59 of 63 people found the following review helpful
A microcosm of the future fate of the world,
By A Customer
This review is from: Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive (Paperback)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.