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VINE VOICEon January 16, 2006
A debate between two camps continues to rage. One side thinks that the modern world continues to careen toward a non-sustainable future and impending doom. The other group thinks that "environmentalists" exaggerate their claims about a coming ecological crash. As usual the sides remain somewhat unproductively polarized with neither giving an inch to the other. This book's title exposes where Jared Diamond's sympathies stand, but he also takes some surprisingly neutral views. For one, he claims that some contemporary businesses have in fact successfully taken environmental concerns into consideration, and that these concerns have made them money and boosted their respect globally. Diamond doesn't believe that big business and environmental groups necessarily remain indissoluble enemies. And he goes further by suggesting that environmentalists should unabashedly praise those companies that have suceeded in balancing economics with ecology. "Collapse", though admittedly more slanted towards the environmental side of the continuum, nonetheless tries to narrow the gap between the two aforementioned camps.

"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.
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