Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed
By: Jared Diamond
Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. (Jared Diamond). Penguin Press, 2002; 608pp; 978-0143117001
● Throughout history, how societies have chosen to use or misuse their natural environment has played an instrumental role in how successful their societies thrived.
● Many societies misused their environments, usually by over exploiting their resources. Over population and natural climate change caused some societies to fall as well. Some examples include the Maya, Easter Island, Norse Greenland, and modern day Rwanda.
● Today we need to understand history’s warning, that we are indeed dependent upon the natural world, and that societal collapse is possible, though avoidable if a more sustainable lifestyle is adopted.
Brief Description of the Book
Using archaeology and other academic disciplines, Diamond reveals how many past societies failed and hence collapsed due to their misuse of their environments, i.e. Easter Island, Classic Maya, Norse Greenland among others. Also, he examines how some modern societies are facing or recently faced similar pressures, i.e. 1994 Rwanda, modern China, Dominican Republic/Haiti. He also examines past societies that faced similar pressures as those that failed, but had the foresight to act on their problems and hence succeeded, i.e. Japan, various Polynesian Islands, Pueblo Native Americans, and Inuit Greenland among others.
This book demonstrates convincingly that misuse of the environment has caused ruin to human societies many times in the past. Also, it demonstrates that societies that had the foresight to recognize the problems facing them and acted appropriately fared well. He carefully links the past societies to today’s world, while acknowledging the differences between the two. He is also careful not to tempt “environmental determinism,” simply declaring that the environmental problems of history were the only causes of the described societies’ failures. Rather he explains that the environment was an important part of these peoples’ problems, but that there were other causes as well that acted in concert with environmental issues. These environmental problems, for example over population, resource exploitation, etc., exacerbated other societal issues facing the various peoples. These points all have relevance to the world today.
Another important factor in how societies have historically failed that continues to affect societies today is how government leaders perceive short term and long term interests. Elected leaders have an interest in meeting short-term societal interests, however these interests can conflict with long-term societal interests. When leaders opt for short-term gains at the expense of the long term, society suffers. Finally, a failure to change traditions in the face of new circumstances can be detrimental to a society. In today’s context, a strict adherence to our fossil fuel dependent lifestyle, despite our knowledge of its dangers, will be dangerous to society in the long run.
‘When the Easter Islanders got into difficulties, there was nowhere to which they could flee, nor to which they could run for help; nor shall we modern Earthlings have recourse elsewhere if our troubles increase.’
‘The values to which people cling most stubbornly under inappropriate conditions are those values that were previously the source of their greatest triumphs.’
‘There are many ‘optimists’ who argue that the world could support double its human population, and who consider only the increase in human numbers and not the average increase in per-capita impact. But I have not met anyone who seriously argues that the world could support 12 times its current impact, although an increase of that factor would result from all Third World inhabitants adopting First World living standards.’
Why is this book important to the environmental crisis?
Collapse demonstrates that historically societies have collapsed at least partly due to their misuse of their environments. For example, the thriving civilizations of the Maya and Easter Islanders both fell, leaving only stone relics of their once mighty societies. It turns out that their over population and overuse of their resources exacerbated existing problems and thus contributed to their downfall. This historical lesson has clear ramifications today as we are damaging our world at an unprecedented level. Many of the same problems that brought societies down in the past, such as deforestation, over fishing, high populations, stubborn resistance to change in light of new realities, among others, are all rampant in today’s world. The book ends on an optimistic note, however, with Diamond reminding us that many societies had the foresight to avoid collapse and in the end fared well. For instance, while the Greenland Norse collapsed, the Greenland Inuit fared quite well in the same environment, and while Easter Island collapsed other Polynesian societies continued to thrive. There is still hope to achieve a more a sustainable lifestyle and avoid a collapse suffered by so many once mighty societies in the past.
Jared Diamond is a professor of geography at UCLA and a former professor of physiology at the UCLA School of Medicine. He also is an ornithologist and has made numerous field expeditions in New Guinea, studying the evolution of birds. Later in life, he developed a career in the field of environmental history, focusing on the role the natural environment played in shaping the course of human history.
Links to Reviews
Herbert, Robert Emmet. This Borrowed Earth: Lessons from the Fifteen Worst Environmental Disasters Around the World. Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
The Art Blog. Jared Diamond—Collapse and Political Will at the Philomathean Society’s Annual Talk. Retrieved from http://theartblog.org/2011/04/jared-diamond-collapse-and-political-will-at-the-philomathean-societys-annual-talk/