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on 28 November 2017
Jared Diamond is a scientist and academic. He has also been a senior official in the environmental movement. Diamond is a trained biologist who became an ornithographer and finally a geographer. He has been US regional director of the World Wide Fund for Nature.
Collapse is based on science, but not on Diamond’s original research. Like some of Diamond’s other popular books, such as Guns, Germs and Steel, it is a form of intelligent popularisation; what the French sometimes call haute vulgarisation.
Collapse is one of the popular classics of environmentalism. It should perhaps be read in conjunction Tainter’s remorselessly logical The Collapse of Complex Societies.
Diamond is an optimist. He accepts completely that environmental issues are ‘serious and in need of addressing’. He does not however think that human extinction or an apocalyptic collapse of human civilisation is likely. He sees the future, if we do not address the problems we are facing, as one of ‘significantly lower living standards, chronically higher risks, and the undermining of what we now consider some of our key values’. Bad enough.
Collapse is based on case studies. That is both its strength and – as I shall point out in my conclusion to this review – its weakness.
Some of the case studies are of countries or regions that Diamond knows well. He has for instance known the Bitterroot Valley of Montana since childhood. He has spent much time in the forests of New Guinea watching birds and knows Australia well. He has tramped the Norse archaeological sites in Greenland, and has visited Iceland and Easter Island. In all cases he has made himself thoroughly familiar with the literature. Rather than cluttering the text with footnotes, Diamond has provided a detailed list of further reading at the end of the book. It is what the French call a bibliographie raisonnée.
From this brief and partial list it will be clear that not all the societies which Diamond deals with have in fact collapsed to date. Diamond includes a number of well-known classic cases of collapse from the past. I have mentioned Easter Island and Norse Greenland. The latter is a case which obviously fascinates Diamond, and he devotes a great deal of space to it. He also deals with the Anasazi of the American Southwest, the lowland Maya of the Classic period, and two modern examples of societies which have not been allowed to collapse: Ruanda, where a Tutsi-led rebel army prevented a final meltdown, and Haiti, where the United Nations intervened.
Australia, of course, has not collapsed and neither has China, another of Diamond’s cases. They both however face severe challenges. Diamond also deals with two examples of societies, Tokugawa Japan and the Pacific island of Tikopia, which dealt successfully with environmental challenges.
Diamond does not believe that any society collapses solely for environmental reasons. Diamond believes, I think absolutely reasonably, that ‘A society’s responses [to its environmental problems] depend on its political, economic and social institutions and on its cultural values’. Diamond gives a particularly interesting example of the Greenland Norse, whose collective self-identification as European Christians prevented them from ‘becoming Inuit’, their best chance of survival.
The book is rich in detail. Although I read it several years ago, I had forgotten quite a lot. I had forgotten, for example, that Iceland – because of the application by the original Norse settlers of European farming techniques to light volcanic soils – has the most degraded environment in Europe. I had also forgotten in how many cases – the Anasazi, the Maya, Easter, Pitcairn and Henderson islands in the Pacific – cannibalism can play a role in collapse. In both cases the facts don’t fit my prejudices. That is something I think for me to bear in mind when I am dealing with this kind of material.
Diamond’s treatment of his cases is very full. It is much fuller, for example, than the newspaper or magazine features from which most of us get our information. One of the results of this detailed treatment is to help us realise just how environmentally challenged a modern society that is apparently functioning perfectly well can be. In Montana, for example, the traditional, environmentally damaging industries have declined. They have however left a legacy, which can be very expensive. There are twenty thousand abandoned mines, for example, which have left toxic wastes and in many cases have contaminated the water table. In many case there are no surviving owners, which leaves the state and the federal government arguing about who should pay the very heavy costs of clear-up.
Another example of a challenged society which most of us would think is healthy is Australia, where an over-commitment to English cultural models led to serious environmental degradation caused in particular by sheep-raising. Diamond details the decline of the towns, the flight to the cities and the costs of maintaining an uneconomical agricultural sector.
Diamond’s analysis is also capable of correcting misapprehensions about the collapse of some societies. In the case of Ruanda, for example, Diamond challenges the common Western prejudice that the massacres were a direct and simple result of ethnic tension. He shows that the tensions were to a large extent the legacy of interference by Belgium, the colonial power, and manipulation by various groups of politicians. More importantly, he shows that before the massacres over-population had led to an excessive subdivision of farms leading to non-viable land holdings and a breakdown of community in rural areas.
Two of Diamond’s most interesting cases are Tokugawa Japan and the island of Tikopia. In Japan the Shoguns realised the dangers of deforestation, and set up an elaborate range of measures to combat it. These were successful. On Tikopia the islanders realised the environmental threat. They killed all their pigs, and took measures – some of them drastic, by our standards - to prevent the population rising beyond a viable level.
One solution was top-down, the other was bottom-up, which is the point Diamond wants to illustrate. It is also interesting that neither society was advanced, in our sense, or industrial.
Diamond’s approach makes it clear that the causes of collapse or of an environmental threat are specific, and that many threats have to be dealt with locally, in their context. He shows, with a suitably guarded optimism, that it can be done.
Where Diamond’s approach is weaker is in dealing with global threats: climate disruption, the pollution of the oceans, the loss of the rainforests, the wetlands and the coral reefs, the disappearance of topsoil, the pollution of freshwater. The technical solutions are well understood. What is difficult is the need for international cooperation.
I do not think we are very good at that.
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on 26 April 2013
I must admit that this was very uncomfortable reading and the more I read the worse I felt. Diamond identifies five factors that contribute to collapse: climate change, hostile neighbors, collapse of essential trading partners, environmental problems, and failure to adapt to environmental issues. Add to this the dramatic problem of overpopulation (as in Easter Island) and the result is impending disaster.

What I found most intriguing is part two (of four) dedicated to the description of how some past societes collapsed. Some of these descriptions are heart-breaking, especially when Diamon goes into details and mentions the discovery of the skeletons of some last survivers who dies of starvation afetr having destroyed their own habitat. Part four tries to gives some hope, but after hours of gloomy reading I must confess it did little to improve my mood.

Still, this should be compulsory reading. Definitely recommended.
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on 21 October 2011
"Collapse" by Jared Diamond is a book about how civilizations deal (or fail to deal) with impending environmental disasters. The author is a director of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

In the book, he takes as on a grand tour through Polynesia, Central America, Southwestern United States, Greenland, Iceland and even modern Montana. Other landfalls include Rwanda, Japan and the Dominican Republic, whose late president Balaguer turns out to have been an "environmentalist" of sorts.

"Collapse" lacks the grand narratives and unified theories from Diamond's earlier book "Guns, germs and steel". Diamond never presents a universal theory about why many human civilizations end up destroying their environment. He does mention a dozen quite different causes, but seems to believe that these work idiosyncratically. But then, that's the point! The idea that each case is unique, and no grand narrative can be found, have important repercussions (see further below).

Diamond claims that many pre-modern cultures destroyed their environment. In fact, he seems to believe that more or less wilful environmental destruction is the most common reason behind societal collapse. This is surely an exaggeration. After all, the fact that many cultures have survived for centuries or millennia in the same area, shows that they *didn't* end up destroying their environment, certainly not in an absolute sense. Still, it can hardly be denied that pre-modern cultures (including the egalitarian ones) didn't necessarily live in harmony with their surroundings. In the book, Diamond discusses both bio-friendly and downright ecocidal cultures in Polynesia. Also, there is the mass extinction of the megafauna during the Palaeolithic, probably caused by human over-hunting. Conversely, some high cultures were eco-friendly: Japan during the Tokugawa shogunate and the modern Dominican Republic under presidents Trujillo and Balaguer.

I find these facts interesting, but also somewhat disturbing. The idea that Palaeolithic, Neolithic or medieval cultures were necessarily eco-friendly (a common idea among radical Greens) is falsified by the fact that some such cultures also destroyed their environment. Note that Palaeolithic cultures were probably egalitarian, but this intra-human harmony didn't always extend to animals or nature. Thus, there are unfortunately no guarantees that a primitive culture will become more eco-friendly.

The facts in this book also disprove another branch of the eco-radical movement. The followers of the late Murray Bookchin claim that only a non-hierarchic society can end exploitation of nature. (In contrast to the primitivists, Bookchin believed that a non-hierarchic society could be modern.) But as already mentioned, some hierarchic societies were "Green". There simply isn't any connection between the social and political relations *within* humanity, and the relation between humanity as such and nature at large. Groups which try to find such a connection are often politically left-wing and attempt to exorcize the fact that Green politics might as well be right-wing. The idea that there's a necessary connection between progressive politics and peace with nature is offered as a solution to this dilemma, but it doesn't seem to be working. And, hand on heart, why should it? Why can't a hierarchic society be eco-friendly, for instance by throwing poor squatters off the land used by animals, and why shouldn't an egalitarian tribe kill and eat mammoths or moas? They could, after all, be shared equally. An egalitarian society might be desirable, but Green solutions have to be argued for at a parallel track, as it were.

Despite its gloomy title, "Collapse" also gives a certain room for hope and optimism. If Diamond is right, humans don't have to end up destroying their environment. While many civilizations have indeed done so, some have managed to survive by adopting sustainable practices. Others were destroyed because of environmental factors outside their control, or through sheer lack of knowledge. Since there isn't a general "law" saying that Homo sapiens must overshoot and crash, there is hope for our own civilization during the times ahead.

Ironically, "Collapse" might therefore be...good news. Well, I hope!
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on 23 December 2016
Go this as a gift for my girlfriend's dad. Jared Diamonds books are always fascinating in their study of societies and this one is no different. Written to be accessible to all it will provide and insight into the histories of ancient civilisations and what went wrong to bring about their collapse. I bought this off the back of a TED talk I watched on the subject. [...]
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on 27 October 2017
The combination of accessible scholarship and analysis to extract urgent lessons for the 21st century makes this a book you can't put down. Will we learn to manage our global economy or follow previous civilisations into decline?
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on 20 February 2016
very enjoyable.
there's not much I can say about diamond's writing that hasn't already been said.
he's thorough, sometimes to the point of seeming repetitive. but overall a very engaging writer.
here he lays out a lot of information about how societies develop and then shows what we can learn, and are still learning from their demises.
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on 3 October 2011
The author chooses examples of societies that have collapsed in ancient and modern times and in each case provides very plausible reasons for their demise by their own actions,actions by other peoples and natural disasters. He also gives examples of societies that have succeeded in maintaining a status quo by not over exploiting their habitat and been fortunate not to suffer natural calamities.
This is not a doom laden propaganda book. He looks dispassionately at the way people can indulge in a self destructive way of life for reasons that might appear quite rational to them and relates this to some aspects of modern societies.
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on 30 December 2013
Jared Diamond has once again captured my imagination and changed the way i look at the world... Not to mention that he also answered a lot of my personal long term questions about how these ancient societies died off.

The parallels between then and now are somewhat terrifying.
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on 17 December 2007
Every resident of our shared planet should read this.

I found this book very interesting for various reasons. JD concisely illustrates past civilisations and how they have collapsed. The history of these societies is very informative in itself. The most striking aspect of the book was how well it demonstrated the reality of collapse for our civilisations assuming the current unsustainable state indefinitely. However as JD points out, he is a "cautious optimist" and is keen to make us hopeful that our future lies in our own hands with the choices each individual makes.
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on 2 August 2011
Even though there has been a thorough research on causes of collapse of ancient societies, the analysis is oriented, mainly, to environmental reasons, lacking the understanding of social and historical factors. Also, the choice of examples reflect that kind of orientation. For a reader who expects a broad overview, which may help to understand current societies, it is a bit deceptive. Of course, we are speaking of expectancies corresponding to a Pullitzer Prize winner
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