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4.1 out of 5 stars
4.1 out of 5 stars
Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive
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on 10 April 2017
Great book for historical lessons on how past societies fail and survive.
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on 28 August 2016
A well written book which teaches a lot about past societies but the reasons given for optimism seem to focus on government mandated solutions, while it seems to me that many of the problems come from government interference in the first place. Obviously the author benefits personally from being an advisor in how to meddle in other people's lives for their own benefit and so he espouses this view that the state can cure the problems that in my view it has itself created. I think his economic understanding is weak. Good read though.
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on 29 January 2016
I admit I was biased before I even started reading this work. I wanted to know about Easter Island and the Greenland Norse. The other failed societies were of marginal interest to me. Sure I read about Montana, the Anasazi, and the Maya, while skipping over Rwanda, Dominican Republic/Haiti, and Australia. The chapters on China and Pitcairn/Henderson Islands were, however, interesting (the latter especially in the context of Easter Island).

But it is into the two sections on Easter and the Greenland Norse that you can tell the author has poured his soul. They really stand out in what I read of this book - most of it - and perhaps for the history-interested layman they are the most interesting chapters to read. I'm not sure if the author presents anything radically new, but what he does do, which is to provide the lay reader with a useful summary of the present facts and findings on the two mysteries - he does very well. I feel I am now up to speed with some of the latest research into the disappearances of civilized society on Easter and in Norse Greenland. Nowhere else have I seen such useful and up-to-date general/overall accounts of the state of research into these two former societies. It's really required reading for anyone who has an interest in either. Not only does the author present us with - at the time of writing - the latest research, he also considers many pertinent issues himself and comes to his own conclusions. It's as if he took all the latest findings on Easter and Greenland and put them into an comprehensive, accessible, and useful/relevant perspective. What a great place then to start your readings into these two societies.

The essential point about Easter is that the local chiefs spent the resources of the island on mutual competition and self-aggrandizement. The society failed to come together and pool its knowledge and resources. Had it done so, and had it exercized greater forethought and caution as did some of the other societies presented in the book (e.g. the Japan of the daimyo), it might well have survived a deal longer.

The conclusions the author draws on the Greenland Norse are uniquely fascinating. In short, he puts their eventual collapse down to the following issues:

1) The Norse failed to hunt the ringed seals, fish and whales that the Inuit did, they thus deprived themselves of very important sources of winter protein
2) The Norse clung to their European, Christian, and Norwegian identity, values and heritage, and ultimately failed to adapt to their new surroundings - when the little Ice Age arrived they were undone
3) The Norse scorned the Inuit and failed to copy their ways or learn from them
4) Power in Norse Greenlandic society was in the hands of the chiefs and the clergy. These institutions had a vested interest in maintaining their own power and prestige inspite of developments that could have proven beneficial for Norse Greenlandic society as a whole

The chapters concluding the book concerning why societies fail or succeed and what we can learn from them today certainly have their value, even if the points made are at times a little self-evident.

For any reader interested in the two "failed" societies mentioned above, plus many others, you could hardly find a better place to begin than here. Top marks to Jared Diamond.
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on 5 November 2016
Reaching page 10 of this over-rated book, I decided to put it aside for 2 major flaws. There are no annotations or references to connect the text to previous scholarship. Ideas are thrown at the reader from a blue sky without proper introduction and without giving credit to the rightful owners of the mentioned ideas. Who's credited with the concept of the tragedy of the commons? How can you jiggle such a significant concept Ike that without the proper grounding or mentioning the late Garrett Hardin who coined it in a known paper?
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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.
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on 12 April 2017
Interesting subject but a major failure in my opinion: almost 600 pages that should have been around 150 and way too much off topic. In addition, Diamond is not someone who can mesmerize the reader, many times downright boring reading. Off to the charity shop you go book!
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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
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on 5 November 2005
Only a couple of ship skeletons and swords were left of the Vikings , the pyramids of the Mayas with their surroundings have become deserted and no-one knows how to handle the statues on the Easter Islands. Therefore one gets into brooding whether, one day, this could happen to the "White House" in Washington or, either, to the "Reichstag" in Berlin as well. Jared Diamond tries to comfort us: If one goodly does not allow any climate reversal (Hello Kyoto), and fends off enemies of the outside (Islam or communism? Of Mars or out of UFOs? Bird flu or AIDS)? and if mankind does not increase too rapidly, the case perhaps still could turn out all right. He mustn't more pessimistically speak either, otherwise he would be boycotted. No-one would like to imagine Los Angeles in a Pompeii design (therefore one further builds in this area like also in the again and again flooded New Orleans) - or having to look for New York Broadway like a sunken Troja or to give lost in Rwanda ethnic groups or others in Turkey (as already Armenian or Kurdish). The geography professor Jared Diamond at least finds out (pleasantly interdisciplinary for his guild), that less material factors (comet elements, earthquakes or floods) are extinguishing populations (to endure of necessity passively) , but on the other hand more cultural, active political processes of decision are reasons of collapses: (1) racialist (or also religiously?) hostilities, (2) naive carelessness regarding the population growth in connection with the inadequately economy capacity of a country, (3) unpunished environmental destruction by shortsighted industry concepts, (4) incompetent (egocentric, lobbyists dependent?) reaction ways of the political leadership groups elected for 4 years. What Mayas, Viking or Easter Island residents (I add the missed Indians of North America) had to suffer, was, however, comparatively a small little problem, if one looks at the irreparable, cancerous growth of industries in all countries. By adding the application of modern weapon technologies (what about the defoliation of Vietnam? Are there reparations payments?) and the increasing populations a condition of indissolubility could harden, that one sees moving up the "latest day" -- also without being Bible faithful. Jared Diamond switches on small rescue lights for little boys at the end of a time tunnel seeming dark, leading downwards: Japan's woods protection (we better do not talk about the whaling quota); the clever Inuit survived up to today, concentrated on a little fishing undemandingly, but, in the contrary, the Vikings operated boldly with war and agriculture; should we become like the Inuit, not building more highly than an igloo and not moving with a Boeing but better with a canoe - or should we use (compliment to China ) only a bicycle? No, Jared Diamond is not quite that type of forbears, he really modernistically takes towns like London or Tokyo as an example, that technical intelligence used sensibly could be saving. Yes, perhaps the present squabble on oil, gas and water will soon be a thing of the past -- by application of ingenious wind power and solar technologies. Maybe Americans and Europeans do surprisingly reasonably abstain on 50% of their energy consumption, so that the billions of Chinese can finally catch up...
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on 29 June 2017
This is the 2nd book I've read by Diamond. I believe this is as good as social science gets.
4/5 because the photographs in the center of the book ought to be in colour print.
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on 30 January 2008
American polymath Jared Diamond first turns to past societies to try and make sense of our present environmental predicament and to warn us of our future. Why did certain societies rush headlong to turmoil and collapse when in retrospect they must have been able to see the potential consequences of their actions, while others survived intact? Did this mean that some peoples were more rapacious or reckless than others? Is modern America heading in the same direction? Will one day in the future human beings stand and gaze at the skyscrapers of New York and shake their heads in knowing pity the way that we stare in sad wonderment at the enigmatic moai of Easter Island or overgrown Mayan ruins? The author takes twenty-first century Montana as a modern example of a land very badly abused in the recent past and with an environmental future in the balance, by delving deeply into its social history and fabric. He then takes a look back at the meltdown on Easter Island, pre-Bounty Pitcairn and Henderson Islands, the native American civilizations of New Mexico, the collapse of the Maya, and the disappearance of the Greenland Vikings. Each case study is assessed in terms of five possible contributing factors that could have led to environmental collapse: environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbours, friendly trade partners (lack of) and, perhaps most significantly, the society's responses to its environmental problems. All the case study societies were subjected to this five-point framework. At least one of these factors played a role in the collapse of all the societies reviewed, and in one all five contributed.
But what about today? Why did Rwanda implode? How have some Polynesian societies like Tikopia survived against the odds while others have vanished? How have technologically simple societies in New Guinea and Australia managed to survive for over 40,000 years (including 7000 years of agriculture in New Guinea), while modern-day Europeans Australians already live on an environmental time bomb of their own making after just a couple of hundred years? Why has the Dominican Republic, poor as it is, managed far better than Haiti, sharing the same island and separated only by a political boundary? The in-depth case studies, fascinating in their own right, finally make way for an expansive assessment of the current global situation, dreadful as it, and some cautiously hopeful conclusions based on evidence of the past and certain mind shifts in the present, notably greener business practices (if motivated by self-preservation). In the end, much depends on good governance and an educated or pliable populace.
This is a refreshing and highly intelligent way of looking at the current world written in precise language and related almost in story form with humour despite the gravity of the subject, and with profound human concern. I take on board the criticisms of excessive length and repetition but I prefer to use the term reiteration because it is still basically an educational text. Also, even small, technologically simple societies are microcosms of some modern societies and can act as models. The principals (planning and decisions in the light of available information) are the same today if the details differ. Sophisticated technology may aid us to deal with certain problems but it is just as likely to hasten environmental decline.
Scientists are often criticised for producing arcane and inaccessible, peer-reviewed works and of course scientific research is worthless if it cannot be communicated. But then they stand to be accused of `dumbing down' or of writing in a `matey' or patronising style if they produce populist works. It is difficult to pitch a book at a level both interesting and useful for all and few have succeeded: E O Wilson, Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins, Steve Jones and Jared Diamond spring to mind (from the biological sciences). A great book highly recommended to every thinking person at whatever educational level. With such an impressive body of research and, I'm sure, knowledge behind this book you should come away from it with a better understanding of the world, its history and its people, and hopefully a renewed determination to do something constructive, however small. If not, we may well be in the unenviable situation of being the first species to chronicle its own extinction.
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