About a week ago, I finished reading a book that has long been on my reading list: Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive by Jared Diamond.
After being very impressed when I read his Pulitzer prize winning book Guns, Germs and Steel, I was eager to read Diamond’s take on civilization collapse and the reasons behind their failures. Here is my review of it.
Stories of Collapse
The book examines several fallen civilizations such as Easter Island in the South Pacific, the Anasazi in which is now the southwestern United States, the Maya civilization in Central America. There is also a deeper examination of the Vikings and in particular Greenland which was settled in 900 AD until approximately 1400 AD.
Each civilization and culture is examined and emphasis is placed on environmental factors that contributed to their weakening and collapse. Deforestation, soil erosion, overfishing/overhunting and population growth are recurring activities which influence the ability of a society to support itself. For example, the deforestation that occurred on Easter Island severely limited the ability of the people there to use fishing to support themselves.
As in Guns, Germs and Steel, Diamond uses multiple fields such as archaeology, anthropology biology and geography to provide evidence to his claim that the environment played a pivotal role in the downfall of these cultures.
Diamond examines a few situations in which a society collapsed while another with similar issues made different choices and managed to avoid a collapse. This case occurs today with the countries of Haiti and the Dominican Republic which share an island. Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere has recently had many struggles in comparison to its relatively well off island neighbour. The author argues that history and societal choices helped determine the diverging destinies of the two neighbours.
Another case which is examined is the Norse civilization in Greenland which became extinct while the culture of the Inuit in the same region experienced the same environmental conditions and due to their lifestyles and choices, survived.
Collapse is all around
Collapse is not only a study of ancient civilizations but also a reflection of issues which the world is currently facing. A few case studies of recent or ongoing “collapses” remind the reader that we as a society are still vulnerable to possible collapse if we as a society are not careful. The cases examined include the recent genocide in Rwanda, Haiti and possible collapses in the making in China and Australia.
Though I was not completely convinced by the case studies of Australian and Chinese collapse, the author does point out some major issues with environmental degradation (drought, erosion, that are having impacts on Australian and Chinese societies but I’m not sure about the severity or the eventual denouement of these situations.
Not all doom and gloom
Collapse is not all doom and gloom. In addition to examining societies that have collapsed, Jared Diamond also examines a few societies in which responses to crises lead to a sustainable society. Japan for example ran into issues due to deforestation and population pressures in the 1600s. Using a combination of population growth controls and effective timber management (along with imports from other countries), Japan managed to keep collapse at bay and in fact thrived due its choices.
What are we to do?
Collapse ends on the positive notes of hope with Diamond suggesting that if societies value the environment and make wise choices based not only on short term results and profits that we can thrive as a society and avoid collapse. Perhaps it is too late as some ( http://postcarbon.org/shape_recovery ) are speculating that this economic recession that has just started might be a sign of our current civilization hitting a wall.
Should I read it?
I quite enjoyed reading Collapse:How Societies choose to Fail or Succeed quite a bit. The book did feel a little environmentally preachy at times but overall it was a good examination of societies, some of the environmental challenges they face and how their response to those challenges dictate whether the societies will collapse or thrive. A great read for the environmentalist in you but even if you aren’t a green to the bone type, the book could still appeal to you with its great examinations of past societies, how they lived and how they failed or succeeded in the face of challenge.