Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive by Jared Diamond

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Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive by Jared Diamond

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Category: Politics and Society
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: A big book analysing the cases of collapse of past (and very recent) societies, from the author of best-selling 'Guns, Germs and Steel'. From Easter Island to Maya to the Vikings in Greenland; and from Australia to Rwanda; Diamonds research and analysis are immaculate but his over-long personal musings and lack of suggestions for higher-impact political solutions that would have a chance of changing the status quo make for an interesting but rather disappointing offering.
Buy? No Borrow? Yes
Pages: 592 Date: January 2006
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
ISBN: 0140279512

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I liked the Diamond's former bestseller 'Guns, Germs and Steel' a lot. It was a big doorstopper of a book, but its size was more than justified by the wealth of information it provided. Its approach and clarity seemed unique - at least in the field of popular science. 'Collapse' seems to be a clear attempt to discount the success of the previous book and was - at least to me - a rather disappointing effort. It's a pity, because the subject and even the angle Diamond took on it had undoubtedly a lot of potential.

For those interested in broader reasons for societal collapse, Diamond makes his caveats very quickly - 'Collapse' proposes to investigate only a certain type of failure to thrive. He concentrates on what is called 'ecocide', or ecological suicide, where a society fails because of at least partially self-inflicted ecological disaster, essentially a catastrophe of unsustainability.

Despite criticising simplifications in approaches of others, the reasons Diamond provides for the collapses of virtually all of the societies he writes about seem to my non-specialist mind extremely alike. It goes more or less like this: they got rid of the trees and they overexploited the soil so eventually they couldn't grow enough food (sometimes a climate change or a hostile neighbour is thrown in) so they started to starve and either died out, killed each other, had to leave or a combination of all three.

The specific cases he discusses are, nevertheless, fantastically researched and very well described (even if he does go on a bit in places).

The past societies include Easter Island, Pitcairn, Anasazi (American South-West civilisation connected to Chaco Canyon), Yucatan Maya and the Norse in Greenland. I have to say that after reading the Easter Island and the Pitcairn accounts with interest I had to struggle with the Anasazi and the Maya chapters. They seemed to be reiterating essentially the same albeit more complicated story and were frankly bit boring.

The chapters devoted to the Vikings' fate in Greenland (plus comparisons with their more successful stories in the Shetlands, Faeroes and Iceland), were, however, absolutely fascinating. The Vikings lasted in Greenland for over 400 hundred years and then completely disappeared. Diamond provides a convincing explanation of how that happened and how external and internal factors, from climate change to arrival of the Inuit to changes in European economy to ecological fragility of Greenland soil contributed to the Norse's demise. The most intriguing aspect, though, is how Vikings' cultural identity and values seemed to contribute to their failure. This includes seeming inability or lack of willingness to learn from the Inuit as well as ridiculous to us behaviours like insisting on keeping cows in an environment hardly suited to cattle husbandry and refusal to eat fish in an area where they are abundant source of food!

This historical section of the book provides also some rays of hope with examples of how societies in ecologically vulnerable environments managed to survive and thrive thanks to sensible, clever management of resources and conscious decisions to for example abandon certain practices and values. He shows instances of bottom-up and top-down environmental and population management, with the valleys of New Guinea a good example of bottom-up process while Tokugawa Japan an instance of top-down one. I was absolutely amazed to find out that such a heavily populated country as Japan has 74% tree cover - as compared to 12% in the UK or less than 30% in substantially more forested Poland.

The modern section of the book also had some gems, although, obviously , the reasoning couldn't have been as clear here as in case of historical ones. Rwandan genocide is well analysed and the introduction of the ecological issues to the equation is indeed a very enlightening one. The chapter on Australia was perhaps the most interesting for me, with again the importance it put on the values and systems of the society defining their treatment of the environment and their responses to the eventual crisis. I had no idea that it took 4 attempts to introduce the wretched bunny to Australia (and now even myxomatosis cannot get rid of it); and the fact that until not so long ago farmers got government subsidy for clearing land of forest and other vegetation while the sheep farmers had to keep to minimum rather than maximum stocking levels!

Why then disappointment and three stars only?

Firstly, Diamond had a tendency to intersperse his account with personal angle, which, frankly, was overblown, terribly boring and added virtually nothing to the argument. The first proper chapter of the book deals with modern Montana, and I have absolutely nothing against using this state as an example - Diamond knows it, understands the people and issues there and provides in depth explanations. Why, however, do we need a 3 page account of his and his family's personal history in connection to Montana? Three short paragraphs would have done perfectly well. Similar approach was repeated few more times in the Montana's chapter; with virtually every inhabitant mentioned provided with a fairly extensive cv. This was a true put-off for me, I almost gave up on the book then and I have to say that the same happens in one of the final chapters dealing with Los Angeles (Diamond lives in LA and holidays in Montana).

I also think that the book is generally too long, although perhaps it could be seen as something to dip in and select from rather than read as a continuous argument, he repeats his points enough for that certainly.

He makes a lot out of the notion of environmental impact of a society (one Sudanian has much, much smaller impact on the environment than one American) and the fact that even if we slow down or reduce the population growth, increasing standards of leaving to which the Third World countries aspire and are encouraged to aspire to by the West would mean increasing this environmental impact in ways that could cause global collapse.

He largely fails to address the influence of the modern multinationals as well as Western governments on the environment in the less developed countries. His account of Chevron's clean operation in New Guinea is a very hopeful one indeed, but his (not even very grudging) acceptance of the fact that businesses operate solely to generate profits and only by making the adoption of wider social and environmental concerns profitable we have a chance of influencing their practices seems rather less enlightened.

He seems to be more concerned with the unstoppable influx of Third World immigrants flooding the rich societies and tapping into (their???) resources then in totally unsustainable practices common in the developed societies.

He mentions many times the global interdependency of the modern era; but he doesn't seem to recognise the need for changes in the status quo and the way this global system operates in a way biased towards those who so far at least have had the biggest impact.

I can understand that the prospect of the billion of the Chinese eating as much meat and calories and using as much electricity as Americans must be pretty scary and is good as a shock tactic and perhaps better than suggesting that we (the inhabitants of fat, energy guzzling North) need to accept the lowering of our standard of living as well - or maybe change our definition of what a good standard of living consists of?

I also understand that Diamond's book is aimed at the American audience and thus has to go lightly on the notions of top-down control, government regulations and getting rid of some of the cars in case the audience rejects the whole message. This means though that the 'future prospects' and 'what can I do' and 'what should WE do' sections are rather tepid.

Using your vote, lobbying and boycott are good things; but an impending crisis calls for stricter measures - instead of lamenting that technology which provided us with Smart cars also produced SUV's I would welcome a recognition that an SUV is a marketing creation and if there was a political will, there would be a simple way to - for example - tax them out of existence.

If we are indeed facing a significant probability of a global collapse caused by our unsustainable use of the natural resources in the next 50 years or so then surely we should do more than lobby Ikea and B&Q to use wood from sustainable forests!

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