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.