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.
on 20 October 2005
For those interested in broader reasons for societal collapse, Diamond makes his caveats very quickly - 'Collapse' proposes to investigate *certain type* of failure to thrive or even survive of past and more modern societies. He concentrates on what is called 'ecocide', or ecological suicide, where society fails because of what can be very broadly described as at least partially self-inflicted ecological disaster, essentially a catastrophe of unsustainability.
The specific cases he discusses are, nevertheless, fantastically researched and very well described (even if he does go on a bit in places).
I have to say that after reading the Easter Island and the Pitcairn account with interest I had to struggle with the Anasazi and the Maya chapters, they seemed to be reiterating essentially the same albeit more complicated story in different guises and were frankly bit boring. The chapters devoted to the Viking fate in Greenland, with comparisons with their more successful stories in the Shetlands, Faeroes and Iceland, were, however; absolutely fascinating.
The modern section also had some gems, although, obviously , the reasoning couldn't have been as clear as in case in historical processes. Rwandan genocide is well analysed and the introduction of the ecological issues to the equation is indeed a very enlightening one. The chapter on Australia was perhaps the most interesting for me, with (as with the Vikings) the importance it put on the values and systems of the society in defining their treatment of their environment and their responses to the eventual crisis. I had no idea of the fact that until not so long ago farmers got government subsidy for clearing land of forest and other vegetation while the sheep farmers had to keep to minimum rather than maximum sticking levels!
Why then disappointment and three stars only?
Firstly, Diamond has a tendency to intersperse his account with personal angle, which, frankly, was overblown, terribly boring and added virtually nothing to the argument. Why do we need a 3 page account of his and his family's personal history in connection to Montana? Three short paragraphs would do perfectly well. Similar approach was repeated few more times in the Montana's chapter; with virtually every inhabitant mentioned provided with a cv. This was a true put-off for me, I almost gave up on the book then and I have to say that the same happens in one of the final chapters dealing with Los Angeles.
He makes a lot out of the notion of the total environmental footprint of a society as opposed to sheer numbers; and the fact that even if we slow down or reduce the population growth, increasing standards of leaving to which the so called Third World countries aspire and are encouraged to aspire to by the West would mean increasing this overal human environmental impact in ways that could cause global collapse.
But he largely fails to address the influence of the modern multinationals as well as Western governments on the environment in the less developed countries. His account of Chevron's clean operation in New Guinea is a very hopeful one indeed, but his acceptance of the fact that businesses operate solely to generate profits and only by making the adoption of wider social and environmental concerns profitable we have a chance of influencing their practices seems rather less enlightened.
He mentions many times the global interdependency of the modern era; but he doesn't seem to recognise the need for changes in the status quo and the way this global system is biased towards those who so far at least have had the biggest impact. I can understand that the prospect of the billion of the Chinese eating as much meat and calories and using as much electricity as Americans must be pretty scary and is good as a shock tactic and perhaps better than suggesting that we (the inhabitants of fat, energy guzzling North) need to accept the lowering of our standard of living as well - or maybe change our definition of what a good standard of living consists of?
I also understand that Diamond's book is aimed at the American audience and thus has to go lightly on the notions of top-down control, government regulations and getting rid of some of the cars in case they reject the whole message. This means though that the 'future prospects' and 'what can I do' and 'what should WE do' answers are rather tepid. If we are indeed facing a significant probability of a global collapse caused by our unsustainable use of the natural resources in the next 50 years or so; then surely we should do more than press Ikea and B&Q to use wood from sustainable forests. Using your vote, lobbying and boycott are good things; but surely an impending crisis calls for stricter measures - suggesting taxing SUV's out of existence would be a good start instead of lamenting that they became more popular than Smart cars....
on 25 January 2006
Diamond applies his renowned semi-deterministic view of the impact of climate and environment on human society to the problem of how some societies fail and ultimately disappear. His conclusions offer a clear alarm call for the future of human society in its present form on planet Earth.
The book starts by setting out those questions which soceities must address if they are to survive and flourish. Basically these involve how they respond to changes in the environment (including trying to prevent detrminental changes), their degree of adaptability and their relations with other nearby or related societies. The hypothesis is that by studying these factors in relation to societies which have failed over time, it is possible to develop a theory of how societies fail, or decide to fail.
This is fascinating: history books normally focus on political processes, but Diamond's approach goes one step further back in identifying the material forces promoting certain types of political change (or indeed inertia). The account of the decline of societies in Easter Island and Greenland are as good as anything Diamond has written before and make for compelling reading. We are left with a rather more realistic view of our ancestors than is sometimes promoted: rather than living in harmony with mother nature they often made more shocking environmental mistakes than we do today; rather than being driven by primitive, mystical or religious motivations their social choices were largely determined by the material and economic priorities of governing elites.
The most important message from this book is a warning of what happens when societies throw caution to the wind and adopt unsustainable policies, living off preciouc environmental capital rather than limiting themselves to its fruits. The collapse of society on the isolated Easter Island may be a chilling precedent for the future collapse of planetary society on Earth.
Why 4 stars? Well, basically because there are two parts to this book, one in which the author speaks as a professional scientist and the other in which he sounds like some geezer from down the pub. The analysis of historical decline is clearly the work of an expert in the field with decades of experience. The analysis by contrast of current problems (from the opening chapter on Montana to closing treatments of big business) seem to consist of references to his mates and own anecdotal experiences. Which is all well and good, except that you can get these sorts of opinions from millions of people, whereas Diamond's scientific work is rather more specialist.
Moreover he maybe pushes the boat out a bit too far in claiming an ecological basis to the most important political problems in the world. Whilst he makes a compelling argument for the impact of material and economic factors in the Rwandan genocide, there's a danger of overstressing the point. He only picks examples of conflicts which have an identifiable environmental angle, but ignores others which demonstrably do not. How would he explain the break-up of Yugoslavia?
But as long as we recognise the limits to the application of Diamond's ideas and skip over the excessively personalised biographies of his various (interesting) pals accumulated over the years this is a highly readable book. Recommended.
on 14 September 2005
Jared Diamond (2005). "Collapse. How societies choose to fail or succeed".Viking Penguin.
Jared Diamond, Professor of Geography at the University of California, Los Angeles, attempts to analyse why some past and present day societies have collapsed.
The greater part of the bulk of his massive (575 pages) carefully researched book, consists of a set of case studies of past societies like Easter Island and the Maya civilisation, and modern societies such as Rwanda and China. These studies are based on published evidence (archaeological, historical and other evidence), the authors own on-ground explorations, and his interviews with present day residents and analysts. Diamond concludes his book by attempting to draw out from his analyses, practical lessons for society today.
For each society examined, unsustainable practices were identified, the importance of individual practices for societal decline varying from society to society. Deforestation may have led to soil erosion with consequential reduced agricultural productivity, or even such a total loss of available timber that boats needed for fishing or trade could no longer be made. Food production may have been attempted on land not really suitable for sustained production, so that yields fell off drastically over the years. Animal populations, which succoured a hunting society, may have been over-exploited.
On top of such unsustainable practices, climate change sometimes played a significant part in societal decline. Then sometimes hostile neighbours or loss of trading partners were significant adverse factors. But amplifying the effects of all other factors was population growth, which meant there were more mouths to feed.
The title of the book is a little unfortunate: 'Collapse' in a few of the cases is perhaps too strong a word. And while societies may ignore environmental warnings, surely they do not really 'choose' to collapse. And I wish the author had said more about ancient middle-east civilizations (not included among the case studies).
Nevertheless, this book provides a very valuable insight into societal collapse and decline and it provides a cogent warning to modern society to mend its ways before it is too late. Also it is a book which shows how population growth has in all the cases examined been one of the causes of societal retrogression or collapse. And I do admire the authors ability to collect and collate so successfully such a mass of interesting, diverse types of information.
I end with Diamond's warning from one of the case studies:
"The parallels between Easter Island and the whole modern world are chillingly obvious".
on 24 May 2007
A great insight into the environmental dangers that our world faces and the simple fact that we can not afford to ignore them. Its a book I would recommend to all but for the fact that it can become quite laborious to read. As previous comments have said its in great need of editing to make it so much more accessible for the general reader, as much of the book is full of repetition and in many places more information than is possible needed. That's not to say its badly written, Diamond continuously argues his points successfully, but it reads rather like a collection of text book case studies. These though are insightful and offer parallels with current society that we shouldn't ignore. To see how societies have made mistakes or prospered in the past really is fascinating.
If you have the patience to wade through the book then it's a must read, as you will feel that bit more enlightened on the actions our current society should be taking.
on 1 October 2009
I have immense respect for Jared Diamond for `Guns, Germs and Steel' which is excellent and certainly a cut above `Collapse'. The frustrating thing about this book is that the author seems to be building up to a grand conclusion, meticulously analysing case study after case study, but the grand finale never comes, and one can't but help feeling a bit disappointed. The author does point out the mistakes that certain past societies have made that brought about their collapse, but as to how the lessons learnt can be applied specifically to our modern world is never elucidated. All the raw material is here for a really good book, but it's as if, in the end, the author decided to play it safe and not suggest anything too drastic for the modern world. Certain fundamental aspects of our modern societal and ecological problems are seemingly off-limit to discussion - for example, never once is the primacy and necessity of industrial production at all costs questioned. The values and necessity of modern, industrialist, capitalist society are taken as a given, with sustainability being justified on the basis of economics (it's cheaper to clean up mines as you go rather than to do it at the end, therefore we should do it - instead of saying a beautiful environment filled with biodiversity, and clean drinking water is good in its own right, therefore we should clean up mines as well as possible, or even better to ask, do we REALLY need the mines). Although I realise that Jared is writing to the `unconverted' as it were, it nonetheless saddened me that the level of discourse has to slip so low that he feels the need to justify looking after the environment and after the people living in one's own country on the basis of the lost capital input to the economy which deaths due to pollution may cause.
I would recommend this book for the research and useful facts that it contains, but if you want a more realistic analysis that explores the current societal and ecological problems which we face at a more fundamental level, I would recommend any of Derrick Jensen's books.
Endgame: The Problem of Civilization v. 1
A Language Older Than Words
on 2 November 2013
I was very disappointed, not least because I had been encouraged to read it by the raft of positive reviews on this site. I have to say, I did not recognise a 'convincing' and 'impressive' work in this disconnected assembly.
His tone takes a bit of getting used to (I never managed it) For me it's summed up by his publicity photograph of on the sleeve - looking more like a Beverley Hillbilly than a professor. That's how he comes across - folksy little anecdotes about his family and "my friends in New Guinea" or "my friends in Rwanda" pepper the piece - and add nothing at all.
The first half is patchy. In terms of assembling the basic data, I liked one or two of the sections - those on Easter Island and Greenland spring to mind in the historic part, Rwanda in the contemporary part. It was a revelation to me for instance that Rwanda was a population-based accident waiting to happen. (All the same I found it really irritating that he should insist repeatedly on calling the place "Easter"! Call me a pedant if you like - but that's the name of a Christian festival I've been to Easter Island too, and I can assure you that, as I sat with my Easter island friends enjoying a cool beer as we watched the sun go down over the Pacific, we did not call the place 'Easter' one single time).
When it comes to interpretation in the second half, and even in these "good bits" the overall impression is one of shallowness. For example he makes no mention of the factor that finally wiped out Easter Island's society (disease) and gets it quite wrong as to how the statues were transported to their resting places (they weren't dragged, using precious rope/sisal resources, they were rocked, like moving a fridge). He offers no real insight at all into why the Norse and Inouit peoples did not mix on Greenland.
There are some frankly weak bits too. The section in China comes across as having been drafted in a hurry in Los Angeles using only the internet as a resource. And the section on Australia - apparently still locked into a British way of thinking about agriculture, whatever that may mean - just doesn't ring true. I'm not the first to speculate that he decided to write his next popular science blockbuster, and needed to include some heavyweight examples to balance his minnows - whether he knew anything personally about them or not.
Overall, I see the book as quite an interesting assembly of facts (where he gets them right); but the moment he strays into the territory of interpreting those facts in anything near anthropological or sociological terms, he comes unstuck. I shan't be rushing out to buy his next book.
Economists, geographers and certainly historians will find this book a riveting read.Its central question is a simple but profound one: why do some societies prosper and then suddenly collapse -sometimes in a generation after years of successful existence, whilst others survive? His journey takes us from Easter Island via the Mayan civilisation of Mexico and on to the Viking settlements of Greenland in the pursuit of evidence to back up his thesis. The tour is extensive, but through the 500 plus pages of this book a message emerges: learn from history or be doomed to make the same mistakes that our forbearers unwittingly committed.
Diamond has a particular agenda of which the reader will soon be aware. Yes, he's a bit of a sandal wearing tree hugger, but his message is too important to ignore: over exploitation of resources, over- farming and fishing, pollution and decimation of the natural environment all have their effects, some of which are irreversible but all of impose costs and create problems now and in the future for us all. His arguments are convincingly deployed and his writing style breezy and discursive without being light weight. All is not lost, he says, but it's up to all of us to change our ways, both as individuals and as a global society. Profit and capitalism are not necessarily the bad guys, in fact to some extent they are part of the solution. The message is ultimately hopeful and life affirming.
`Collapse' is a `good' read. It has an extensive annotated reading list attached so that if you want to develop your interest in this are more fully, then there's more then enough information to help you make a start.
Key topics in brief: economics and the environment, costs of pollution and over exploitation, solutions to environmental problems and historical perspective.
Type of read: Broad based historical and geographical sweep combined with a realistic examination of the business / economic issues. A good introduction to the issues, well illustrated with maps and pictures with plenty of case studies to add credibility to the arguments. Interested in environmental economics or a general reader ? well worth the and effort time to read.
on 31 January 2010
`Collapse' is sub-titled `How societies choose to fail or survive'. This reflects his ultimate message, where he gives an optimistic message about how society can save itself from a global collapse, tipped over by the multiple environmental catastrophes that accelerate abound us. It is also a wake-up call: our human society can survive only if it perceives the threats and changes its actions. If we go on as we are, however, our society will collapse, possibly quite soon and possibly catastrophically.
It is a chunky book, running to 560 pages and crammed with impressive detail. The author is a polymath, having had three distinct careers as a physiologist, a zoologlist and an environmental historian. Apparently he is learning his twelfth language. So evidently clever and wide-ranging his he that one reviewer has amusingly commented " `Jared Diamond' is suspected of actually being the pseudonym for a committee of experts." So we are in good hands.
Diamond looks are case studies of where societies have failed in the past, drawing on all historical, archaeological and ecological sources. These are Easter Island, Pitcairn Island, Henderson Island, Anasazi native Americans, the Mayan civilizations and the Greenland Viking settlements. These were clearly catastrophes and left nothing or only a fragment of its population behind, with their artefacts and buildings for scientists to dig up. The causes are various and the individual stories different, but common threads are identified in a systematic and wholly convincing way. The common thread can be summarised as environmental degradation (caused or speeded up by human activity), and the failure of people to adapt to the changes or to prevent them.
These stories are somewhat comforting, like what the Japanese call `a fire on the other side of the river'. We can shake our head at the wrong-headedness and the limited technology they had, assuming that we are above and beyond all that. They are also relatively small and exotic stories. However, Diamond shows how they did the best in the circumstances, within their mind-set. The limitations of their cultural mind-set are especially keenly felt in the case of the Norse Vikings eking out and increasingly desperate existence in two settlements in Western Greenland. While they died out, starving to death in poignant, isolated circumstances, the native Inuit were going about their business around them with success, surviving the colder climate with superior technology (e.g. kayaks) and adaptability.
Maybe to cheer us up, the author throws in a few examples of historical success, including the maintenance of their environment by the Papua New Guineans and the reforestation of Japan in the Tokugawa era. This is only one chapter, but enlightening.
Then he moves on to describe modern societies which have/are collapsed/collapsing. His case studies are Rwanda, Haiti, China and Australia. The genocide in Rwanda is clearly linked to the extreme overpopulation of this land and the extreme tensions arising from the need to have enough resources to survive. Haiti is just about the world's worst basket-case (maybe Somalia runs it close), and its desperately poor society is described as surviving on the edge, limping along with international aid. More than 95% of the land has been deforested and the soil is degrading rapidly with every rainstorm and hurricane.
China is necessarily described in broad brush terms, but the scale and variety of the environmental problems there are deeply depressing: climate change, sandstorms, desertification, soil erosion, salinisation, water shortages, floods, sediment discharge, acid rain, smog, chemical pollution of water, air and soil, wetland destruction, over-fishing, loss of native species, infestation by alien species, importation of garbage and so forth.
Australia? Yes, he points out that Australia is the first world country with the most severe environmental degradation. Nearly all the problems listed for China are present in Australia, if not proportionally worse. Australia is one of the driest countries in the world, with some of the least robust soils. The problems have been exacerbated by government policies over the decades, for instance requiring leasehold farmers to clear native vegetation as a condition of their lease. As it happens, my National Geographic magazine for this month also had an extensive article on the drying and salinisation of the Murray/Darling basin, so Diamond's assertions are powerfully corroborated.
Diamond describes the country's renewable resources as being `mined' - i.e. extracted at such a fast rate that they will never recover to their former level. Most stunning of all, the author cites an environmentalist's estimate that Australia can only sustain a long-term population of 8 million people. That puts paid to some politicians' dreams of a 50 million population, and, given that the present population is 20 million, one can envisage some catastrophic and pitiful shrinkage of the number of people left alive.
He by no means predicts an immediate collapse, and he is keen to demonstrate that policies and attitudes are already changing. However he does not need to spell it out - having just read about the complete deforestation of Easter Island, the reader can make the obvious connections, but on a much larger scale.
Diamond presents cases from history of civilisations that have collapsed often because of ecological and environmental disasters of their own causing. For me the best example is the Greenland Vikings who made some quite ridiculous decisions that lead to their demise.
You may disagree with the examples and disagree with some of his viewpoints and find some of his arguments naive but it does not matter how he gets there, what is important is the central theme, which is best illustrated by the example he is most familiar with - the New Guinean Highlands.
For me the message was most striking after something someone said to me when I was being all doom and gloom while reading the "Revenge of Gaia". They said that the future generations would have as good a life it not better than today because it would sort itself out. We do not have to do anything and we do not have to change the way we live. I rather suspect that is what the people of Easter Island were saying as they cut down the last of their trees.
All civilisations will make mistakes and it is hard to tell what the consequences will be, but that if you think about your impact you are less likely to make fatal mistakes. It takes the "Tragedy of the Commons" argument one step further and shows how some people deal with the problem and that tragedy is not inevitable.