Collapse by Jared Diamond. Viking Penguin, 2005.
I first read Collapse a few years ago and was impressed with Diamond’s examination of the collapse of societies. Diamond defines collapse as the drastic decrease in human population size and/or political/economic/social complexity, over a considerable area, for an extended time. His topic is broad. He considers past societies such as that of Easter Island, the Anasazi, Maya, and the Vikings in the new world. Each of these societies once enjoyed prosperity and wealth and left behind ruins that we still marvel at. It has been suspected that each of these mysterious ends were triggered at least in part by environmental problems, a sort of unintended ecological suicide. Diamond argues that past societies are united by the same economic and environmental challenges facing modern civilizations today and we ignore the lessons of history at our peril.
From past societies he moves into the present day for a look at Rwanda, the Dominican Republic and Haiti, China and Australia. It was his discussion of Haiti that caused me to pick the book up again recently, as Haiti has dominated news media following the recent earthquake disaster. While the earthquake was the cause of a terrible tragedy, grinding poverty has been central to Haiti’s story for centuries. Diamond provides a useful thumbnail sketch of Haiti’s history. He looks at factors that have contributed to its poverty and compares the situation in Haiti with that in the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti.
Diamond concludes that there are twelve serious environmental problems that challenge societies, past and present. Number one is the destruction of natural habitats, including deforestation. Deforestation was often the most important factor in the decline of all of the past societies described in his book. Today, we are destroying natural habitats at an accelerating rate, cutting down forests and replacing natural landscapes with human-manufactured ones: ciites, golf courses, roads, farmland and more.
Other factors Diamond discusses include the destruction of wild food sources through overharvesting (fishing); loss of diversity through species extinction; soil erosion and infertility; shortages of freshwater and more. He then goes on to look at the legitimacy, or lack thereof, of a set of obstructions routinely set out to block effective action: Technology will solve all our problems; If we run out of one resource, we’ll replace it with another, etc.
Diamond’s writing is clear and enjoyable to read. His arguments are well-constructed, thoroughly documented and convincing. Collapse is a thoughtful overview of environmental issues facing people today, well worth reading. One of my favorite lines in the book relates to Easter Islanders who cut down all the trees on their island, thus depriving themselves of firewood or any way to build boats in which to catch the fish they fed themselves with. Diamond writes:
What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it? Like modern loggers, did he shout “Jobs, not trees!”? Or: “Technology wil solve our problems, never fear, we’ll find a substitute for wood”? Or: We don’t have proof that there aren’t palms somewhere else on Easter, we need more research, your proposed ban on logging is premature and driven by fear-mongering”?