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Questioning Collapse: Human Resilience, Ecological Vulnerability, and the Aftermath of Empire 1st Edition

2.4 out of 5 stars 16 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0521733663
ISBN-10: 0521733669
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Frequently Bought Together

  • Questioning Collapse: Human Resilience, Ecological Vulnerability, and the Aftermath of Empire
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  • Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed: Revised Edition
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  • Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies
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Editorial Reviews


"This is a truly impressive book of scholarship, but also an important book politically. It deals with a public debate: 'how susceptible are societies, including our own, to collapse?' A fully global set of in-depth studies demonstrates convincingly the remarkable sustainability of human groups. While societies change, they rarely disappear, however much dominant groups might wish them to."

Ian Hodder, Stanford University

"This wide-ranging collection of articles written by prominent historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists provides a highly accessible, stimulating and valuable corrective to simplistic popular accounts on why certain societies have failed, while others succeeded. A dozen case studies, covering societies as diverse as Norse Greenland, Rapa Nui, late imperial China, Classic to Post-Classic Maya, Iron Age Mesopotamia, and contemporary Rwanda and Haiti, critique the concept that societies have catastrophically collapsed due to decisions taken that were not sustainable and that led inexorably to over-population and environmental degradation. Rather, the societies covered here exhibited considerable resilience or the ability to adapt to new circumstances; many lasted for centuries, or, in other words, for far longer than other societies deemed successful by J. Diamond in his recent best-selling study Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. The authors argue persuasively for a richer consideration of the historical, political, cultural and, today, global contexts in which each society emerged and developed. Most importantly, they insist that societies are not wholes, making decisions that determine their collective fates, but rather are made up of separate factions or interest groups, with differential access to power and the ability to promote their own agendas. The more complex accounts of societal "collapse" presented here ultimately make it easier for us to discern what is truly unique and frightening about our current susceptibility to global environmental collapse."
Philip L. Kohl, Professor of Anthropology, Kathryn W. Davis Professor of Slavic Studies, Wellesley College

"This collection should be required reading for all enthusiasts of Jared Diamond's Collapse. Pointing out that societal "collapse" is extremely rare, the editors argue that most human societies have shown remarkable resilience, even in the face of environmental challenges. In clear, accessible language, the contributors to this volume - all experts in their fields - marshal the most recent research to show how Diamond read selectively, mischaracterized, or misunderstood the specific histories of Easter Island, Norse Greenland, the Puebloan Southwest, the Classic Maya, and modern Haiti and Rwanda, among others. The organization of this volume echoes Diamond's, closing with a remarkable essay by Errington and Gewertz on the necessity for anthropologically-informed understandings of both ourselves and others. The result is an alternative - and powerfully compelling - take on Diamond's popular work and a striking example of what scholars can, and should, do in presenting their work to the public."
Kathleen D. Morrison, Professor of Anthropology, Director, Center for International Studies, University of Chicago

"Once in a while, a book comes along that should be read by everyone interested in the really BIG questions of human history. HERE IT IS. In the pages of Questioning Collapse, McAnany, Yoffee and a host of distinguished historians and archaeologists answer the question "How do societies collapse?" by changing the question. Societies don't "fail," at least not in the way that naïve popular writers have recently claimed. Ranging from ancient China and Mesopotamia to Chaco Canyon and Easter Island, the authors of this book drive nail upon nail into the coffin of simplistic, NON-HISTORICAL readings of global history. This book will stand for years as a benchmark from which we can ponder our shared past and forecast the world's future."
Tim Pauketat, University of Illinois, Urbana- Champaign

"The authors contribute positively to critical public discussions about understanding what the past has to offer us as we move toward an increasingly global, environmentally fragile future. Their chapters were written for the wider public rather than being narrowly focused at specialists and yet also have much of value for professionals in the authors' disciplines." -Krista Lewis, Science

Book Description

Questioning Collapse challenges those scholars and popular writers who advance the thesis that societies - past and present - collapse because of behavior that destroyed their environments or because of overpopulation. In a series of highly accessible and closely argued essays, a team of internationally recognized scholars bring history and context to bear in their radically different analyses of iconic events.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 392 pages
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press; 1 edition (September 28, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0521733669
  • ISBN-13: 978-0521733663
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 2.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #430,739 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I placed an order for"Questioning Collapse" as soon as I heard about it and before its release date because I expected a spirited and well reasoned challenge to Jared Diamond's best selling "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed." The critique leaves something to be desired but the essays by Norman Yoffee and by Errington and Gewertz bring my rating up to 4 stars.

In the interest of full disclosure this reviewer worked as a technical consultant in a number of the countries covered in these books, and in others, many of which by any reasonable standard would be judged as either failed states or close to it. This includes three months near the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, five months working with the few journalists in Rwanda who survived the 1994 genocide, almost a year with native people in Honduras, and with farmers, both Latino and Mayan, in the Yucatan. I am neither an archaeologist nor an anthropologist but mine is more than armchair analysis. Now happily retired I have no professional reputation to defend, no books to sell, no political agenda to push, and most assuredly zero tolerance for political correctness.

Two themes dominate "Questioning Collapse": Diamond is wrong to charge that societies destroy themselves by despoiling their environment, and the whole idea of collapse is overblown because societies rarely if ever collapse. They just become more simple in their political and economic structure.

The contributors seem intent on disproving Diamond's claims regarding the role environmental impact has played in societal collapse.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Here are some basic observations about what this book is and is not:

It is an edited volume of essays by various authors.

It is not only about Collapse, but also about Guns, Germs, and Steel.

It is less about Collapse and Guns, Germs, and Steel, than it is about (1) the issues and case studies addressed by Diamond in those books, and (2) the ways in which Diamond addresses those issues and case studies.

Surprisingly, it is not dry or difficult to read, in fact if anything it is even more readable and engaging than Diamond's books (which have been praised for these very reasons).

Here is why so many reviewers, myself included, have found themselves exasperated and even angered by this book:

The essays collected in Questioning Collapse generally do not offer careful readings of Diamond's arguments. Some of the authors even take, at times, a rather unscholarly and strident tone. Some of the authors seem unfamiliar with the scholarly, or at least logical, principle, that good reading must be (among other things) both fair and charitable. This is especially perplexing because all the authors in this book seem to have the same overall goals and concerns as Diamond, as the book's introductory chapter points out.

Here is why this book gets five stars:

Its shortcomings aside, Questioning Collapse does offer detailed accounts and analyses of many of the historical events that Diamond has written on.

The authors of each essay, unlike Diamond, have specialized and done primary research on the societies that each writes about.

Most of Diamond's sources in Collapse (I imagine this is also the case for Guns, Germs, and Steel) are not primary but secondary sources.
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The authors of this book are responding to Diamond's popular book "Collapse". They seem be quibbling about minor details while missing the entire point of Diamond's book.

From chapter 1 "Why we question collapse", the authors challenge minor points in Diamond's books (perhaps because he is not an anthropologist or historian by profession?) They claim to prefer the term "Resilance" to "collapse" because there were always some survivors in every case of societal collapse. They also don't seem to like the word "failed" when applied to a state. It seems to me that any society which breaks down into starvation and cannibalism can probably safely be called a failure....even if the society has lasted 500 years before it fails...but that's just me.

They also miss or ignore a LOT of Diamond's logical qualifiers. He sprinkles his work with phrases like "may have", "could have been" and "I believe" when weaving a story of the past and then usually takes a step back and says "But whatever the specific causes were, these were the results". I don't find any fault with this type of writing. Whether the trees on Easter Island were destroyed by humans or Rats is irrelevant. The standard of living and capabilities of the population dropped sharply as a result of deforestation.

The fact that people survived is largely irrelevant to the discussion. In every case Diamond uses as a negative example, the culture was impossible to continue and had to change sharply (and often very quickly) as a result of environmental degradation. During these changes, undoubtedly many people died, sometimes horribly. I found myself wondering if the esteemed authors of this book would have been among the survivors.
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