Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

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Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed  
Author Jared M. Diamond
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Non Fiction
Publisher Viking Press
Publication date 2005
Media type print (hardback & paperback)
Pages 592
ISBN ISBN 0143036556
Preceded by Guns, Germs, and Steel

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed is a 2005 book by Jared M. Diamond, professor of geography and physiology at University of California, Los Angeles. Diamond's book deals with "societal collapses involving an environmental component, and in some cases also contributions of climate change, hostile neighbors, and trade partners, plus questions of societal responses" (p. 15). In writing the book Diamond intended that its readers should learn from history (p. 23).


[edit] Synopsis

In the prologue, Diamond summarizes Collapse in one paragraph, as follows.

This book employs the comparative method to understand societal collapses to which environmental problems contribute. My previous book (Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies), had applied the comparative method to the opposite problem: the differing rates of buildup of human societies on different continents over the last 13,000 years. In the present book focusing on collapses rather than buildups, I compare many past and present societies that differed with respect to environmental fragility, relations with neighbors, political institutions, and other "input" variables postulated to influence a society's stability. The "output" variables that I examine are collapse or survival, and form of the collapse if collapse does occur. By relating output variables to input variables, I aim to tease out the influence of possible input variables on collapses.

—page 18

Diamond lists eight factors which have historically contributed to the collapse of past societies:

  1. Deforestation and habitat destruction
  2. Soil problems (erosion, salinization, and soil fertility losses)
  3. Water management problems
  4. Overhunting
  5. Overfishing
  6. Effects of introduced species on native species
  7. Population growth
  8. Increased per-capita impact of people

Further, he says four new factors may contribute to the weakening and collapse of present and future societies:

  1. Human-caused climate change
  2. Buildup of toxins in the environment
  3. Energy shortages
  4. Full human utilization of the Earth’s photosynthetic capacity

The root problem in all but one of Diamond's factors leading to collapse is overpopulation relative to the practicable (as opposed to the ideal theoretical) carrying capacity of the environment. The one factor not related to overpopulation is the harmful effect of accidentally or intentionally introducing nonnative species to a region.

Diamond also states that "it would be absurd to claim that environmental damage must be a major factor in all collapses: the collapse of the Soviet Union is a modern counter-example, and the destruction of Carthage by Rome in 146 BC is an ancient one. It's obviously true that military or economic factors alone may suffice" (p. 15).

Diamond says Easter Island provides the best historical example of a societal collapse in isolation

[edit] Book structure

Collapse is divided into four parts.

  • Part One describes the environment of the US state of Montana, focusing on the lives of several individuals in order to put a human face on the interplay between society and the environment.
  • Part Two describes past societies that have collapsed. Diamond uses a "framework" when considering the collapse of a society, consisting of five "sets of factors" that may affect what happens to a society: environmental damage, climatic change, hostile neighbors, loss of trading partners, and the society's own responses to its environmental problems. The societies Diamond describes are:
  • Part Three examines modern societies, including:
  • Part Four concludes the study by considering such subjects as business and globalization, and "extracts practical lessons for us today" (p. 22 – 23). Specific attention is given to the polder model as a way Dutch society has addressed its challenges and the "top-down" and most importantly "bottom-up" approaches that we must take now that "our world society is presently on a non-sustainable course" (p. 498) in order to avoid the "12 problems of non-sustainability" that he expounds throughout the book, and reviews in the final chapter. The results of this survey are perhaps why Diamond sees "signs of hope" nevertheless and arrives at a position of "cautious optimism" for all our futures.

[edit] Reviews

Tim Flannery gave Collapse the highest praise in Science, writing[1]

... the fact that one of the world's most original thinkers has chosen to pen this mammoth work when his career is at his apogee is itself a persuasive argument that Collapse must be taken seriously. It is probably the most important book you will ever read.

The Economist's review was generally favorable, although the reviewer had two disagreements. First, the reviewer felt Diamond was not optimistic enough about the future. Secondly, the reviewer claimed Collapse contains some erroneous statistics: for instance, Diamond supposedly overstated the number of starving people in the world.[2] University of British Columbia professor of ecological planning William Rees wrote that Collapse's most important lesson is that societies most able to avoid collapse are the ones that are most agile; they are able to adopt practices favorable to their own survival and avoid unfavorable ones. Moreoever, Rees wrote that Collapse is "a necessary antidote" to followers of Julian Simon, such as Bjørn Lomborg who authored The Skeptical Environmentalist. Rees explained this assertion as follows:[3]

Human behaviour towards the ecosphere has become dysfunctional and now arguably threatens our own long-term security. The real problem is that the modern world remains in the sway of a dangerously illusory cultural myth. Like Lomborg, most governments and international agencies seem to believe that the human enterprise is somehow 'decoupling' from the environment, and so is poised for unlimited expansion. Jared Diamond's new book, Collapse, confronts this contradiction head-on.

In a recent edition of Energy and Environment, Jennifer Marohasy of the Institute of Public Affairs, (both the author and the right-wing Australian think-tank have stated positions of climate change scepticism), has a critical review of Collapse, in particular its chapter on Australia’s environmental degradation. Marohasy claims that Diamond reflects a popular view that is reinforced by environmental campaigning in Australia, but which is not supported by evidence, and argues that many of his claims are easily disproved.[4]

In his review in The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell highlights the way in which Diamond's approach differs from traditional historians by focusing on environmental issues rather than cultural questions.[5]

Diamond’s distinction between social and biological survival is a critical one, because too often we blur the two, or assume that biological survival is contingent on the strength of our civilizational values... The fact is, though, that we can be law-abiding and peace-loving and tolerant and inventive and committed to freedom and true to our own values and still behave in ways that are biologically suicidal.

While Diamond doesn't reject the approach of traditional historians, his book, according to Gladwell, vividly illustrates the limitations of that approach. Gladwell demonstrates this with his own example of a recent ballot initiative in Oregon, where questions of property rights and other freedoms were subject to a free and healthy debate, but serious ecological questions were given scant attention.

In 2006 the book was shortlisted for The Aventis Prizes for Science Books award, eventually losing out to David Bodanis' Electric Universe.[6]

[edit] Similar theories

In writing the book Diamond intended that its readers should learn from history (p. 23), re-igniting a theme explored by other historians. British historian Arnold J. Toynbee in A Study of History (1934-1961) also studied the collapse of civilizations. Diamond agrees with Toynbee that "civilizations die from suicide, not by murder" when they fail to meet the challenges of their times. However, where Toynbee argues that the root cause of collapse is the decay of a society's "creative minority" into "a position of inherited privilege which it has ceased to merit", Diamond ascribes more weight to conscious minimization of environmental factors.

From another angle, U.S. historian Joseph Tainter in The Collapse of Complex Societies (1988) argues that observable causes of collapse such as environmental degradation ultimately result from diminishing returns on investments in energy, education and technological innovation.

In a coincidence perhaps revealing the zeitgeist or "spirit of our times", the Canadian author Ronald Wright penned a not dissimilar but shorter essay-like work A Short History of Progress in 2004. Whilst surveying fewer societies in less detail than Diamond, Wright nevertheless began his journey much earlier in human prehistory with the worldwide slaughter of megafauna whenever and wherever we migrated to new lands in the Stone Age, including perhaps our closest evolutionary competitor, Neanderthal man. His own conclusions left him with far less room for the "cautious optimism" of Diamond.

American historian and polymath Carroll Quigley, highly praised by former U.S. President Bill Clinton, also explored the evolution of civilizations and posited a theory about collapse. His book Tragedy and Hope: A History of the World in Our Time explores the development of Western Civilization in the 20th century and offers considerable insight into the role of the power elite, and the financial and economic systems in sustaining and destroying societies.

[edit] See also

[edit] References

  1. ^ Flannery, T. (2005, January 7). "Learning from the past to change our future". In Science, 307, 45.
  2. ^ "Of Porpoises and Plantations". (2005, January 13). In The Economist, 374, 76.
  3. ^ Rees, W. (2005, January 6). "Contemplating the Abyss". In Nature, 433, 15 – 16.
  4. ^ Jennifer Marohasy, "Australia's Environment: Undergoing Renewal, Not Collapse" (PDF), Energy and Environment 16 (2005)
  5. ^ Malcolm Gladwell, "The Vanishing", The New Yorker, 2005-01-03
  6. ^ The Royal Society, "Prizes for Science Books previous winners and shortlists" The Royal Society, 2008-12-31

[edit] External links

"The historical record, at least, shows no general case for either democracy or dictatorship in terms of curbing environmental damage. The Tokugawa Shoguns made a good decision; the ruling kings of the Maya failed to take action."
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