Jared Diamond

Collapse : how societies choose to fail or survive

We look forward to constant progress, but in today's complex society sometimes things don't seem to work as well as they used to. Shops run out of what you want, trains don't run on time and the like. These may seem like minor annoyances but I do wonder whether they are a sign of something worse, a society which is being overwhelmed by its own complexity and which will come to an untimely end. But enough of my rambling thoughts, this is supposed to be a review of Jared Diamond's new book 'Collapse', where he looks at civilisations which have indeed undergone such a collapse (Usually very soon after the civilisation's peak), as well as examining problems in modern societies . Of course there have always been predictions of gloom and doom and it's hard to know how seriously to take them. Is our society really heading towards disaster, or will we manage to get by as we have done in the past. In this book Diamond shows that the worst sometimes does happen, and he hopes that we might learn something from this.

Collapsed societies.

The first collapse looked at is that of the Easter Island civilisation. It looks like the main problem was that they got rid of all of the trees (what was the islander who cut down the last tree thinking about?). Indeed deforestation is a recurring theme throughout the book. However, Diamond shows that things are never that simple and gives five factors which may influence the fate of a society. Firstly there's environmental damage such as deforestation. The second factor is climate change - today we think about global warming, but a long cold spell is also likely to be a serious problem for a society. Hostility from other societies is an obvious contributor to a collapse. Less obvious is the fourth fourth factor: friendly relationships with other cultures - a society may disappear if its trade partners can no longer supply it with necessities. The fifth factor is the response of a society to its problems - will new ways be found to deal with new challenges or will the people just stick to 'what was done in the past'? He looks at how these factors applied to Easter island and to other islands which were colonised in the Polynesian expansion but which were subsequently depopulated.

Other collapses which are examined are those of the Anasazi and the Maya, followed by a long look at the establishment of a Norse society in Greenland. This society flourished for several centuries but eventually succumbed to increasing environmental problems - problems which the nearby Inuit nevertheless managed to survive.

The look at past societies ends on a happier note with examples of societies which faced the same sort of challenges as those which collapsed, but managed to deal with them successfully and so survived.

Modern Societies

The book is in four parts, with part 2 being the look at past societies. Parts 1 and 3 look at current societies, with part 1 being a single chapter on the author's experiences in Montana and the environmental problems he has seen there. Part 3 starts with Rwanda, where he examines how population pressures may be at the root of the massacres which have taken place. This is followed by a comparison of the societies in Haiti and The Dominican republic, two countries which share one island. Diamond then looks at the growth of the Chinese economy and the problems this may bring for the Chinese and the global environment. Part 3 concludes with Australia, which is given as an example of how people whose ancestors came from another part of the world finally have to realise that the culture they inherited might not be appropriate to the place which is now their home.

What to do about it

The final part comprises Diamond's ideas on what can be done about the serious challenges facing our society. Looking at these issues is very much his 'day job' and so he has been able to get away from the stereotyped Environmentalists vs Big Business antagonism and look at constructive ways of resolving these problems. It's a useful contribution to the debate, but I felt that he didn't really emphasise his scientific approach - readers of the book wouldn't be particularly inspired to get into anthropology or ecology. For this reason I personally wouldn't choose it as the winner of the 2006 Aventis science book prize. But the judges may look more at its overall appeal, in which case it has a good chance.


It has to be said that this is a long work, which might have been better as two separate books. Diamond is skilled at keeping the interest of the reader, so it doesn't get boring, but he does this though by giving the history of each of the societies in considerable detail - it's not the sort of book you can simply skim through. Hence some readers might find it intimidating. But my feeling is that its certainly worth the effort - it gives a balanced view of many of the environmental problems facing the world today.

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