Friday, April 08, 2005


Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed - Jared Diamond

"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.

Diamond postulates five primary sets of factors consisting of: 1)damage people inadvertently inflict on their environment, 2) climate change, 3) hostile neighbor's, 4) decreased support from friendly neighbors, 5) the society's response to the problems. Diamond is careful not to cite a single reason for any collapse, but rather does a solid job of drawing together the varying elements and their collective impact on the society.

Collapse is long and, bluntly, at times a bleak and repetitive read, however Diamond exhibits a solid grasp of his subject, drawing out the particular threads and weaving them together into a coherent and compelling, if depressing, whole. The key role of how societies interact with the environment in their various states of social disintegration is chillingly convincing, particularly the well-documented collapse of Easter Island and the connections that Diamond draws between the factors such as deforestation, environmental stress, and ecological breakdown.

The implications for the near future for modern society is clear and stark - it is choice. Interestingly enough, Diamond refuses to rest as a Cassandra-like prophet of doom and gloom, and spends the remainder of the book carefully examining the tremendous success stories that are also in evidence.

After all the last thing that flew out of Pandora's Box was hope.

Interested in learning more about Easter Island? Check out Rapa Nui, the Navel of the World here, here and here.

Investigate the lost Vikings of Greenland here or read Archaology's online article.

Live in the American South-west? Learn more about the Anasazi and the Chaco Canyon civilization (including their sophisticated astronomical observatories).

Check out the Maya at this site, or learn about Mayan culture at Rabbit in the Moon.

Found this review useful? Please support BookLinker by clicking on our ads or ordering your publications through the site.

Comments, links and feedback are always welcome. Working on the six degrees of separation theory, someone who knows someone who knows someone please impose on Instapundit for a link, I'd love to see the traffic levels rise!

Thanks for reading!

1 comment:

Poplar Reader said...

Interesting review. Can I draw your attention however, to a much more critical and extended review at http://unrepentant.blogspot.com/

The author there, in a more recent post, also quotes veteren ecologist (and marxist!) John Bellamy Foster as describing collapse as "terrible". Which is a shame considering how good a work "Guns Germs and Steel is".