153 of 162 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Note well the word "collapse"--it can happen fast
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...
Published on 4 Dec 2005 by Dennis Littrell
41 of 44 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Mixed bag
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...
Published on 20 Oct 2005 by MD Healey
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153 of 162 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Note well the word "collapse"--it can happen fast,
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.
58 of 62 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A microcosm of the future fate of the world,
By A Customer
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.
19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Essential Reading,
Some of the later chapters of the book are rather too heavily dependent on anecdote; a few appendices with some more detailed empirical analysis to support some of the author's assertions (e.g. on the economics of USA mining companies, climate change and Australia's dodgy economic structures) would have strengthened his case greatly. Nevertheless, this is a must-read for anyone interested either in the collapse of ancient societies or the future of our globalised world.
41 of 44 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Mixed bag,
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....
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Lessons from societies that collapsed or declined.,
Jared Diamond, Professor of Geography at the University of California, Los Angeles, attempts to analyse why some past and present day societies have collapsed.
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:
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Not bad but..,
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The structure is odd; anecdotal opening chapter moving on to ancient examples for which there is scant detail (they can't even agree on populations), only when half-way through do we get to recorded history and then, in modern times, we are asked to set aside many tenets because of (understandably) increased inter-connectedness. It's only in later chapters (especially 14) that he gets down to trying to substantiate his argument.
The book is very good on collapses but less so on the reasons for them. It reads like a disaster movie as civilisations crash around the reader. Grimly fascinating and a bit like 'Towering Inferno' - next time you go up in a tall building, you might be next!
There is much 'surface detail', e.g. about dating and archaeological techniques, where I feel Diamond hoping for borrowed hard-science certainty to support to his theories. His writing style is discursive and often lazy, for example, he introduces technical terms, leaves them with you without explanation for a couple of pages, and only gets around to defining them in his own sweet time. Again, a stronger editor should have addressed this.
I'm very supportive of the premises and I think that the big conclusions, about world population, deforestation, extraction and pollution are right - it's just that this isn't as good a book as it should have been.
28 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating look at societies that imploded,
By A Customer
Though the author can get tendentious at times and tends to lend inordinate primacy to strictly environmental factors, his case studies make for great --and chilling-- reading.
The reconstruction of the agony of Easter Island is an extreme but cautionary story of a community brought to civil war, cannibalism, and almost complete societal collapse basically because they cut down too many trees.
A much more valuable contribution to the state of the world, and especially the gospel of sustainable development, than most titles out there.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Can get laborious, but a great inisght,
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.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Well researched, if a little naive,
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
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars informative,
Jared Diamond's realistic approach on the other hand shows us that the rate of decay of a society is inversely proportional to the availability of resources.
This work is eye opening and left me moody at times due to its brutal reality. It also provides some nice archaeological facts and applies the past to the present.
Not for the light hearted (unless they want a rude awakening)
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Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond (Hardcover - 31 Jan 2005)
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