Book Review of “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

Book Review:

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

By: Jared Diamond

ISBN: 978-1-10-115782-4

Publisher: Penguin Books, 2006

Jared Diamond has his own website which has a section dedicated to this book and its basic background information. The authors website is jareddiamond.org

 

The book is 16 chapters divided into four parts. Each chapter delves into a specific example of past and/or present societies and examines those societies impactful decisions economically and environmentally. Mainly the author looks at societal collapse, and when faced with the possibility how societies reacted and what factors led to the collapses.

  • Part One and Chapter One looks into the environmental state of Montana. Diamond begins by describing the beauty of Montana and why he and so many others are attracted to the “Big Sky”. He then begins to show Montana’s economic and environmental struggle and the problems with Montana’s population and what they value. It’s a new generation vs. old generation, the new wanting to expand and grow and the old being more traditional and wanting to preserve the state. Diamond uses Montana as his first example, not because the U.S or Montana is in danger of self-destruction entirely, but because if Montana was a country itself it would have collapsed years ago due to the environmental problems that become economic problems.
  • Part 2 looks and past societies, and chapter 2 begins it with a look at Easter Island. Easter Island provides the most isolated society examined in this book and Diamond described it as “ghostly” when he arrived on the island. The purpose for Diamond exploring the island and including it in his book was it is an example of a complete societal collapse. The collapse was due to deforestation along with other civilian caused environmental damage.
  • Chapter 3 looks at the collapse of the Pitcairn Islands inhabited by Polynesians. The points of looking at this collapse was because it was due to environmental damage and collapse of the islands trade due to losing its trading partners.
  • Chapter 4 examines the ancient Anasazi and their neighbors. The Anasazi faced societal collapse, due to their deforestation, water management problems and climate change. They are another example of environmental problems leading to societal collapse.
  • Chapter 5 looks into the collapse of the Mayans, another ancient civilization. The Mayans were an overpopulated society that dealt with a lot of warfare with surrounding neighbors, to go along with deforestation and droughts. All of these factors mixed together led to the downfall of the Mayans.
  • Chapter 6 delves into the Vikings and Fugues and their habits of agriculture and herding. When the Vikings moved into Iceland they found this to be difficult due to short growing seasons, and volcanic ash poisoning the feed used for their livestock which caused famines and other problems. To go along with this, the Vikings got into deforestation, but they stopped their damaging actions before it was too late and they became more conservative and moved into the fish trade, mainly cod.
  • Chapter 7 lays the groundwork of Norse Greenland showing the cool environment, where much of the country is uninhabitable. It gives background information and history lessons on the beginnings of the Vikings coming to Greenland.
  • Chapter 8 takes a look at the end of the Vikings society in Greenland. Their end came as the result of damaging environmental actions to go along with violent neighbors that they did not get along with, a collapse of a trading system, but mostly the refusal to adapt to their surroundings.
  • In chapter 9 Diamond gives two ways a society makes it through an environmental crisis. The top-down approach and the bottom-up approach. Small societies are better fitted for bottom-up approach where the movement towards positive environmental movement begins with the inhabitants as they see it would be beneficial. Larger societies are better fitted for the top-down approach as the governing leaders organize a movement toward environmental awareness.
  • Part 3 looks at Modern Societies and Chapter 10 looks at Rwanda’s Genocide. Diamond shows the collapse into the tragic genocide was due to more than hatred but also overpopulation, which caused strains on the environment and resources.
  • Chapter 11 sheds light on the Dominican Republic and Haiti. The D.R is a very challenged country with deforestation and hurricane damage. Diamond contemplates the future of the D.R as there is hope for them environmentally and economically through their bottom-up approach, but it’s an uphill battle.
  • Chapter 12 revolves around China and their choices of economic growth over environment sustainability, but both will affect each other. Diamond points out that the world can’t handle China and others like it operating at first world levels.
  • Chapter 13 takes a look at Australia and its future. Water is scarce in Australia and the soil doesn’t produce much to go along with other environmental damages.
  • Part 4: Chapter 14 asks the question why do some societies make disastrous decisions? Diamond raises the point that group decision making makes for problematic results, due to their being a conflict of interest between the group. Also some problems once they become known are rationally ignored and swept under the rug for a later time, but societies ability to be educated brings hope.
  • Chapter 15 looks at the relationship between big business and the environment. Problems with resource extraction, corporate sense of entitlement and societal complacency are a mixture of problems. Diamond says the public ultimately has the responsibility of how big businesses behave.
  • Chapter 16 brings it all together and points out the biggest problems and the losses of natural resources. Diamond puts hope in the world’s interconnectedness and our abilities to make these matters public knowledge and raise awareness.

 

Diamonds main points in his book Collapse are that when societies are faced with environmental problems that have long term effects beyond the environment, they have the options of fixing that problem, or due to comfort and lack of the ability to change and adapt, the society can suffer the consequences of those problems. The point of showing the ancient civilizations and their collapse was to highlight that they all at one time faced a point where they could’ve reversed their problems and avoided a downfall, but they didn’t. The modern civilizations being showcased helped Diamond show there are things like this going on today, overpopulation, deforestation and abuse of resources and he isn’t completely saying were facing a collapse, but he is saying that if things don’t change it could get very ugly in the future.

 

Diamond’s book really didn’t give any insight into what we have talked about in this class. He mostly discusses environmental sustainability rather than any economic problems. In some parts of the book he does discuss economic situations and how damaging the environment has economic consequences, but in terms of what we have learned this semester he doesn’t relate his writing to our topics.

 

I learned alot while reading Collapse, mostly about ancient civilizations. Before doing the reading I knew very little about Easter Island, besides the famous pictures of the giant stone statues. I had no idea how isolated the island is from any other inhabited landforms (Easter Island is over 1300 miles away from the nearest inhabited land-from http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2012/07/easter-island/bloch-text). I also had no idea people still called this island home, with an estimated population of around 6,148(Wikepedia). I always thought of it as a small island used as a tourist destination. More significant facts that I learned from Collapse is that China receives mountains of “untreated garbage” from other countries, including the U.S to which China attempts to use as cheap raw materials. The “untreated garbage” sometimes includes waste containing toxic chemicals. These other countries pay China to take on this extra pollution, but it gets spread to the oceans and atmosphere that the world shares. I found this kind of shocking that a country would want garbage, even if they are paid to take it off others hands. Also Diamond gives two ways how a society can reverse their damaging environmental habits, the top-down approach, and the bottom-up approach. The top-down approach is used in smaller societies and begins with the citizens of the society working together to reduce their damages to the environment. The top-down approach is to be used by larger societies, and it begins with the governing leaders because in larger societies things are more likely to be ignored by the everyday citizens because in a larger society the leadership is more powerful and can lead a society out of an environmental crisis(Also seen in CH. 9 summary).

 

Collapse was an eye-opening read as it brings many problems to light, some of which may have gotten worse since the writing of the book. It also made me think about how sustainable our environment is, with the examples of the fisheries in Australia and how that affects their economy and the world’s economy. It hasn’t completely changed my thinking because I have watched a few documentaries and films about similar problems, so I knew problems exist that will be troublesome in the future if they are not fixed. The industrialization in China and its negative impacts on the environment have been well known for a while. But the book is very thought provoking with respect to the environment and how much economies depend on resources provided by the environment also is made very clear in Collapse. I think its important to realize that the economy relies heavily on the environment and constantly destroying it creates a large problem. I don’t consider myself an environmentalist and neither does the author Jared Diamond but the facts are there that we can’t keep abusing resources and acting like their never ending or else there will be devastating consequences. Just like what economics is about, satisfying unlimited wants with limited resources, the world has to manage those resources more appropriately in order to sustain the livelihood of the world.

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