, as the people are the ones represented in governments and big businesses will have to listen to their paying customers if they wish to stay profitable. Therefore, the well-being of the environment rests in the hands of the people and their decisions. By being informed about the resources that they use and how those resources are acquired and created, the people will have the ability to make good decisions to support environmentally sound practices that will bring about the betterment of society and environments all around the world.
I personally believe that Diamond did a good job in explaining his facts, keeping the reader both well informed and interested in what he was saying. While some of what Diamond writes could come off as pessimistic, he is merely trying to portray facts about what has happened in the past and what is happening today. His bleak descriptions of reality are not meant to simply scare the reader into believing that the world as we know it is destined for collapse, but rather that people in today’s society just need to be careful with how we treat our environment. Diamond takes time to mention the good things that modern society is doing today to improve our situation, showing that there is still plenty of good news and still hope for the human race.
Overall, Diamond does well in educating the reader about collapsed societies of the past. Not only does he go into detail in explaining what aspects of a society went wrong and led to the eventual collapse, but he also takes time to compare the collapsed societies to similar societies that managed to thrive. By doing this, he not only discusses what doesn’t work, but also what does work in a society. This extra detail in his writing succeeds in further educating the reader about societal success.
In conclusion, Jared Diamond’s book Collapse does a decent job in explaining the environmental problems of yesterday and today, and how they have led to problems in different societies around the world, ranging from pollution to the entire collapse of a society. This well-written book describes the good and the bad in our world and tells the reader exactly what can be done to alter the course of our societies so that they can avoid the risk of potential failure or serious environmental issues such as land degradation or the exhaustion of natural resources. With the knowledge gained from this book, the reader can make educated decisions that can help the bigger picture of society by supporting businesses that are environmentally friendly and avoid the support of practices that might harm the environment further. With the knowledge from this book people can shape our society today so that it can avoid the risk of collapse in the future.
But it is into the two sections on Easter and the Greenland Norse that you can tell the author has poured his soul. They really stand out in what I read of this book - most of it - and perhaps for the history-interested layman they are the most interesting chapters to read. I'm not sure if the author presents anything radically new, but what he does do, which is to provide the lay reader with a useful summary of the present facts and findings on the two mysteries - he does very well. I feel I am now up to speed with some of the latest research into the disappearances of civilized society on Easter and in Norse Greenland. Nowhere else have I seen such useful and up-to-date general/overall accounts of the state of research into these two former societies. It's really required reading for anyone who has an interest in either. Not only does the author present us with - at the time of writing - the latest research, he also considers many pertinent issues himself and comes to his own conclusions. It's as if he took all the latest findings on Easter and Greenland and put them into an comprehensive, accessible, and useful/relevant perspective. What a great place then to start your readings into these two societies.
The essential point about Easter is that the local chiefs spent the resources of the island on mutual competition and self-aggrandizement. The society failed to come together and pool its knowledge and resources. Had it done so, and had it exercized greater forethought and caution as did some of the other societies presented in the book (e.g. the Japan of the daimyo), it might well have survived a deal longer.
The conclusions the author draws on the Greenland Norse are uniquely fascinating. In short, he puts their eventual collapse down to the following issues:
1) The Norse failed to hunt the ringed seals, fish and whales that the Inuit did, they thus deprived themselves of very important sources of winter protein
2) The Norse clung to their European, Christian, and Norwegian identity, values and heritage, and ultimately failed to adapt to their new surroundings - when the little Ice Age arrived they were undone
3) The Norse scorned the Inuit and failed to copy their ways or learn from them
4) Power in Norse Greenlandic society was in the hands of the chiefs and the clergy. These institutions had a vested interest in maintaining their own power and prestige inspite of developments that could have proven beneficial for Norse Greenlandic society as a whole
The chapters concluding the book concerning why societies fail or succeed and what we can learn from them today certainly have their value, even if the points made are at times a little self-evident.
For any reader interested in the two "failed" societies mentioned above, plus many others, you could hardly find a better place to begin than here. Top marks to Jared Diamond.