Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

In marked contrast to his previous book, I found Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed to be a consistently compelling and worthwhile read. He begins and ends it with discussions of environmental challenges in the modern world – firstly, in Montana and secondly globally – and fills out the book with descriptions of past societies that failed for primarily environmental reasons. These include Easter Island, Pitcairn and Henderson Islands, the Anasazi of North America, the Maya, and the Vikings of Greenland. He sketches out a ‘five factor’ framework for evaluating how both internally and externally induced environmental changes affect societies: environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbours, friendly trade partners, and how a society chooses to respond to its environmental problems. Diamond makes a strong case that the framework is relevant to contemporary global society.

Diamond makes some good points about psychology. For instance, about how people who become used to abundance can forget that they are benefitting from a temporary blip above the trend line, and can end up getting hammered when things return to normal. Also, how the construction of status symbols can develop a momentum of its own, and carry on well beyond the point where it would be objectively sensible to continue. He also describes some of the many perverse subsidies that have been established by well-meaning rulers, such as the former obligation of Australian landowners to clear native vegetation, ensuring the worsening of their erosion problems.

While Diamond concludes that twelve different environmental problems are of sufficient importance to threaten the future of our society, he doesn’t perform much comparative analysis on their relative urgency and severity. Indeed, a case could be made that he seriously underestimates climate change, when compared to the others. Not only is the need to start mitigating urgent, due to long lags in the climate system, but the impacts of further emissions are irreversible to an extent that is not shared by all the other problems he lists.

While Diamond does an excellent job of chronicling reasons for historical societal failures – and argues convincingly that an appreciation of this history is important for understanding our current situation – he doesn’t do much of the work of considering what societal changes are necessary now. In particular, his assertion that a deep change in values may be required doesn’t extend to listing which of our values are problematic, or what changes to them might help society overcome the problems he anticipates will threaten it in coming decades.

Diamond’s final position is a very forceful one: for a constellation of reasons, our present global society is deeply unsustainable, and much of economic ‘growth’ is illusory. We are ‘mining’ renewable resources, in a way that will destroy them in the long term. As such, we are not earning a living off the ‘interest’ accrued to natural capital – we are cutting into the capital itself, dooming future generations to a worsened standard of living, or worse, unless we change our ways. That, plus the lesson that successful past societies were undone by failures to heed such lessons, is information that needs to be more widely absorbed and appreciated within our society.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

11 thoughts on “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

  1. History on an environmental scale
    Of porpoises and plantations

    Jan 13th 2005
    From The Economist print edition
    When communities self-destruct

    JARED DIAMOND likes his subjects big. His best-known book, “Guns, Germs and Steel”, was in some editions subtitled “A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years”. This was no conventional history; rather, the author tried to explain the environmental factors behind the rise of various human civilisations. It was a terrific read and full of surprising subplots, such as why some animals can be domesticated and others cannot, and why agriculture spread to some societies but not others.

    Now Mr Diamond, a professor of geography at the University of California, attempts to tackle the opposite question, that is, why some societies collapse. Again, he focuses on long-term environmental factors rather than on short-term political ones. Since Mr Diamond is a restless traveller, a ravenous researcher and a sparky writer, the result is gripping.

    Among the collapses, he describes the civilisation of Easter Island three centuries ago, whose fall, he argues convincingly, was caused largely by deforestation. Transporting and erecting those extraordinary stone statues required a lot of wood. The early Easter Islanders also used wood to cook their food, cremate their dead and build large canoes. As the population grew, they cut down the big trees.

    The ecosystem was wrecked. The soil was rendered infertile, and, with no big logs left with which to build seaworthy craft, the islanders had no means of escape. They could not even paddle far enough out to catch porpoises, which had been a chief source of protein. They ate their land birds to extinction and then they starved. Wars erupted, in which the victors ate the vanquished. A popular insult at the time, apparently, was: “The flesh of your mother sticks between my teeth.”

  2. Values and Religions

    June 23, 2009

    Reading Jared Diamond’s “Collapse” has got me thinking about how future historians might talk about our age, and to what extent capitalism might be interpreted as a “religion”. While that might sound far-fetched at first – hear me out. For instance, when Diamond talks about the history of Easter Island, and how changing material conditions led to changing religious practices (and vice versa), it is possible to talk about the “religion” of the islanders, in a meaningful way, without ever actually talking about which dieties they worshipped – in fact sometimes it is useful to talk about a rellgion only as a set of cultural practices. Another example of this might be rifts in Christianity – sure there might be theological differences but it would be strange to say that someone doesn’t understand anything about the religious conflicts in Ireland simply because they don’t know the technical theological differences. What is true in both these cases is religion, and religious difference, is largely an issue of cultural value.

  3. Learning from past civilizations

    Posted 12:41 PM on 29 Jul 2009
    by Lester Brown

    To understand our current environmental dilemma, it helps to look at earlier civilizations that also got into environmental trouble. Our early 21st century civilization is not the first to face the prospect of environmentally induced economic decline. The question is how we will respond.

    As Jared Diamond points out in his book Collapse, some of the early societies that were in environmental trouble were able to change their ways in time to avoid decline and collapse. Six centuries ago, for example, Icelanders realized that overgrazing on their grass-covered highlands was leading to extensive soil loss from the inherently thin soils of the region. Rather than lose the grasslands and face economic decline, farmers joined together to determine how many sheep the highlands could sustain and then allocated quotas among themselves, thus preserving their grasslands. Their wool production and woolen goods industry continue to thrive today.

    Not all societies have fared as well as the Icelanders. The early Sumerian civilization of the fourth millennium BC had advanced far beyond any that had existed before. Its carefully engineered irrigation system gave rise to a highly productive agriculture, one that enabled farmers to produce a food surplus, supporting formation of the first cities and the first written language, cuneiform.

  4. From Collapse, p276

    “There were many innovations that might have improved the material conditions of the Norse, such as importing more iron and timber, and copying (from the Inuit) or inventing different boats and different hunting techniques. But those innovations could have threatened the power, prestige, and narrow interests of the chiefs. In the tightly controlled, interdependent society of Norse Greenland, the chiefs were in a position to prevent others from trying out such innovations.”

    With some editorial license, it reads:

    “There were many innovations that might have improved the material conditions of the [humans], such as [switching to a zero carbon economy], and copying (from other cultures) or inventing [a way of life not based on competition, domination and exclusion]. But those innovations could have threatened the power, prestige, and narrow interests of the [elites]. In the tightly controlled, interdependant society of [earth], the [elites] were in a position to prevent others from trying out such innovations.”

  5. “Visitors to the British Museum’s Montezuma exhibition are being vividly reminded what happens when you put too much strain on the ecosystem. The city of Teotihuacan had a population of 200,000 in the seventh century A.D. and then, quite suddenly, it collapsed. The historian Tom Holland, author of “Millenium”, came away from the exhibition shivering with “a sense of unexpected kinship”. The Aztecs had lost touch with some basic geographical facts and their needs had outstripped the natural resources that were available. “Are we in the West,” he asks, “the Aztecs of our time?” It’s one reason why the geography department has become the most compelling one on the campus. Geography is the new history. We’re living it now.”

    -Robert Butler

  6. Another green world
    Like Easter Island, Ascension Island has lessons for the planet—cheerful ones

    AT THE top of Green Mountain, the central peak of Ascension Island, there is a small pond, dotted with lilies, shadowed to one side by the fronds of a pandan tree. It is the only open body of fresh water on the island—and for a thousand kilometres in any direction. Around Dew Pond grows a grove of towering bamboo, beyond which the trade winds blow incessantly from the south-east. Within the grove the air is still and damp.

    Along the trailing ridge of the summit are fig trees, Cape yews and a garland of remarkably vigorous ginger. Below, on the mountain’s lee side, trees and shrubs from all parts of the world spread down the hillside to a landscape of casuarina trees—ironwood, or she-oak—and thorny chaparral around its base. Even on the bleaker windward slope, grasses and sedges are dotted with Bermuda cedar and guava bushes. Above, the bamboo scratching at their bellies, are the clouds the trade winds bring; some days they cover the mountain top.

    Once seen as too dry to be worth inhabiting, Ascension Island is becoming greener at an increasing rate. People are responsible. In part, their contribution was unwitting: the thorny mesquite that anchors a lot of the island’s scrub was introduced for a landscaping project just 50 years ago. But the forest on the peak of Green Mountain represents a deliberate attempt to change the island’s climate to make it more habitable. It is the centrepiece of a small but startling ecological transformation which is part experiment and part accident, part metaphor and part inspiration.

    Beneath the summit ridge on Green Mountain, on the lawns of a small garden, Mr Stroud nurtures indigenous plants. He discovered one fern only a couple of years ago—a species hidden for centuries. He plants the successes under a huge fig tree on the ridge. When they flourish he takes them further out into what on other islands would be the wild, but here is the artifice, returning occasionally to check up on them and take more seed. While he and his successors are here, those ferns and grasses will be safe from extinction. And a few are taking the initiative themselves. Xiphopteris ascensionis, a tiny endemic fern, had never seen a tree before the Victorian planters came. Now it lives in and on them, nestled in their moist bark, pioneering the epiphytic way of life familiar from ancient forests around the world and discovered afresh in their youngest cousin. Life, with helping hands, adapts.

    The lesson that Easter Island teaches humanity is bleak. Ascension Island’s story has a more hopeful message. It shows that environments not remotely natural in their origins can become lovely to inhabit. People like Mr Stroud can and will act not just to preserve the environment but to improve it, making it more, not less, than it otherwise would be.

    Winding down the flank of the mountain, there is a graceful fluttering in the woods off to the side of the road. Free from the threat of cats, fairy terns have returned to the island—and forsaken their ancestral cliffs for a new life among the leaves and branches. They flash bright white and beautiful against the green.

  7. “The extreme case [of a society experiencing technological regression], Diamond points out, is Tasmania. The Tasmanians, who were nearly exterminated by Europeans in the nineteenth century, were the most technologically primitive people in recorded history. Unlike the Aborigines on the Australian mainland, the Tasmanians had no way of making fire, no boomerangs or spear throwers, no specialized stone tools, no axes with handles, no canoes, no sewing needles, and no ability to fish. Amazingly, the archaeological record shows that their ancestors from the Australian mainland had arrived with these technologies ten thousand years before. But then the land bridge connecting Tasmania to the mainland was submerged and the island was cut off from the rest of the world. Diamond speculates that any technology can be lost from a culture a some point in its history. Perhaps a raw material came to be in short supply and people stopped making the products that depended on it. Perhaps all the skilled artisans in a generation were killed by a freak storm. Perhaps some prehistoric Luddite or ayatollah imposed a taboo on the practice for one inane reason or another. Whenever this happens in a culture that rubs up against other ones, the lost technology can eventually be reacquired as the people clamor for the higher standard of living enjoyed by their neighbours. But in lonely Tasmania, people would have had to reinvent the proverbial wheel every time it was lost, and so their standard of living ratcheted downward.”

    Pinker, Steven. The Blank Slate. p.69 (paperback)

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