Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize winner, Guns, Germs and Steel, explored why one society would succeed while another would fail. Diamond identified factors that lent themselves to success, and illuminated thriving cultures as blessed by history, resources and internal health.
Collapse looks at the flip side of this equation, identifying five main factors that lead not to simple failure, but to total (and in many cases, sudden) collapse of the society. This book will probably be read primarily as an environmental health warning, and Diamond frequently sounds a tocsin on environmental issues. But he points out that cultural causes also contribute to these catastrophes.
A first set of factors involves damage that people inadvertently inflict on their environment… extent and reversibility of that damage depend partly on properties of people… and partly on properties of the environment… A next consideration in my five-point framework is climate change, a term that today we tend to associate with global warming… [but which also involves] changes in natural forces that drive climate, and have nothing to do with humans… A third consideration is hostile neighbors… The fourth… is the converse of the third set; decreased support by friendly neighbors, as opposed to increased attacks by hostile neighbors… The last set of factors… involves the ubiquitous question of the society’s response to its problems… [which] depend on its political, economic and social institutions, and on its cultural values. [Emphasis mine.]
Diamond begins by placing these factors in a present-day context to which most of us can relate: Montana. Once he is sure we have a grasp of the complexity involved in these inter-locking issues, he goes on to consider historical collapses in the Pacific Islands (Easter Island and the Pitcairns), the desert West (Anasazi), Viking settlements in Iceland, Greenland and Vinland, and the Mayan empire.
He then examines collapses in progress or barely averted in more recent societies: Rwanda, New Guinea and the Dominican Republic. Finally, he turns that carefully developed spotlight on nations as he looks at how these factors play in China and Australia; and on global corporations, as he examines input from and impact on the oil, mining, farming, lumbering and fishing industries.
The author pulls no punches in this endeavor; where there are culprits in human skins, Diamond identifies them. It was chastening to realize, though, how often the collapsed societies simply had bad luck. For example, Diamond and another researcher isolated nine factors that tend to promote deforestation of Pacific Islands once they are settled by men. Of those nine, Easter Island had eight. The Easter Island deforestation and the subsequent catastrophe was there in potentio the day men first landed on its shores—but collapse was hastened by the islanders’ practice of cremation. Without that extra impetus, the forests of Easter Island might have survived to the time of contact with white explorers.
Diamond closes with a note of hope, gleaned from his experiences in developing and writing the book. Cultures can change, disasters can be averted, he stresses, but only if we have
…the courage to make painful decisions about values. Which of the values that formerly served a society well can continue to be maintained under the new changed circumstances? Which of those treasured values must instead be jettisoned and replaced with different approaches?
If you enjoyed Diamond’s treatise on why societies succeed, you will want to read Collapse. Then we can debate his closing questions from an informed position.