This is an outstanding piece of work, in some ways even better than Diamond's Pulitzer Prize winning Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (1997) which I highly recommend. Here, instead of explaining why wealth and power accrued to European states and not, for example, to South America states, Diamond demonstrates mostly how some societies failed. Along the way he contrasts the failures with some successes, and in the latter part of the book addresses current problems and possible solutions.
He begins with modern Montana, specifically Bitterroot Valley, a society in danger of failing because of deforestation, pollution, loss of productive top soil, and other factors. He follows this with Part 2, "Past Societies" in which the melancholy history of Easter Island and some other Pacific Islands is retold in fascinating detail. I was especially interested in the material on Easter Island, which, because of its relative isolation from the rest of the world over many centuries, has always served in my mind as a microcosmic cautionary tale for the entire planet. Although I have read other books about Easter Island and have seen a couple of documentaries, I found Diamond's exposition full of new information, offering fresh insights into how that society collapsed.
Also delineated in remarkably readable detail are the collapses of the Anasazi of the US southwest, the Maya in Mesoamerica, the Viking-founded colonies in the north Atlantic and especially in Greenland. There is some excellent material on how Iceland succeeded (barely) and how the New Guinea highland people managed to avoid the fate of some other Pacific Island societies, and why Japan succeeded in saving its forests and croplands in the time of the Tokugawa. Note that these stories are primarily about ecological successes or failures, not successes or failures due to political or military misadventures.
What surprised me about the failed societies is that the most destructive thing the people did was cut down their forests to plant food crops. Again and again, from Easter Island to Greenland, the effect of cutting down trees was devastating because it allowed wind and rain to remove the topsoil, either blowing it away or washing it down gullies and rivers into the sea. In the case of Easter Island, using up all the timber resulted in an inability to fish since without wood the people could not build boats.
People also clear forests to create pastures for grazing their livestock. This also proved disastrous in some cases, especially when the animals were sheep and goats, who typically graze right down to the roots of plants, and can thereby quickly strip the vegetation from great tracks of land.
But the common link between all societal ecological disasters is simple, and one of great importance to us all today. All those societies--Easter Island, the Maya, the Anasazi, etc.--allowed their populations to grow beyond the carrying capacity of their environment. That is the bottom line for all of humanity. Hungry people do desperate things, as Diamond recalls in the chapter on Rwanda. When too many people share too little space and resources, laws and morality break down, governments fall and people kill one another massively. All peoples do this. No human race or ethnic group is exempt. It could happen here. Diamond's book is a warning that we all need to hear and appreciate. We are part of the ecology, and not above it. We need to live in harmony with the rest of the planet and not imagine that we can treat the planet and its resources with carelessness, abuse and neglect.
Toward the end of the book, Diamond gives his prescription on how we might avoid the fate of the failed societies. He notes on page 214 that bad things can happen "when parents take good care of their individual children but not of their children's future." He is referring to the parents of friends "who bought life insurance, made wills, and obsessed about the schooling of their children," but "blundered into the disaster of World War II."
I think Diamond nails it with this observation. Today's soccer moms (and dads) with all our affluence and all the care we put into our children's and grandchildren's future may be failing because we are not electing the kind of leadership that will provide for their future. High deficients (greedily borrowing from our children and grandchildren) and lack of consideration for the environment, through the depletion of fossil fuels and the pollution of fresh water sources and the air, etc., may completely override anything we might do for our children.
Diamond also says that at some point societies have to realize which core values are worth maintaining and which no longer make sense in light of current circumstances (p. 440 and elsewhere). He cites the example of the Greenland Norse who maintained their European values and lifestyles and died out when they might have survived had they taken on the Inuit lifestyle and learned to hunt ringed seals and whales and build igloos. Additionally there is the sad example of Easter Island where they continued to worship greedy gods (and their priests) and built statues instead of using their resources to maintain their forests and topsoil.
I think Diamond's argument especially applies to the false gods some people follow today, the Bronze Aged gods of fundamentalist religions who fear progressive change and continue to seek solutions through violence, intolerance, and the defeat of "enemies."
In reading about the various collapses here one is struck by what they had in common. In every case there were too many people chasing too few resources. At peak times on Easter Island or among the Maya, great monuments were build to celebrate the society's success. And then came the fall soon after. Diamond warns that the crash is typically not gradual like human senescence, but abrupt, following fast on the heels of the society's finest hour.