I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculpter well those passions read,
Which yet survive, stampt on these lifeless things,
The hand that mockt them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
—Percy Bysshe Shelley (1817)
About ten years ago, sweating profusely in the Yucatan humidity and liberally gulping down bottled water, I hauled myself up a vine-strewn pyramid in the Mayan city of Coba, and stared out at the view.
Coba was a comparatively new site (only located in the early 70's) and remains somewhat isolated and still, with a few exceptions, pristinely covered in jungle. From our vantage point you could see the remains of another four massive structures that poked out of the green foliage canopy. We watched red kites circling languidly in the humid air and snapped our photos before scrambling back down to mull over the ruins that lay before us. Nothing focuses your attention like a disaster. Ruin is a source of wonder.
Collapse looks at ruin.
Jared Diamond has followed up on his superlative Pulitzer Prize-winning work Guns, Germs and Steel with Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.
He is very specific in his choice of titles—Collapse is about the choices that societies make, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously, that in the end determine failure or success.
In Guns, Germs and Steel, Diamond examined what made certain civilizations succeed, what were the catalysts of their success and growth. In Collapse, he flips the coin and looks closely at what makes them fail, drawing on a number of comparative examples to illustrate his key points.
Diamond looks variously at such locales as modern-day Montana ranch country, the remote Easter Island, Pitcairn & Henderson islands, the American south-west's Anasazi culture and Chaco Canyon, the Mayan Empire of Central American (my old friends from Coba), and the Norse Vikings of Greenland, Vinland and Iceland. Diamond also takes a look at modern day disasters and societal collapses such as the Malthusian events of Rwanda (which he tellingly ties to population overpressure, demographics and the cultural inheritance traditions), the horrific conditions of Haiti (and the telling opposite across the border, the Dominican Republic). He also looks at conditions in Australia, China and his own native southern California.