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

Collapse by Jared Diamond
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Nov 08, 09

bookshelves: 2008
Read in March, 2008

Before we had federal wiretaps, the Académie Française, or Club Libby Lu, we had to figure out what plants to grow in what combinations to provide nourishment, what animals we could domesticate without getting trampled, and how to organize ourselves to make life safe and fulfilling--achievements that are not less interesting and probably more so for being invisible to us today.

At length I have finished the last piece of reading material I picked up for (during, actually) my trip to Oregon: Jared Diamond's most recent book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. I believe I read his last book, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies before I started this journal (!), so I'll start with a word on that. The purpose of that book was to furnish a nonracist explanation of why some peoples seem to have a lot of complicated culture, technology, and, for lack of a better word, booty, while others don't. Diamond concludes that this has much to do with the environments these societies started in: what plants and animals they had available for attempted domestication, what terrain and climate they had to contend with, what political structures and religions eventually grew up, and so forth. Diamond is about 70 years old and seems to have spent his entire life reading and traveling at a frantic pace, which makes him able to synthesize information and themes at a much higher level than most responsibly cautious historians or scientists. It seems unlikely, but he manages to make topics like paleoethnobotany and livestock diseases fascinating.

In Collapse, he takes the muted environmental themes of the first book and gives them a more current spin. He describes a series of societies that have experienced collapse (complete depopulation, ruinous collapse of social order, or the flight of most inhabitants) and ties their fates to the degradation of their environment. For example, the Norse arrived in Greenland and commenced farming, logging, and livestock herding, not realizing until it was too late that Greenland's soil productivity and rate of timber growth were much lower than in Norway, and that they'd spent down most of their environmental capital in just a few short years. Their settlement clung to the coast, at a subsistence level, for about five hundred years until things got so bad they resorted to eating their dogs and dismantling homes for firewood--then they disappeared. He also talks about modern societies like Rwanda, showing how genocide appeared there even in ethnically homogeneous areas as the result of overpopulation and resulting feuds over land scarcity. Near the end of the book, two maps are presented, "Political trouble spots of the modern world" and "Environmental trouble spots of the modern world": the same map printed twice with different titles.

Diamond is somewhat better at writing about history thousands of years old than he is writing about the present, and given the short history (so far) of our present environmental problems, he has a lot less to work with than when he's writing about thousands of years of history at once. It's not surprising that this book is a bit less persuasive. Still, there are some points that score, such as his theme of societies needing to decide which of their core values they can afford to keep. The Greenland Norse clung to their identities as European Christians, expending lots of effort and material goods on supporting a bishop and church and refusing to emulate successful Inuit hunting practices. One might ask whether Americans' self-image as mobile, independent people who love their cars is one that we ought to cling to.

In both books, Diamond displays a contagious love and respect for the places and people he has studied. It's hard to come away from his work without feeling awed by the achievements of ancient peoples or wanting to visit Australia, Japan, Montana, Polynesia, Greenland, or numerous other places. In addition to being works of history, his books feel like travel books or memoirs.
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