Jared Diamond, 2005
I can’t begin a review of Collapse by Jared Diamond without first acknowledging his sentinel work, Guns, Germs, and Steel. I read that book in 2007 and it revolutionized the way I consider history.
Diamond examines history through the lens of geography and environment and in Guns, Germs, and Steel he illuminated how cultures and empires have successfully grown and conquered through the benefit of opportunity presented by their local resources and trade routes as well as the geographical divisions that have historically promoted the competitive diversity that encourages development. His arguments support theories that I’ve long held, that present cultures of power are powerful not due to innate superiority of the people in power, but rather due to the opportunities presented by the the path of history and locality. In Collapse, Diamond applies this same historical perspective however his subject is not the winners of historical progress, but rather the losers that have vanished from history’s presence.
Diamond evaluates several lost cultures but focuses predominantly on the Easter Island Polynesians, the Southwest Anasazi, the Central American Maya, and the North Atlantic Viking Norse. Of course many more cultures than these have flourished and collapsed, but each of these societies present a unique perspective that serves to elaborate upon Diamond’s argument that societal collapse is a result of multifaceted causation. These factors include geographical isolation, dependence upon fragile environments susceptible to deforestation and erosion, the interdependence of environmental damage with population growth, trade relationships that can include hostile neighbors, and the social norms and stigmas that moderate or stagnate collective decision making necessary to adapt to environmental changes and limitations.
All societies (even our present society) are presented with these challenges, but how the society deals with the challenge will determine the fate of its success. Diamond elaborates this positive outlook through examples of societies that faced near collapse through deforestation practices such as feudal Japan and Papua New Guinea and how those societies identified the need to modify their practices to prevent collapse. Diamond also provides example of modern societies flirting with environmental devastation such as China and surprisingly, Australia, through the employ of unsustainable practices of resource depletion and pollution.
This is a fascinating book and I especially enjoyed the historical exploration of cultures I knew little about such as the Easter Islanders and Norse Vikings, but felt that Diamond was a little lite on his exploration of the Anasazi and the Maya. Many of the lost societies were preliterate and therefore historical understanding must be determined by archaeology. Throughout the historical sections Diamond provides very thorough explanation of the current archaeological techniques used to study these long lost societies, even with detail of the garbage piles and skeleton analysis to determine cultural diet norms. For those cultures that were literate, the written records provided by the Norse (and less so, the Maya) do help elaborate his thorough evaluation of their rise and fall.
There were parts that I found less than interesting, such as Diamond’s overly extensive review of Montana as a character study of a once booming economy now leading towards decline and isolation from much of America’s current economies and social trends. He also does tend to over emphasize some of his argument with much repetition and cross reference to other chapters within his book. Despite these minor inadequacies, Collapse is an engrossing work worth attention. When considering the relevance of studying societal collapse in an increasingly interconnected and global world Diamond brings it all within perspective by illuminating the fact that our global society is now an isolated society much like the Easter Islanders. Just as there was no other Island for that Polynesian society to turn to when practices of excess, overpopulation, and resource depletion led their society to collapse, there is no other Earth for our global society to turn to when our population needs and cultural excesses usurp the balance of sustainable living on this island we call home.