- Audible Audio Edition
- Listening Length: 9 hours and 34 minutes
- Program Type: Audiobook
- Version: Abridged
- Publisher: Penguin Audio
- Audible.com Release Date: February 3, 2005
- Language: English
- ASIN: B0007PC4ZM
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank:
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Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed Audiobook – Abridged
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In addition to looking at the early 2000's environmental and political situations in Rwanda, Haiti, Australia, China, and the state of Montana, he drives home his point by examining several ancient societies that literally collapsed due to environmental failure, namely, the Eastern Islands, the Anasazi of the Southwestern US, the Mayans of the Yucatan, and the Norse of Greenland, among others.
The relevance of the demise of those societies hundreds of years ago may be questioned. They were highly isolated, if not totally, and obviously had no scientific understanding of their environments. All lived in difficult climatic conditions that could not support their populations. Deforestation, soil erosion, and the elimination of edible species presaged their end. Clearly, the elites of those societies mismanaged resources to enhance their standing, but did they really have the capacity and information to choose to take their societies in different directions and not succumb to their harsh environments?
Inhospitable environments are no stranger to the 21st century, and if the vast amount of scientific and ecological information does not filter into a society, they can find themselves facing the same sort of starvation and man-versus-man confrontations of those older societies. Several areas of Africa are prime examples, and Haiti is not far behind. The author repeatedly makes the point that we live in a globalized, integrated world. The effects of population growth, environmental degradation, resource depletion, and climatic changes cannot be confined to isolated areas such as the Easter Islands.
In the 21st century, it is global corporations that have worldwide impacts. While not all of the earth's problems can be laid at the feet of global corporations, the author shows that the oil, mining, timber, and fishing industries have had deleterious impacts on the environment. The author is cautiously optimistic that the public will be able to sufficiently pressure corporations and governments to be far more pro-environment. Some initiatives are underway in some industries with modest successes.
While COLLAPSE is an important book and at times interesting, it is long, slow-going, and repetitious. Regarding his optimism, the author really does not demonstrate that there are effective environmental political movements that have substantial influence in the political process. Is choice more a chimera than not? Furthermore, he assumes that the world's main problems are environmental. Where would he put the huge worldwide divides concerning religion and haves vs. have-nots and the possibilities of nuclear war?
The author tells of his students wondering how it is that someone could cut down the last tree on Easter Island, but one might equally wonder in our democratic era how it is that we have allowed huge private entities to have so much power over our lives and permitted such a mal-distribution of resources and earnings. So who are the stupid and irresponsible: the ignorant people of the Eastern Islands or modern societies with the benefits of science, information, and the study of the past?
Jared Diamond brings us a cogently argued discussion of numerous societies over several thousand years that collapsed, and of a very few that have survived. He has gathered a convincing mass of evidence that the fall of most societies is due to destruction of their environments, which he calls “ecological suicide.”
…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, desalinization, 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. (p. 6)
Diamond points out that modern society considers itself immune to collapse because of modern technology, but that in fact, we are simply destroying our planet on a much vaster scale and at a much faster rate than ever before. Our much larger population and interdependence upon conditions in distant locations means that environmental collapses in distant places puts us at greater risk than ever before.
One of the principal problems is our focus on immediate profits from extraction of resources while minimizing costs – including the expenses for disposing of waste byproducts in safe manners and in avoidance of pollution.
…Successful businesses differentiate between those expenses necessary to stay in business and those more pensively characterized as ‘moral obligations.’ Difficulties or reluctance to understand and accept this distinction underscores much of the tension between advocates of broadly mandated environmental programs and the business community… (p. 37)
When the mine owner can’t or won’t pay, taxpayers don’t want to step in and pay billions of dollars of cleanup costs either. Instead, taxpayers feel that the problem has existed for a long time, out of sight and out of their backyards, so it must be tolerable; most taxpayers balk at spending money if there isn’t an immediate crisis; and not enough taxpayers complain about toxic wastes or support high taxes. In this sense, the American public is as responsible for inaction as are miners and the government; we the public bear the ultimate responsibility. Only when the public pressures its politicians into passing laws demanding different behaviors from mining companies will the companies behave differently; otherwise, the companies would be operating as charities and would be violating their responsibility to their shareholders… (p. 38)
The bottom line is the attitude of “ISEP” – It’s somebody else’s problem.
Diamond details the problems of ecological collapse that led to the downfall of almost every society on our planet in recorded history, including Easter Island, Pitcairn (famous from Mutiny on the Bounty) and Henderson Islands, the Anastazi of New Mexico, the Mayans of Mexico, the Vikings, the Norse in Greenland, Australia, and many others. All fell due to having ignored the limitations of carrying capacity of their environments in the face of overpopulation.
The saddest aspect of all of these societal ecological suicides is that modern man has not heeded the lessons of the past. We are repeating the very same mistakes but on such a vast, planetary scale, that we are well on our way to causing the sixth great extinction of our planet. We have no way of knowing what the tipping point of no return might be. Hopefully, we are not already too late to halt and reverse our path to global self-destruction. (See the editorial in this issue for more on this.)
The brilliance of Diamond’s book is that he points out that there are alternatives to what we are doing, with clear examples from past and present societies for sustainable ways to live on this earth.
One of these is the New Guinea highlands, “…and that agriculture has been going on there for about 7,000 years – one of the world’s longest-running experiments in sustainable food production.” Here, small, family landholdings worked by within close-knit communities are run with careful consideration of the needs of the land and its plants and animals, as well as of the needs of the people. There is a firmly entrenched bottom-up approach that prevails on this island, with local citizens making the decisions that are needed to resolve communal problems. A very important contribution to their success is their self control of population to avoid exceeding the carrying capacity of the land.
Similar success is evident on Tikopia, a small island in the Southwest Pacific Ocean. Again, there is a bottom-up structure to their society, with 3,000 years of survival of their culture.
My own impression is that much of the success of these small societies may be attributed to the social rule that people do well within a limit of 150 members in their community (or working group). Within this limit, everyone knows everyone else personally and relationships are based on frequent interactions between all members of the group. There isn’t the impersonality of larger societies that allows and encourages greedy and/or power-hungry individuals or groups (be they businesses, corporations or politicians) to build their power and control over other members of the population – for their own benefits, at the expense of the rest of the population.
But Diamond does not stop here. He points out that Japan is another example of several hundreds of years of balancing population growth with careful stewardship of their cultivated land and forests. Diamond’s book was written several years prior to the Fukushima disaster that continues to deteriorate and to threaten the health of the Japanese people, their land, and probably – to an unknown extent – of the nearby ocean waters and of many others in the Northern Hemisphere. So perhaps my conjecture about the long-term viability of a society depending on the presence of smaller communities still holds.
Diamond makes many helpful suggestions for how to deal with the crisis of our impending sixth global extinction.
This is a book most highly recommended for anyone concerned with bettering our world.
Review by Daniel Benor, MD, ABIHM