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

Collapse by Jared Diamond
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's review
Mar 20, 11

bookshelves: 2000s, environmental-writings
Read from January 20 to March 20, 2011

The halfway point review:

One question I've been wrestling with as I read, as I watch these societies move slightly past sustainability, as I read about societal collapse and the squandering of resources by the wealthy and then the inevitable cannibalism that always seems to show up in the last act, I keep asking myself how the environment became a "political issue." There's no question that environmental resources aren't infinite, yet it seems like the majority of people…or at least the loudest faction…care less about human life on earth than their own comfort and status. Or else, how can they justify placing jobs, business interests, or anything else ahead of the environment in their values?

Is it because environmental damage is such a gradual process? If so, we need to come up with some way to drive home the importance of creating a sustainable way of living. Politicians hedging around environmental issues--while placing these issues on the same level of importance as gays in the military--is clearly not getting us anywhere. Literature on the dangers of global warming and about the human effects on the environment isn't going to get the point across to those who willfully avoid learning about the topic.

Does the environmental movement need more advertisements? More celebrity endorsements?

I hate asking rhetorical questions, even if my goal is to generate conversation, so my hypothesis, without any evidence to support it, is YES: we need a much fucking better PR department, and we need it quickly. If we are going to keep the global society from reaching the point of some real collapse, we need to change the rhetoric with which we talk about the "environment." The environment is an abstract "out there" that doesn't necessarily include human babies or grandchildren. The way we abstractly think of "the environment" makes this separation of humans from their environment easier. We need rhetoric that makes it clear that when we speak of "the environment," what we are really concerned with is the continued ability for humanity to survive on this planet. What we're talking about isn't separate from people, physically or ethically.

I'll end my halfway point review by bringing up the personal guilt that reading these pages has reawakened in me. Reading about the way the Easter Islanders squandered resources building the tremendous statues and headpieces for the glorification of rich people has reminded me of my own complicity. I've always thought of myself as an environmentalist: I take the light-rail whenever possible, recycle, eat with an awareness of where my food comes from. But, even as someone passionate about the environment, I've spent several years working at a bank. I've spent my time too focused on my own education to dedicate much time to preservation…which is what I'm complaining about others doing. What have I truly done to rebel against a society that places greed and opulence above sustainability? I've found ways to reduce the damage that I inflict, but I have done nothing to challenge my society's destructive way of being. So, what right do I have to climb up on my soap-box?
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Comments (showing 1-9 of 9) (9 new)

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David Whoa! I just started this book yesterday! Weird!


Michael Hooray for synchronicity! Just wait 'til you get to the part about pack rat nests. It's awesome.

I've been wanting to read this one for a while, and it was actually assigned for a class. So, I can pretty much guarantee I'll be done with it by wednesday.


message 3: by Jasmine (new)

Jasmine have you read guns germs and steel? I love that book.


Michael Nope, I haven't read it yet. I've seen the National Geographic program about Guns, Germs and Steel, which was fascinating. It's one of those books I intend to read but just haven't gotten around to yet.


David I'm in the same quandary you're talking about here myself. I do what I can to minimize my environmental impact, but I'm not quite ready to design my entire life around my concern for the planet. So what is your solution? How do you reconcile your guilt with actually living?


message 6: by Max (new) - added it

Max Part of the problem is that there are some people who do see environmental resources as effectively infinite. I've actually gotten into it with some of them online and one person actually claimed that the earth could support a population of trillions with all the energy we could ever want. Hard to know how to deal w. that kind of stupid.


Michael Yes, some people do take that attitude, which I can't see as being anything other than denial. Then, you also have the people who see it as a binary, where either:

1. The scientists will figure it all out without our needing to do anything.
or,
2. We're completely screwed, so why do anything?

I think the combination of denial and laziness is a big issue for people who actually want to get some kind of sustainable society going. Also, we just have a REALLY far way to go before we can get there, and I think some people who recognize the problem don't know how they can help, and/or think they ARE helping--by buying products that say "natural" and "organic" on them, and maybe celebrating earth day.

Of course, all I find myself capable of is trying to generate conversation about sustainability issues, which probably isn't accomplishing any more than they are.

But how can we reconcile our need to preserve with our want to consume?


Loren Check out Clive Ponting's "The New Green History of the World." I too am tired of people pandering to environmentalism. Collapse had a lot of filler.


message 9: by Jared (new)

Jared Bardowell-cornwall I think you ask some serious questions about the way society, especially western society, views environmental awareness. Jared Diamond talks about how societies in the past have dealt with environmental policy. Some societies have used the top down approach, where nationally everything is considered, and some have used bottom up way, where only local issues are considered. I think some of your understandable frustration stems from the fact that we live in a fossil fueled world that consumes a lot energy and being part of this world means using a lot of energy too. It sounds to me that you are blaming yourself as an individual for not being more environmentally aware, which is bottom up kind of view. I believe that our 21st century earth cannot be changed through the bottom up, alone at least. Individuals turning off lights, saving water, and being activists will not reverse or slow global warming and its effects. Our planetary machine is just too big. Global warming is an infrastructure problem on a global scale and we need fossil fuel to fix it, believe it or not. It takes money to make money and it takes energy to make energy too. What I mean is let’s build our pipelines, oil refineries, natural gas and “clean” coal power plants, but let us then use that energy for the production of wind, solar, hydro, geothermal, nuclear(fusion not fission) and other renewable energy sources to replace them. Doing so is a top down kind of thing with bottom up support.


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