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

Collapse by Jared Diamond
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's review
Aug 04, 2011

This is surprisingly light going considering the subject matter. Still, it is not exactly beach reading. It is taking me some time to read, but is always fascinating.

Diamond provides a glimpse into the collapse (or prevention of collapse) of various societies such as Easter Island, the Vikings in Greenland, and the Mayans. Some of these people I had never heard of, and it was always worth reading.

The book becomes more gripping towards the later chapters, where Diamond outlines issues facing modern societies. As an Australian, I was naturally going to be a little taken aback to hear Australia's environmental problems mentioned in the same breath as Rwanda's and other train wrecks... I was stunned to hear that Australia is the fifth fastest clearer of native vegetation in the world after Brazil, Indonesia and a couple of others, and is the worst Western country there is in this respect.

Everyone knows that in Tasmania old-growth rainforest is being cut down to make wood chips, and everyone knows that there is nothing anyone can do about it because both sides of politics think it's a great idea. The Greens are a minority there, because quite a few people are employed in logging, and if we stopped cutting down trees they wouldn't have jobs. (As will happen anyway in 10 years' time once the trees aren't there any more). Still. You'd think that at least the US would be worse than us. Think of all their SUVs and all the smog in LA. Unfortunately, the comforting reassurance that "at least we're not as bad as America" doesn't apply in this case.

Further on Diamond starts getting into shaky territory. Firstly, he pontificates that most Australians see kangaroos as vermin and therefore don't want to eat them. He's wrong. Some farmers (a minority in Australia) see them as vermin. City people (the majority) think they are cute, just as the US does. A growing minority do eat them.

That's a minor point. More annoying is when he states that food could be imported more cheaply from China, and therefore Australia should stop growing food as it is economically unviable. Yes, it is true that food from China is cheaper. However, this is based on the current absurdly low cost of oil. Cheap oil permits the incredible situation where macadamia nuts are grown in Australia, shipped to China for shelling, then shipped back to Australia for us to eat. This cannot go on forever. Even oil companies admit oil is going to get more expensive in the near future. Should we take Diamond's advice and become dependent on China, we would face the same problems as the ancient societies he describes once we could no longer obtain this food source!

Also, Diamond states that Australia should stop farming cows, as they produce methane which is a lethal contributor to global warming. Were he consistent on this issue, he would have applauded China for converting their wetlands (another big natural producer of methane) to farm land. He does not do so.

It is a shame that there are some flaws in regard to his chapter on Australia (which I know quite a lot about), as it makes me question whether he has got things wrong about other countries (which I know little about). It weakens the impact of what I believe is otherwise a very important book. Nonetheless, I highly recommend reading it.


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