Initially, when I decided to read Collapse, I thought that the purpose was, as mentioned in the subtitle, to examine “how societies choose to fail or succeed.” This is only in part true. It is a limited discussion of how specific past and present societies endangered by an environmental component (human mismanagement of natural resources and/or climate change) have chosen to fail or succeed. So the book would not be discussing the collapses of Carthage, the Soviet Union, The British Empire, or any society where an environmental component was not a catalyst. I was hoping for a broader view. But the author’s motivation was to provide information on the environmental threats to modern societies so that we might avert failure.
Diamond presents a framework for analysis using five points that contribute to societal collapse. They are: 1) Damage that people inflict on their environment, 2) Climate change, 3) Hostile neighbors, 4) Decreased support by friendly neighbors and 5) Societies responses to its problems. Not every collapse discussed included all five points, but all did include the first one.
Diamond begins his exploration in Montana. Montana? I’m not going to hear about Rome, Ancient Greece or The Spanish Empire; instead we’re going to cover Montana? First off, Montana is boring both as a state and a subject. Second, it’s not an independent civilization; it’s a state within a still wealthy and successful country. Third, it hasn’t collapsed. Alright, I understand that Diamond has connections in Montana, and an intimate understanding of its environmental difficulties. So I take my deep breath and suffer through a history of environmental depredations and attempts at recovery, in a state that‘s as exciting as an interview with Stephen Hawking‘s stunt double.
After practically flat-lining through the Montana chapter, I am rewarded with an honestly fascinating Part Two of histories involving past societies that failed: Easter Island, The Pitcairn Islands, The Anasazi, The Mayans, The Vikings; now we’re getting somewhere. Diamond discusses these collapses with exceptional detail and complexity. Brilliant and depressing. Just as you’re ready give-up on humanity, he follows with a hopeful chapter on three societies that sustained their populations and environments, for an extended time, through intelligent resource management. This success is somewhat mitigated since each group faced famines, and two of them employed war and genocide against competing tribes. Each was finally overcome by an aggressive, expansionist foreign population.
Part Three is an overwhelming look at modern societies facing environmental difficulties: Rwanda, Hispaniola, China and Australia. It is a numbing set of pictures and problems that leaves you feeling as cornered as the pretty guy in a men’s prison.
Part Four isn’t exactly a reprieve, but it does offer some strategies for success with big business polluters and ends with a few pages on “Reasons for Hope.” His reasons are that we have a choice, and we have information technologies which our predecessors lacked.
Unfortunately, there are elements of human nature about which we do not have choices, and Diamond does not address these. In his truly excellent book The Third Chimpanzee, Diamond elucidates how close we are genetically to other primates. We are animals. As animals, our purpose is to put our genetic material into the next generation. Any more thoughtful goal is secondary for our species. In the face of impending catastrophe, our population continues to climb. Even China’s draconian population control policies have resulted in addition, not subtraction. So it doesn’t matter how much information we have. Our population will continue to rise until an unresolvable ecological crisis occurs (a shortage in food, water, energy, etc). Anyone who wishes to pit wishful thinking against this reasoning need only answer one question: “Is our population going up or is it going down?”
Diamond, Jared. Collapse. New York: Penguin Books, 2011.