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Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed: Revised Edition Paperback – January 4, 2011
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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 --This text refers to the Library Binding edition.
From Publishers Weekly
In the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond chronicled the rise of human civilizations since the Ice Age. This time, he turns over the log and probes the rotted side--the demise of once-productive societies such as the Maya, Easter Islanders and Greenland Norse. He also sounds the alarm on environmental practices undermining modern societies, including China, Russia, Australia and the United States. Narrator Murney has his work cut out for him, even though this audiobook is abridged. The narrative, which spans the globe and the ages, is dense, overwhelmingly so at times. Diamond parses myriad ecological, geographical and biological impacts, from weather patterns to deforestation to sperm count. But Murney rises to the occasion. His engagement never flags, and he strikes all the proper notes of concern and warning. The delivery feels effortless, his tone a blend of newsreel narrator and professor-at-the-lectern. Diamond teaches geography at UCLA, and his prose style, unsurprisingly, contains shades of the lecture hall. In fact, given such abundant and oft-alarming information, listeners may feel the urge to take notes for the final exam. Though grounding materials such as photographs and maps would have made this audiobook easier to follow, their absence is a minor fault in an overall fine production.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Library Binding edition.
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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.
The question is "will there be a future?"
There is a vast scientific literature on the topic, replete with intense investigation, using a range of tools that could not have been dreamt of only a few decades ago. Jared Diamond set out in "Collapse" to make those findings accessible to the general public; hence his book is informal, even chatty, but though it presents a vast amount of data, the text is without footnotes and references (but don't worry -- sources are set out at the end of the book.)
Diamond confronts a prevailing view of history which salutes human advancement, despite ups and downs, the passing of a global "torch" from one culture to another: he insists, on the contrary, that there have been many cases in which a society or culture, after a period of prosperity and success, has so mismanaged its relationship to its resource base that it has contributed to its own destruction.
He asks if we can designate a general framework through which we can examine such cases of collapse, and proposes a set of five "forces" , whose form may be particular for any society, but whose general contours are repeated in other cases.
1) environmental damage
2) climate change
3) hostile neighbors
4) friendly trade partners
5) society's response to its environmental problems
What is striking about many of the cases of collapse is that the "leadership" of the society in question has failed, in the sense that it did not adopt measures which could have saved the culture. Indeed, in many of the cases cited in the book the leadership elite did not even perceive that there was a problem.
Inevitably there arises the question of the relevance of Diamond's conclusions for our present day world. In a globalized world it is easy to forget that we depend on the resource base that we have inherited, depend on its health in the form of its forests, its soils, its water, its air, its ambient conditions such as temperature. We have our hands on such potent levers that we can remake the planet we possess, but we cannot guarantee that this remaking will succeed.