[2011 Update: I am re-reading this after not quite 2 years. I have come to regard this book as the best non-fiction I've had the pleasure of reading,...more[2011 Update: I am re-reading this after not quite 2 years. I have come to regard this book as the best non-fiction I've had the pleasure of reading, and recommend it emphatically if you have an interest in any of the subjects in which I have it categorized on my shelves.]
A masterwork, better even than Mr. Diamond's Pulitzer-winning Guns, Germs and Steel. Collapse bridges the gap between anthropology and environmentalism, and critically connects each with our own welfare, both collectively and as individuals.
Diamond rightly takes to task environmental attitudes that appear to mindlessly value endangered birds or coral reefs above people's interests or livelihood. That said, he also clarifies which aspects of the environment we should care about and why. He tallies dollars cost and lives lost. He illustrates in example after well-documented example the consequences for societies disregarding their resource base or destructive practices. He repeatedly and explicitly asks the question: "well it obviously sucks to be a blue-footed bubi bird, but why should Joe Blow Logger care when he has the more pressing need to feed his family?" Well he should care very much about forests because he depends on them for his income. If he wants those children not to struggle with poverty and a declining society and standard of living, he should further care about many other aspects of the environment.
The biggies throughout history that have played a primary role in virtually every societal collapse are deforestation and soil erosion and/or salinization. To that we add a host of other common problems that can and must be solved, including habitat loss, water management and pollution, greenhouse gasses, resource over-exploitation, and energy supply.
Diamond goes deeper than simply blaming corporations for their destructive practices. He examines the policies and economic realities that drive corporations in polluting industries like mining to behave as they do, or the pressures they face. The fact is, in a market economy, where profit is the motive, successful companies will pollute to the full extent that our laws and attitudes allow. He states: "I also assign to the public the added costs, if any, of sound environmental practices, which I regard as normal costs of doing business. My views may seem to ignore a moral imperative that businesses should follow virtuous principles, whether or not it is most profitable for them to do so. Instead I prefer to recognize that... government regulation has arisen precisely... for the enforcement of moral principles."
Of course the rest of the book demonstrates how it is far more urgent than a mere moral principle, but a practical one necessary to ensure any society's long-term survival. (less)
Richard Heinberg ushered me into my awareness of Peak Oil several years ago with Party's Over (see my favorites shelf), which is a traumatic experienc...moreRichard Heinberg ushered me into my awareness of Peak Oil several years ago with Party's Over (see my favorites shelf), which is a traumatic experience for many thoughtful people. Since my interest has been waning for some months, I thought it was do-or-die time for another Heinberg book, Peak Everything. Either it was all a buncha BS and I should I see through it and cast it aside, or it's true and there's nothing more important for the survival of our species than popularizing this cause.
Of course, real life is never so simple a dichotomy. The truth lies somewhere in between the two extremes, and the future is famously hard to predict. He makes critical points about population pressures and trends, and he bridges the tragic chasm between Peak Oil depletionists and the global warming environmental "movement" (such as it is). Heinberg also makes needed recommendations how the two camps can work together and get along better.
His central thesis is that both groups ultimately want to phase out fossil fuel use. This can only be accomplished through efficiency, transition to other energy sources, and dreaded, politically toxic curtailment, a.k.a. reduction of the economy, population, or both... The curtailment will happen one way or another, it is only a question of whether we curb our unchecked growth in a controlled, sane way, or wait for catastrophe to sort us out with extreme prejudice. This is not a possibility, but rather a certainty; the geology will see to that.
There are limits to growth and resources are not infinite. That's the part economists don't get, and they've led us astray with the suburban project that James Kunstler calls "the greatest mis-allocation of resources in history", which is saying a lot when you consider the opulence of emperors past. However when you look at the raw power we squander in our happy motoring, we put those emperors to shame. Their waste is merely small-time, as illustrated in Heinberg's example: consider the effort involved in pushing a car that has run out of gas a few feet. Now consider pushing it 25 miles. That's the power supplied by 1 gallon of gas. In our average energy consumption we each have the energy equivalent of something like 1000 slaves toiling away to meet our every need. That's the amount of work it takes to keep our supermarket stocked, our buildings climate controlled, fresh water in the taps and the lights on, etc. If it doesn't feel like you have 1000 slaves working to make your life paradise, that's because we're squandering all that energy on inefficient, far-flung living arrangements and consumerist waste, and we're used to it. Picture life in a blackout with no generators and you start to get an idea what those 1000 slaves worth of energy do for us.
Such is the system we live in and it is simple enough to prove once you start looking into Peak Oil literature. The hard part is what to do about it. I sold my car last year but I'm not fooling myself into believing even that makes much of a difference in my heavy, big-city-dwelling "footprint". (less)
It is an interesting premise, that governments or societies blunder into the same mistakes over and over through history. But somehow the book didn't...moreIt is an interesting premise, that governments or societies blunder into the same mistakes over and over through history. But somehow the book didn't engage me. Perhaps I've been spoiled by the rapid-fire, interconnected, technophilic historical writing style of James Burke.(less)
The most widely discussed aspect of the book, the death of belief in god in the face of man's inhumanity to man, was of little importance to me. Of al...moreThe most widely discussed aspect of the book, the death of belief in god in the face of man's inhumanity to man, was of little importance to me. Of all the reasons for atheism, this is the absolute worst. In perpetuates the false stereotype of unbelievers as brooding, hopeless pessimists. This couldn't be further from the truth in my experience, but somehow such simplistic arguments endure. I appreciate what Wiesel has to say against Nazism, but not what he has to say for atheism.
This was certainly a bleak and disturbing account of one Jewish teen's survival in the Nazi concentration camps. It contained mind-bending, truly alien horrors at the level of executing a child by hanging, and leaving him to choke to death over the course of hours, rather than seconds because he was too light. Another gruesome one that stuck with me was children made to witness the madness or death of their parents, left helpless and alone. Pretty hard to stomach.
For me the most important function of the book is a cautionary tale. The townspeople in Transylvania could and would not believe the warnings that came to them about the camps. If they had believed the threat, they had ample opportunity to uproot their lives and emigrate further away from the Nazis.
They posed this very sensible question, and the answer should shock us. Wipe out an entire race of people, spread out across the world among the populations of myriad countries!? Preposterous, how could the Nazis hope to accomplish such a task? What means could they employ?
In the early part of the book, Wiesel demonstrates some of these means. Employ a gradual hemming in. Present a nice, diplomatic face. Coerce and intimidate. A perverse use of weaker, struggling governments, police forces, individuals--use their instinct at self-preservation to advance your goals. Let your enemy's friends tell your lies and do your work for you, and it will be more readily believed, more effective.
First gain access to a country, then send officers to move in and call the shots, one town at a time. In each case, identify the target families, turn their peers against them, isolate them and steal all they own, move them them into a concentrated area. Threats become gradually more and more overt and life-threatening. Train guns on the area and put up a fence before the mask finally comes off. It is now too late to escape. All pretense gone, finally, deportation into Germany where the furnaces await. Astonishing.
The more widely discussed aspect of the book, the death of belief in God in the face of such horrors, was of little importance to me. Of all the reasons for atheism, this is the absolute worst. In perpetuates the false stereotype of unbelievers as brooding, hopeless pessimists. This couldn't be further from the truth in my experience, but somehow such simplistic arguments endure. I appreciate what Wiesel has to say against Nazism, but not what he has to say for atheism.(less)
I have read and enjoyed a lot of Hitchens' short columns in the pages of Free Inquiry, and picked this up because I'm at least as interested in learni...moreI have read and enjoyed a lot of Hitchens' short columns in the pages of Free Inquiry, and picked this up because I'm at least as interested in learning about and hearing more from him, as I am in Orwell.
Hitchens is a generally leftist, atheist intellectual who revels in sending up other intellectuals and public figures (especially other leftists). He also has a few conservative causes (e.g. supporting the Gulf War) and is perhaps best known for his strident criticism of Mother Teresa.
This book was written far above my level, as I was only familiar with 1 of every 4 names dropped (and at an average of 4 names a page over 200 pages = 800 names, it frankly seemed a little excessive). Nevertheless I did enjoy the book and the sort of crash course in early-twentieth century politics. I need to read Hitchens' better known stuff, e.g. God Is Not Great. (less)
Not sure why I had been impressed with this in college. . . I remember the simple logic to it, and somehow thought that was profound. On closer inspec...moreNot sure why I had been impressed with this in college. . . I remember the simple logic to it, and somehow thought that was profound. On closer inspection, it was just simple.(less)