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

Collapse by Jared Diamond
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Aug 20, 07

Recommended for: Everyone

The thesis here is that the success or failure of any culture depends upon five factors:

Climate change,
Environmental preservation or degradation,
The presence of friendly external trade partners,
The presence of external enemies, and finally,
That society's ability and willingness to respond to the previous four factors.

To develop his theory, Diamond discusses about a dozen different societies, past and present, which had experienced various combinations of troubles with the first four factors, and each of which had responded differently to the challenges that it faced.

In describing the collapse of the society on Easter Island, he ponders what might have been going through the mind of the man who chopped down the very last of the trees that had been utterly indispensable to their civilization at its height. Diamond reasons that as the tree population declined slowly over the course of several generations, its importance in building and commerce likewise diminished, so that by the time only a handful remained, the once vital trees would have seemed nearly valueless. That woodsman would therefore most likely have had no idea how important those trees had been to his great grandparents and would have had no reason to understand the significance of destroying the last one.

In discussing the collapse of the Viking colony in Greenland, Diamond observes that the Vikings might have survived and flourished had they befriended their Inuit neighbors, and learned from them how to cope with the worsening climate. (Unfortunately for the Vikings, Greenland happened to have been uncharacteristically warm during their early years there, and they had no way of knowing that that warm period was to be short-lived.) The Norse colonists might, for example, have tried to copy the kayaks that served the Inuit so well for fishing. Instead, the Vikings looked down on the Inuit as inferiors and pagans (at this point the Norse had converted to Christianity), and clung vainly to a Northern European way of life that was unworkable in Greenland.

(The two examples above are only small samples of their respective sections of the book; neither represents the totality of those sections' arguments.)

Diamond concludes the book on a note of cautious optimism for the modern world's global society. With the advantages of our knowledge of past societies, and our modern technologies (and our understanding of the unintended consequences inherent in all technology), the world can overcome all of the political and environmental crises existing today, provided that governments and big business' are willing to respond intelligently to those crises. He adds that the only way they will have that will is if they're guided by conscientious voters and consumers.
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message 1: by Andie (new) - added it

Andie
It's been on my list for ages. I loved "Guns, Germs and Steel."
I suspect that Diamond is more optimistic than I am about our potential longevity, though.


Jean I am hoping for a book like this from him. Now I can't wait to get into it. I have some theories of my own and I think I will agree with him.


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