“Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed” by Jared Diamond (Viking, 2004)


Jared Diamond, renowned author of the Pulitzer-winning Gun, Germs, and Steel, returns with another piece of mind-blowing work that will simply astonish any reader.  In his last book, Diamond took us on a journey into the history of humanity, with cogent and logical answers for why our ancestors did the things they did, tying it in with geological and biological processes; how location matters very much for why certain of our ancestors did much better than others.  Guns, Germs, and Steel serves as an excellent introduction to Collapse, though it is not required.

In his new book, Diamond tackles the overarching reason for why certain cities and civilizations decline and collapse, while others get through the hard times enough to get by and sometimes even thrive.  What are amazing are the many case studies Diamond uses, ranging from early history with the Anasazi, Vikings, and civilization of Eastern Island; to the modern day cultures of Rwanda, Australia and the area of Montana where Diamond now lives for part of the year.  In his introduction, Diamond clearly lays out his plan with the book – much like a scientist about to run a number of experiments – with a specific list of factors that determine a society’s success or downfall, including: geographical location, amount of natural resources, amount of possible food, amount of trees.  Some societies suffer from a lacking in just one of these factors and are still unable to survive, while others suffer from a lacking in a number of them.  What’s fascinating with these thoroughly researched and explained case studies is how two societies in close proximity to each other will have different outcomes: one may collapse, or barely survive, while the other thrives for many hundreds of years.

Diamond’s reason for writing this book, he explains in the beginning and elaborates at the end, is to help the people of the present day realize the predicament we are in.  With global warming, astronomically high carbon dioxide levels, overpopulation, and a dwindling supply of nonrenewable energy resources; Diamond seeks to enlighten us in first world countries (those most likely to be reading this book) of collapses and failures of past civilizations – some in the distant past, some in the not too distant, some still ongoing today – as an educational lesson so that we may learn where others failed and why, perhaps then we can ensure our own continued survival.  With the factors mentioned above, like overpopulation and dwindling energy supplies, we are right on course with some other past civilizations that collapsed.  The question is whether the governments of the world will realize this and react soon enough to halt us on this doomed path, and start us on a new and healthier one.  Like many things in our lives: only time will tell.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on May 20th 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.

2 thoughts on ““Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed” by Jared Diamond (Viking, 2004)

  1. Diamond’s book is relevant to an environmental controversy in the San Francisco Bay Area where the native plant movement is demanding the eradication of millions of non-native trees. Deforestation is the only factor that all Diamond’s examples of failed societies have in common.

    This post on the Million Trees blog asks native plant advocates to reorder their environmental priorities to make forest preservation a higher priority than their commitment to native plants and trees (of which there are locally few): http://milliontrees.wordpress.com/2010/11/07/a-history-lesson/.

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