Thursday, April 25, 2013


Book: Collapse by Jared Diamond

Description: In Jared Diamond’s follow-up to the Pulitzer-Prize winning Guns, Germs and Steel, the author explores how climate change, the population explosion and political discord create the conditions for the collapse of civilization

Environmental damage, climate change, globalization, rapid population growth, and unwise political choices were all factors in the demise of societies around the world, but some found solutions and persisted. As in Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond traces the fundamental pattern of catastrophe, and weaves an all-encompassing global thesis through a series of fascinating historical-cultural narratives. Collapse moves from the Polynesian cultures on Easter Island to the flourishing American civilizations of the Anasazi and the Maya and finally to the doomed Viking colony on Greenland. Similar problems face us today and have already brought disaster to Rwanda and Haiti, even as China and Australia are trying to cope in innovative ways. Despite our own society’s apparently inexhaustible wealth and unrivaled political power, ominous warning signs have begun to emerge even in ecologically robust areas like Montana. (from

My thoughts: This book was incredibly thought-provoking. Diamond described various cultures through time, all over the globe, and their responses to problems, both ecological and not. These descriptions really made me think about assumptions and culture, and how these aspects of a society tie into its ecological impact. Many of the cultures Diamond described ultimately failed, often because of short-sightedness of that culture or other cultural values that made them unwilling to accept the solution that would seem obvious to us. Are there solutions to our problems that we are unable or unwilling to see?

I was intrigued by his argument that businesses can't be expected to adopt good environmental policies that will result in them losing profit unless there is consumer or government pressure to do so. (If you think that seems obvious: well, it's not something conservationists discuss much. I suppose it depends on how you feel about businesses: should they do what's right because it's right, or because it's what their customers want? Perhaps the fact that this is an issue at all simply shows how entitled we often feel--I want this product to be everything I want it to be, for no less than such-and-such a price). The other argument that really stuck out was that globalization ultimately means that the earth now is ultimately one gigantic connected system--if the whole thing collapses because of environmental problems, there won't be anywhere for the survivors to go. They'll be stuck with the conditions. (Of course, to some extent that has always been true).

I did have some problems with this book. Before reading it, I heard some claims that Diamond's archaeology, about Easter Island specifically, is not entirely supported by the evidence, and although I didn't look into it before I read the book, it seems that this is true (here is a brief write-up about it on Wikipedia). There were also a few other facts that he cited that I wasn't sure were entirely accurate. 

I wasn't that impressed with his Haiti/Dominican Republic chapter; because both countries are on the same island, Diamond used them as a sort of case study of how societies existing with the same resources and natural conditions but making different choices will end up with very different results. However, at the end of the chapter I found myself unconvinced that the differences between the two countries are only because of their choices.

Another problem I had with Collapse is that Diamond focused too much on the environment solely as related to its benefits for humans; there was not a single mention of wild animals (other than as food sources) before the last chapter, when he mentioned the interconnectivity of all the world's ecosystems as a reason to keep protecting all species--those small species that seem unimportant may affect a species humans are interested in. I realize that to reach and convince a wide audience, an author must convince the reader of why it matters to her or him, but I'm not at all sure that making most of the life on this planet seem unimportant is an effective way to foster conservation efforts.

As you could probably tell from all of my comments above, I didn't agree with everything Diamond argued in Collapse. However, by not agreeing with everything he wrote I was forced to think a lot more about what I thought about the issues and why I didn't agree with him. This book also made me very conscious of everything that I consume--electricity, water, food, things like clothes and paper and gasoline--and how very much I do consume. Ultimately, despite its problems, I found this book thought-provoking and engaging.

No comments:

Post a Comment