Review of Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by

Book cover for Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

My objections to Collapse are nearly identical to the ones I voiced in my review of Guns, Germs, and Steel. Jared Diamond's thesis that past societal collapses have largely been due to five main factors is a good thesis, and he makes a compelling argument. However, Collapse is poorly written and edited; Diamond reiterates his points so much that it feels somewhat patronizing.

Diamond analyzes the collapse of six past societies: the Easter Islanders, the Pitcairn and Henderson Islanders, the Anasazi, the Mayans, and the Vikings. He then compares these societies to modern societies (both societies that face problems and ones that have solved some problems which previously led to collapses). All of these analyses are very well-thought out, well-presented arguments that support Diamond's overarching thesis (if somewhat belaboured). One of the most useful aspects of these repetitive case studies is how Diamond points out which of his "five factors" influenced each society's collapse. (The five factors, by the way, were: environmental damage, climate change, decrease in interaction with friendly foreigners, increase in hostilities from foreigners, and how the society responds to environmental concerns.) For instance, deforestation played the major role in causing the demise of the Easter Islanders; on the other hand, the Inuit survived in Greenland because they adapted to their environment in a way that the Eurocentric Vikings refused to do. By pointing out these differences, Diamond elevates this book above the typical "well, some societies had problems, so they collapsed" tone of a TV documentary. Each case study is interesting in its own right and well worth further investigation--Diamond provides plenty of suggestions for further reading.

Much of the book is a treatise on the fragility of our biosphere. Diamond attempts to convince us that he's unbiased when it comes to environmental concerns, claiming he is neither pro- nor anti-environment. I doubt that any reader would believe this claim after the first chapter, and certainly no one could accept it after the end of the book. However, while Diamond is pro-environment, he demonstrates that he is not necessarily anti-business. In fact, he spends much of his time trying to show that businesses can and will clean up their act if pressured into doing so or shown how it will benefit them. I approve of this stance, just as I approve of the fact that Diamond carefully avoids "environmental determinism"--i.e., that a society's surroundings totally dictate the fate of a society.

After examining past societies, Diamond looks at modern societies, both what's working and what isn't. He takes an excruciatingly detailed look at Montana, but I don't fault him for this, since it's apparently an area with which he has much experience. Once again, he extols Papua New Guinea as an excellent country full of awesome people--I skimmed that part, having read enough such praise in Guns, Germs, and Steel. I actually found the chapter on modern Australia the most interesting; I hadn't reflected before on the problems, which in hindsight are logical consequences, caused by the colonization of this rugged continent. Collapse is a reminder that even so-called "First World" countries have their share of problems; Diamond's framework is universal rather than restricted only to poor or isolated societies.

The last part of the book concerns what we can do to stem the rising tide of problems that could cause future societal collapses. This is particularly important, since Diamond notes that globalization means a collapse affects the entire world, even if it is localized to a single country or even continent. Diamond throws out some suggestions and also refutes common "lines" supplied by opponents to the call to arms he's taken up. After the rousing chapter on Australia, this part was lacklustre at best. If it weren't for the monotonous emphasis on supporting Diamond's thesis, I would think I was reading a novel with a climax and then a disappointing resolution! To be fair, however, the final chapter was interesting if not entertaining.

I'm more pessimistic than Diamond at this time. Then again, as I write this I'm only 19, much less mature and experienced than most people who ruminate upon these problems, particularly Diamond himself. Unfortunately, I've already come to the conclusion that Diamond and others are attempting to communicate now: we cannot continue like this. The Earth cannot support our population with our current methods of managing our resources and the current level of impact we have, as individuals, on the planet. Something's gotta give, and it may just be our quality of life--something we pampered First World citizens are very reluctant to surrender, much less reduce. Diamond finds some hope in the fact that, with better management of our resources, we can sustain both our current population and quality of life while still reducing our impact on the planet itself. It's up to us, the public, to push governments and businesses to take the necessary steps.

Collapse was as interesting an argument as I had hoped, although this comes with the caveat that it's a poorly written book. There are certainly worse ways to spend an afternoon (or in my case, a couple of afternoons), and if you're a fan of Diamond's previous work, you'll find this tolerable. If this is your first Diamond book, I think that Guns, Germs, and Steel was marginally better. However, the subject matter of Collapse is still fascinating, and Diamond does it justice.


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