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

Collapse by Jared Diamond
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Aug 25, 09

bookshelves: important, history, nonfiction, social-critique
Read in June, 2009

Diamond's Collapse is not as well known as Guns, Germs, and Steel, but it is perhaps the more important of the two. The latter work explains how some countries and cultures came to dominate the modern landscape while others became subordinated or even extinct, thus telling the story of our past. Collapse, however, tells the story of our future, by looking closely at the histories of those cultures that drove themselves over the brink of extinction.

This is a heavy read, in every sense of that word, given the hardcover page count nears 600. Diamond has always been the classic academic, possessed of wisdom worthy of a non-academic audience but not gifted with the brevity or mercy of a journalist. But his subject requires him to run long because he has to make a serious point about how nearly impossible it is for a society to recognize its auto-dictated demise.

The case studies that impacted me most were those of Easter Island and of Greenland, two thriving societies -- both of which survived for hundreds of years -- that gradually ate everything in their environment without ensuring the survival of sufficient replacement stocks. They ate through the desirable game and were forced to make due with lower status foods. They stripped their environment of soils, leaving them unable to grow anything at all. In the end, at least in Easter Island, they turned to eating one another as a way to survive.

Many other case studies are included and diligent Diamond becomes repetitive in walking us through the lessons learned. And he loses the punch of his moral tale in spending the last several chapters summarizing and repeating the lessons learned to the point where you are possibly numbed by them. It's as if Shakespeare, after Juliet's happy dagger is firmly implanted, decided to have Friar John step off the stage, turn up the house lights, and begin an Al Gore-style PowerPoint presentation droning on about the sadness of the lovers' demise. Sometimes a less-in-more approach provides more oomph.

Yet through the cloudy repetition and unnecessary detail, you will still see clear stories about the history of humankind that bear directly on us today. It is worth it for that. What you choose to do about it is up to you.

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