Elizabeth's Reviews > Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

Collapse by Jared Diamond
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Sep 30, 14

bookshelves: history, book-club
Read from March 21 to May 26, 2012

The University of Chicago Alumni Baltimore Book Club's October 2014 selection.

This time around! I wonder whether, just as we look back at the Greenland Norse and say, "How could they not have eaten fish?!", people will look back at us and say, "How could they not have eaten insects?!"

***

This book could have been leaner, but the problems it calls attention to are so important, it should be required reading.

This book is about ecocide: ecological suicide, or when complex societies destroy the natural resources on which they depend, and then collapse as a result.

Prof. Diamond gives a few examples of ancient societies that suffered such collapses, but the two into which he goes into the most depth are the most apropos.

The first example is Easter Island, the most remote of the Polynesian islands. When Europeans first discovered it, it was completely deforested, had a very small population (because that was all the limited resources of the island could support), and featured the mysterious statues, left by an apparently more advanced civilization (because, with no plant material to make ropes or build wooden structures, it wasn’t entirely clear how the Easter Islanders could have possibly moved the giant statues from the inland quarries out to the coast).

Who were the people who made the statues, and what happened to them?

It turns out that Easter Island wasn’t always the denuded landscape it is today. When the Polynesian settlers first came, Easter Island was home to the Easter palm: the largest palm tree the world has ever known, whose timber could be built into the giant seafaring canoes that Polynesians use to travel between islands, and go out into sea to hunt porpoise or other sea life. The rainforest also provided food, as well as rope that could be used not just to move the statues, but all sorts of other construction projects.

The problem was that, because Easter is at a lower latitude and is more arid than the rest of Polynesia, logging practices that were perfectly sustainable on Tahiti, it turns out, were not so on Easter: it took the trees longer to grow back.

“What was the Easter Islander who cut down the last tree thinking?” is an obvious question. (“We need jobs”? “I care more about people than about trees”? “Environmentalism is fine as long as it doesn’t get in the way of economic interests”?) It’s a bit like the Onceler: if your business model depends on Truffula trees, wouldn’t your long-term interests require harvesting the Truffulas sustainably? So sure, part of the problem are some individuals sacrificing the long-term interests of the community for their personal short-term interests, and their the tragedy of the commons, but another problem is that in actuality the deforestation of Easter Island took hundreds of years. No one really was so dumb as to clear-cut all of the giant palms at once, but the forest did thin gradually, as time went on smaller and smaller trees were harvested, so that by the time the last Easter palm was cut down, it was a scrubby little thing and hadn’t been an important resource for the island for more than a hundred years. By then, no one could remember first-hand the giant trees that allowed going out the sea, or the forests that kept the topsoil from blowing away and allowed for fertile farming. By then no one could personally remember eating porpoises or fish from the ocean, just the small fish that are able to swim close to the harbors and could be grabbed from the shallows. By then no one could personally remember the food surpluses that allowed rich people to employ others to haul giant statues to show off their status.

Easter Island is an important story, because, like the Easter Islanders, we on planet Earth are very isolated. If we destroy our resources here, it won’t be easy for us to hop in a spaceship and go to the next planet, just as the islanders couldn’t hop in a canoe and paddle to the next island. This is all we’ve got. No one can come rescue us if we fail.

But, lest that story be too depressing, Prof. Diamond includes another story, to which he goes into even more depth, that might give us a little hope: the story of the Norse settlement on Greenland.

During the Middle Ages, the Vikings sailed to Greenland and established a settlement there, that continued for over four hundred years (which, for perspective, is longer than Europeans have been settled in these United States). It was never easy (the average temperature in the summer is 45F), but they were able to make a go out of keeping cows, pigs, sheep, and goats on the scrubby grasses that grow there, living off the dairy products they produced, and living in stone houses and
wearing wool clothes much like their Norwegian compatriots back at home did.

But the settlement eventually failed. One reason was the same problem that the Easter Islanders faced: superficially, the Greenland landscape looked similar to Norway’s, so they logically thought that practices sustainable in Norway would also work in Greenland. But like the Easter Islanders, they found that plants grew back more slowly than at home, which means that when the forests that had been holding down the soil (which had been accumulating acquiring nutrients very slowly of the past several thousand years) was cleared for pasture, the soil rapidly blew away, leaving the less nutritious clay beneath, which made it even harder to grow more grass. They thought they were living off the income of their natural resources, when in fact they were depleting its capital.

Another problem was climate change. It turned out the Norse had settled during a relatively warm period, when the land could grow enough grass to keep sheep alive. Because the climate changed very slowly, it was hard for them to notice what was happening, but the climate got cooler, which made it harder to maintain their livestock.

So why is this a hopeful story? It turns out that the Norse weren’t the only people who lived on Greenland. So it’s not that the ecological problems they faced were insurmountable: the Inuit were able to survive. But the Norse were unwilling to change their ways: to give up eating dairy and beef and eat fish instead (the Greenland Norse seemed to have eaten no fish at all, which continues to baffle the archaeologists who study them: the best they can come up with is that the Greenland Norse used it as a way to culturally distinguish themselves from the Norwegian Norse back home), to replace their wooden boats (when all the trees were gone) with kayaks made out of whale skin and bone instead, to replace their iron tools (when the imports from Norway stopped coming) with bone instead, and to replace their wooden houses (again, when the wood ran out) with igloos made from ice and snow instead. The Norse lived close enough to the Inuit to interact with them and observe their ways, but they decided they would rather die Norse than live as Inuit.

We are currently facing an ecological crisis as surely as the Easter Islanders and the Greenland Norse were. If we are to survive, then we need to do what they didn’t: consider long-term interests over short-term interests, and carefully examine our values and jettison those that are going to keep us from solving our problems.


This book could use some endnotes: frequently Prof. Diamond makes an assertion that I’m not convinced I believe. He does include a “further reading” section in the back, but I would have appreciated a few more specific sources linked to specific statements.

And this book could use a little more focus: he goes into depth and does the ancient societies sections on Greenland and Easter Island well, but some of the others (the Anasazi and the Maya, for example), feel so cursory as to be almost sloppy. This problem is even more serious for the sections on modern societies: the applications to Montana and Los Angeles seem carefully researched and well thought-out, but the idea that a single chapter could even hope to cover all of the problems that China is facing is a little silly, and after reading it I’m left thinking, “You’re an ornithologist: what do you know about China, anyway?” If this book had just a little less breadth, I think it could be more focused, and more powerful.

Because this is serious. Each of these ancient civilizations would have laughed if you told them their societies faced imminent collapse: they were so big, so powerful, and had been around so long. They had solved their problems in the past, and they reasonably thought they could continue to do so.

The problems we face are enormous, and we need to solve them. We need to recognize the forces that caused previous societies to collapse (short-term interests, individual interests), and circumvent them. Because our current trajectory is no more sustainable than the Easter Islanders cutting down their Easter palms, and we are just as alone on our planet as they were on their island. It’s up to us, and we need to do something about it.
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