154 of 163 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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34 of 39 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Could have used less trees.,
This is an important book and an interesting read, but I go along with the criticisms of numerous other reviewers:
* Extrapolating local and very specific cases of collapse to that of the planet as whole may have currency, but this argument remains vague. It is not clear how the mainly isolated societies he choses relate to today's globalised society. At one point he likens us on our marooned little planet to the historic Easter Islanders surrounded by ocean, but I do not find this convincing. I'm not saying we're not at risk but I would like to consider in much more depth the mechanisms which make us vulnerable at the global level and I think they are very different from any of the case studies he refers to.
* The style of argument somehow gives the sense in each case that he has already drawn the conclusion that environmental stress caused the declines to which he refers, and the facts presented are only there to lead you to that very same conclusion.
* Someone shoot the editor - Diamond's level of repetition is frankly tedious. He is a master of the cumulative conclusion, recapitulating at the end of each chapter points already made throughout the book, and tends to give you much too obvious hints of these conclusions before he has elaborated the case studies. His folksy anecdotes about his mates, his kids and, where does he live again? oh yes, LA , may be intended to make the book more immediate and accessible, but they just make him sound awkward. Overall I think a much more convincing and gripping book could have been written on a quarter of the... erm... paper.
The subject, as I said, is important, but I hope I don't sound too heretical when I say I actually don't think his conslusions are especially original. It makes a fascinating analysis to compare historical collapses, and all the mystery they engender, with contemporary ones not always looked at in the same light, and to project planetary risks onto the same reasoning. Some of the analyses are very thought-provoking. However on the whole the concept is more intriguing synthesis than cutting edge. As such it could still have been a very important book in changing world opinion, but due to the weakness of the overall conclusions and the unsatisfactory style of the argument I don't feel it succeeds here.
These may seem like pedantries and perhaps they are to a certain degree. We should be able to cope with poor writing and a lack dramatic structure when dealing with such an important issue - after all it is the end of the world we're talking about. However, the genre Mr Diamond is going for seems to be the slick, must-read that will change the way you think while entertaining you along the way, making reference to the mysteries of lost civilsations which have fascinated you for ages, thereby increasing mass appeal and swaying world opinion, or at least selling millions of copies. Its failure to really convince leaves me, at least, unsatisfied. As it appears to be succeeding on the latter criterion, I trust its sales succcess in predicated on sustainable forestry.
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Pretty interesting book, but slightly repetitive,
Before you buy this book you need to ask yourself a few questions. Firstly, am I looking for a casual read, or something a little "heavier" and deeper? Secondly, are you prepared to brave out "dull" chapters to reach the better ones? Finally, do you mind the fact a similar theme is described in different ways in each chapter.
Concerning the first question, this book is most definitely not casual reading, and requires a level of interest and commitment beyond an airport novel, contrary to what the attractive front cover and font suggests. Concerning the second question, there are some great chapters, but these are typically reached only after slogging through slightly less engaging and often quite lengthy ones. Finally, the reader will quickly notice that the same themes are re-emerging in each chapter, which can make some readers feel this book is repetitive.
The book has a number of weaknesses, one of the biggest being the rather dull and uninspiring opening chapter. Indeed, it is hard to get excited about soil pH in Montana, especially when the book's opening cover promises us Aztec ruins. After this however, the story moves one, and there are some genuinely interesting insights into the mysterious civilization on Easter Island, as well as insights into the collapse of the Viking settlers in Greenland. Having said this, the basic story running through each civilization is environmental collapse, economic hardship that triggers inter-ethnic feuds and one group survives and the other doesn't. Alas this repetitive theme is recounted in each chapter, the only particulars being the names of the warring humans and their exact location on the globe. Not helping this is the author's habit of making the dull chapters very long, and giving the reader the impression that he/she will have to plough on for what seems like an eternity before reaching the interesting looking next chapter.
The book touches on a very important topic, and is attractively packaged. Also, there some genuinely interesting chapters, with useful bullet point summaries of what will be covered at the start of each one. However, the book is let down by its repetitive themes, and its placing of boring chapters at the start and end of the book, and thus ignoring the maxim "Start well, end well". The book can be genuinely interesting to the right reader. I would recommend using a pencil to underline points of interest, as it is a difficult book to read twice, and thus pencil notes will allow you to see what you focused on when you flick read at a later date. All in all, not a bad book, but not a world beater.
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Captivating,
In Collapse, Jared Diamond has successfully examined the thousands of year of human history, by evaluating many of the great civilizations that went extinct due to their inability to recognize the limits of their resources and the strength of the forces of nature. The failures of those ancient and modern societies especially in Africa and Asia, as well the Easter Island and Greenland stemmed from the fact that they were compromised by their environment through disasters that were either natural or induced.
In this well-researched book, Diamond wrote of eco-disasters and the depletion of environmental resources through unsustainable measures as the principal causes of the demise of those societies. Not only that, he mentioned some societies that that have solved their ecological problems and succeeded. Nevertheless, the overriding point Diamond made is that in this age of globalization, societies must take collective actions to avoid the collapse of the world's highly interdependent global economy, since it is fast approaching its unsustainable level. This book is a wake up call for the world to develop sustainable sources of energy that does not compromise the environment. Hydrogen cars, solar energy etc should be things for the immediate tomorrow.
The lesson is clear. Those societies that can adapt their ways of life to be in line with the potentials of their environment last while those societies that abuse their resources ultimate commit suicide, and so fail. Now, for the first time in human history, modern technology, global interdependence and international cooperation have provided us with the means and opportunity to judiciously use our resource and prevent their depletion not only from a small scale, but from a global scale as well. It is only by harnessing this new knowledge to sustain our planet, that we shall avoid the fate of self-destruction, like several great societies before us. Also recommended: UNION MOUJIK,OVERSHOOT, DISCIPLES OF FORTUNE, FREAKANOMICS, TRIPLE AGENT DOUBLE CROSS . I like reading deep and moving books
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good introduction to the issues...,
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.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Warnings from History?,
`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.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An important book to read,
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.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Incredible breadth of vision,
Writing about the collapse of even a single civilisation is difficult. To write about the collapse of more than a dozen, both ancient and modern, analysing with cogency and depth the human-mediated environmental causes along the way, is a real tour de force. Diamond takes the reader across the world, from Montana (USA) to Easter Island, from medieval Norse/Inuit Greenland to modern Rwanda, and explains how factors such as human mismanagement of forest and soil resources, trade problems and climate shifts caused societies that seemingly believed in their own invincibility to fail. The author is careful to steer away from environmental determinism, and has some cautiously optimistic words about the possible survival of our society now under threat from climate change (a threat whose severity he does not underestimate). One is nonetheless left with an abiding impression that humanity has an uncanny knack for sawing off the branch on which it is sitting. Riveting.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars As with every book with an agenda, read it critically...,
Jared Diamond's Collapse has certainly got people thinking about the environments in which we live, which is 'a good thing'. Not least of those thinking are the present day 7 million Maya, the Rapa Nui descendants, the descendants of the Vikings who chose to leave Greenland and North America, and the descendants of the pre-Colombian N. Americans, some of whom believe their history to have been appropriated by Diamond and others for the creation of a narrative from which they are the 'unknowing' (hence without choice) or 'knowing' (depending on which evidence you choose to look at) destroyers of their environments. To some, this implies almost a justification of European colonial 'success' - which was apparently environmentally or geographically engineered from the start (no 'choice' here - see Diamond's Guns, Germs & Steel).
Diamond focuses his stories of collapse (societies that 'chose to fail') on societies that existed in marginal agricultural areas, and admits himself that he couldn't find any societies which had collapsed only due to environmental reasons. These societies often 'succeeded' for quite some time, longer than many modern societies (eg compare the classic Maya (c.500 years), or even the Greenland Vikings (c.400 years) such as the USA have existed. Even if they underwent subsequent change - which many undoubtedly did, it is hardly surprising that such fragile systems could promote this.
What might be more interesting is the story of how they did survive, even 'succeed' for so long. But more important perhaps is how exactly we ascribe 'success' or 'failure' to societies which contain many individuals, both of which are dynamic, multimotivational and ever changing - are there any objective criteria? Was the case of Vikings leaving Greenland (after a four hundred year sojourn) for whatever reason really failure to succeed?
Regarding the success stories - such as Japan or the Netherlands, Diamond fails to give proper weight to the displacement of deleterious environmental problems - as Japan developed into its modern state - incorporating all the land/islands that it now comprises, it exported its deforestation to Hokkaido and the Ainu people, and then further afield. It's all very well for more Dutch to be members of environmental societies, but their actions have a massive global impact - the biggest timber imports, huge imports of soya from Brazil to feed their incredible number of pigs & chickens. Is that a sustainable success story?
Diamond's book should be read, but it must always be remembered that he's pushing an agenda (however laudable) - his book is in no way an objective history or archaeology book - and Diamond is neither a historian or an archaeologist. His judgements about the decisions of past peoples should be scrutinised, as should the evidence for the collapses he discusses. Many Maya scholars (Jim Aimers, Arthur Demarest and others), for example, now question whether it's appropriate to even talk about collapse - since within the Maya culture zone in the long ('Terminal Classic') period of 750-1050 (itself longer than the existence of how many 'succesful' modern societies???) so many diferent things were happening in different places at different times - there simply was no catastrophic megadrought induced collapse (see Richardson Gill's work).
To provide some balance from archaeologists who research Rapa Nui, the Maya, Norse Viking and other societies that Diamond discusses (Diamond himself bases his theories on the work of many archaeologists), his book must be read in conjunction with the chapters in recently published and highly thought-provoking 'Questioning Collapse' edited by McAnany and Yoffee (link below). Reading both books provides good insight into the construction and appropriation of history and historical narratives within dominant discourses - a very valuable lesson indeed.
Questioning Collapse: Human Resilience, Ecological Vulnerability, and the Aftermath of Empire
30 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A necessary book.,
This review is from: Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (Hardcover)
Look, forget all the hyperbole, but the simple fact is that though we may know a thing or two more about science than the Easter Islanders did, in the end it's going to take more than that to preserve this planet for more than, say, the next three or four generations. We've learned to use technology to our benefit, but even today, too often we *don't* actually realize the full extent of the downside of a new invention before it's too late. In light of that, we'd do well to take a step back and think twice before marching off into yet another new technological direction every so often, or before starting to exploit yet another finite set of natural resources in the name of furthering the economy. As long as we haven't learned how to do this, reminders like Dr. Diamond's book are more than welcome ... and unfortunately, also very, very necessary.
25 of 30 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Anthropology Coupled with a Confused Look at Today,
This review is from: Collapse : How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive (Hardcover)
I've always been fascinated by ghost towns, civilizations that have disappeared and ways of life that have vanished. Naturally, Collapsed appealed to that part of my interests. I was pleased to find convenient summaries of the latest research on what happened to Easter Island, the Norse on Greenland, the Mayas, and many other interesting cultures around the world that failed to survive until today. A pleasant bonus in the book was to find out about many cutting edge scientific methods used to sort out what happened and when in past civilizations.
Collapse also looks at some of the current problem areas of the world using the lens of what went wrong in earlier societies. The materials on Australia and Rwanda were particularly well done and added to my knowledge of those countries.
If the book had stopped there, I would have graded it as a five star effort.
The book continued, however, and falls into mediocrity when it starts to look at today's world and what needs to be done. The only strong section within this part of the book came in the discussion of efforts by large companies to make "good citizenship" profitable by both avoiding more costly remediation later and being more attractive to customers in the meantime.
The rest of the book is an oversimplified argument that extrapolates trends in areas that harmed former civilizations (like deforestation) into presenting a dire threat for our collective future today. To make that argument stick, you have to look deeply at the countertrends that can offset the potential harm from the trends. Collapse briefly acknowledges some of those trends, but doesn't get below the surface.
My own reaction to the book is that in today's increasingly specialized, global economy (remember Adam Smith in his book, The Wealth of Nations?) each country will do fewer things for itself and rely more on its fellow humans who can do other things better. Many of the contemporary issues raised in this book can be seen in that light rather than as civilization threatening. I don't know which view is correct (or if both are), but Collapse doesn't really add much to the argument for either side.
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[( Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed )] [by: Jared M Diamond] [Jan-2005] by Jared M Diamond (Hardcover - 1 Jan 2005)
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