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

Collapse by Jared Diamond
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's review
Dec 10, 2008

really liked it
bookshelves: history-and-biography, science, australia

Jared Diamond looks at several societies that have collapsed as a result of misusing their natural resources, plus a couple (Tokugawa period Japan is the star example) that miraculously managed to pull back from the brink. At the end, he also talks about some present-day cases where we still don't know what will happen.

The one my thoughts keep returning to is medieval Greenland, which Diamond discusses in a long and detailed chapter. Settled in the 11th century by Vikings originally from Norway, the colonists brought with them their whole way of life, which was heavily organized around dairy farming. There is an eerie description of a huge barn with room for 80 head of cattle; the ruins can still be seen today. The colony survived for several hundred years, and was then wiped out to the last man by worsening weather and the decline in the European market for narwhale ivory.

But here's the really odd thing. The colonists never ate fish, despite the fact that it formed the staple diet of the indigenous Greenland Eskimos. Diamond says that every single archaeologist who's studied the settlement starts off convinced that there must have been some kind of mistake. How is it possible that these hardy, intelligent people could have failed to adapt their diet in such an obvious way? But the evidence from middens is apparently rock-solid. For whatever reason, they would not make use of this plentiful natural resource, which could easily have saved them; they perished instead.

Incomprehensible, isn't it? Needless to say, our own society's reluctance to invest more than a token amount of money in developing cheap solar power is different. The two cases are in no way comparable.

Just back from Australia, where I had several illuminating discussions with various people about solar energy. Australia is almost certainly the country where it would work best. Population density is very low, and there is abundant sunlight. The technology already exists to build cheap solar power stations.

So why don't they do it? Apparently, building the power stations in desert areas isn't economically viable unless national resources are diverted to connect them to the national grid. But the powerful coal lobby hates the idea, and has blocked it at every turn. Neither left-wing nor right-wing politicians dare oppose them.

You often see individuals doing this kind of thing: even though a given course of action is evidently going to benefit them (leave their abusive partner, stop binge-drinking), they are unable to summon the willpower to quit. It's interesting and remarkable that whole societies exhibit the same behavior.

As previously noted. Tony Abbott is really doing everything he can to consolidate his position as the new Dubya.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
December 10, 2008 – Shelved
December 10, 2008 – Shelved as: history-and-biography
April 23, 2012 – Shelved as: science
December 19, 2016 – Shelved as: australia

Comments (showing 16-65)

message 65: by [deleted user] (new)

So I guess environmental factors play a role in societal collapse but the cultural practices of that society are what really determine its survival or collapse.

Manny In the cases Diamond looks at here, the critical thing seems to be the society's ability to adapt rationally to the prevailing environmental factors. It's a thought-provoking book.

message 63: by [deleted user] (new)

Ah, thus the subtitle, which I just noticed: How Societies choose to Fail or Succeed.

Manny I am sure that many societies have been destroyed by events beyond their control, which could not reasonably have been foreseen. But it seems that you often have a choice, yes.

message 61: by Traveller (last edited Apr 23, 2012 07:46AM) (new)

Traveller Frightening. Truly, truly frightening in it's implications. Studying the psychology behind this is fascinating. Denial and conservatism has a lot to do with it, I think.

Manny You're right - it is a frightening book. It makes you realize that, as a society, we are often not in our right minds. We know things are harmful, and we do them anyway.

message 59: by Traveller (last edited Apr 23, 2012 08:13AM) (new)

Traveller Even as individuals we do that. Take smoking, drinking and overeating as an example. I guess it's just easier to follow the path of least resistance and we drown out the knowledge that it's bad for us.

Like the experiment with the (was it a rat?) who preferred pushing the 'pleasure' trigger above pausing for the 'food' trigger, not even pausing for rest until he died.

Ah yes, I found something on it: Rats with electrodes implanted in the nucleus accumbens or the VTA fibers leading into the nucleus accumbens will easily learn to lever-press for electrical stimulation of the electrode leading to dopamine release in the accumbens.
The experience can be so rewarding that the rats will continue to relentlessly press the lever to the exclusion of food, water and sex; even to the point of death if the electrical current is strong enough.

Manny Indeed. Everyone knows people do this, but you like to think that a society is smarter. Unfortunately, it's not clear this is always true.

message 57: by Robert (new)

Robert The adaptability question is interesting: is Western Society capable of adapting itself to the current situation of finite resources and climate change? This adaptation basically means a vast reduction in total resource use which can only be achieved by combining more sustainable technologies with radical population reduction.

I'm not very hopeful right now.

message 56: by Traveller (last edited Apr 23, 2012 09:10AM) (new)

Traveller The problem is that in some (most?) Western countries, population growth has already been showing a negative trend for a few years now.

It's mainly in certain places the rest of the world that the population explosion has been taking place, and the people who have been most involved in boosting the birthrates, haven't been sitting around in front of their computers discussing looming crises of world overpopulation and resource depletion.

I suspect they have entirely different issues to think about.

message 55: by Robert (new)

Robert Given that an "average" American uses 8x the resources of an "average" African and that the USA represents 5% of the world population but 25% of the world's carbon dioxide emissions and that immigration is countering the low birth rate to a greater or lesser extent in many Western countries, any negative trend in population must be trivial compared to the scale of the problem, which is why I used the word, "radical."

The West cannot just sit back and say it is all a problem for Asia; it's simply not true.

message 54: by Traveller (last edited Apr 23, 2012 11:46AM) (new)

Traveller Robert wrote: "Given that an "average" American uses 8x the resources of an "average" African and that the USA represents 5% of the world population but 25% of the world's carbon dioxide emissions and that immigr..."

Heh, so 5 Americans make the carbon print of one African? Interesting. (Oops, no, that math is wrong. Mannnnyyy!!! ?? Anyway, of course, that is even factoring in Europe, who I imagine also emits a fair amount of carbon dioxide, not to mention large parts of Asia, Australia and the relatively much fewer urbanised areas of Africa))

Yes, well. Millions of Chinese as there may be, China has already instituted the 1 baby per couple policy. I've heard some sad reports of it causing infanticide of female babies, though.

Not sure if you're suggesting that immigration should be curbed? What would you like the West to do beyond working VERY hard hard on curbing those carbon emissions?

Manny I would like the West to develop cheap solar power. I am worried we're not going to start working on this until it's too late to make a difference.

Read McKay's Sustainable Energy - or if you prefer, look at my review, but the book is better!

message 52: by Robert (new)

Robert Unfortunately I have come up with no humane method of enforcing a population reduction. People simply have to choose to have no more children. We need to develop and enforce use of more sustainable technologies and by the most constructive means possible ensure that developing economies use them along side us. This process should already be being carried out as if on a war footing, since it is the biggest threat to our society since WWII.

message 51: by Traveller (new)

Traveller Yeah, well, how are you going to even bring home the idea of population control to a society who is constantly told that birth control is a sin? :(

@Manny "Read McKay's Sustainable Energy - or if you prefer, look at my review, but the book is better!"

Eh, what? Could a book ever be better than your review of it?

This has got to be one good book!

Manny Well, my review is almost always shorter than the book :)

message 49: by Traveller (new)

Traveller Bigger isn't always better, though. ;)

Manny A point many current best-selling authors would do well to remember!

message 47: by Traveller (new)

Traveller Oh, absolutely! I hate boring filler that drones on and on and wastes one's precious time. In fact, I subtract a star for when that happens.

Don't know why so many people seem to feel that quantity is better than quality.

Manny I didn't know that about Japan! Your picture sounds kind of romantic in a weird way.

from the blurbs I read, I thought this was about societal collapse in a more general sense: from disease, political/economic collapse, foreign invasion, etc.

Well, misfortunes rarely come alone. But his argument is that misuse of natural resources is generally the root cause.

message 45: by Traveller (last edited Apr 25, 2012 11:10AM) (new)

Traveller Bird Brian wrote: "Manny wrote: "I didn't know that about Japan! Your picture sounds kind of romantic in a weird way..."

It is, in a weird way. Well, most things about Japan are "in a weird way"!"

Plus, the Japanese have a penchant for weird things in a weird way.

So ... are you married to a Japanese lady, Bird Brain?

Anyway, the heating thing sounds good. I know it can get pretty cold in Japan.

I read an article a while ago where Japanese business people decided to switch to cooler, less formal clothing, to encourage the tuning down of summer air conditioning .

message 44: by Robert (new)

Robert Bird Brian wrote: "Ha- yes I am, and you aren't the first person to see the humor in that!"

Is marrying a Japanese person intrinsically humourous? Or just if you do it?

message 43: by Robert (new)

Robert You're right - I did get it backwards. I have a Brit friend living in Japan right now and only today was commenting on how the approach to Uni education she had described seemed very old-fashioned. (Memorising classic texts, for instance.) It's interesting how the mediaeval insularity has been completely broken in regard to some things but not others.

message 42: by Traveller (last edited Apr 25, 2012 11:20AM) (new)

Traveller I'm not Japanese myself, but yes, I was going to make a weird kind of joke out of it, (about Bird Brian and his wife, and us joking about weird weirdness) and then I suddenly felt too weird... (a bit nervous that he might take it the wrong way) so I deleted the rest of my post - not sure if BB caught the weird part of it... LOL

Omg, Aussie Ian mustn't catch on to this weird conversation. :P

I was discussing Japanese unity with a Japanophile friend the other day. It's very hard for a Westerner to get a handle onto Japanese culture, I personally think. ..and I think it's true that they do have an appreciation for weirdness.

They also do appear to be a rather uniquely insular people and only Japanese can understand "Japaneseness" as the Japanese define it.

message 41: by Traveller (last edited Apr 25, 2012 11:40AM) (new)

Traveller Bird Brian wrote: "It's all meant in a good-natured way (I think). ..."
See? there's that "I think" . That's the kind of thing that I mean. It's like you think you have an idea of what the other person really thinks, but you also have this niggling feeling that perhaps you only 'think' you do, and can't be 100% sure.

I think part of it might be to do with Japanese politeness. You sort of think...okay, is this person just being polite now??? ..or.. what are they finding funny - is it what I think they think is funny or... Am I right, BB? ..or am I just overanalyzing it..? probably. I'm just weird, I think. No wonder Japanese people probably think I'm weird - Western people do too. LOL

message 40: by Traveller (new)

Traveller Yes, well, I only used the word 'weird' because of your and Manny's conversation and I saw an opportunity to pull your leg.

I meant, rather, "out of the ordinary", I think, by 'weirdness'.

But I couldn't resist embroidering on the 'weirdness' factor in this specific conversation. :)

message 39: by Traveller (last edited Apr 25, 2012 02:15PM) (new)

Traveller Bird Brian wrote: "So what do they think of you in Tuvalu, Traveler?

They also think I'm weird, Bird Brian!

...but tell me, does your wife enjoy living in Solitude City? Does she enjoy the solitude?

Oi, I keep tripping up between Brian and let me apologize in advance if I mix them up - it's accidental, really. (It's the bird part that's doing it ;- my brain wants to add brain to 'bird', not Brian!)

message 38: by Tuck (new)

Tuck Traveller wrote: "Yeah, well, how are you going to even bring home the idea of population control to a society who is constantly told that birth control is a sin? :(

@Manny "Read McKay's Sustainable Energy - or if..."

mckay's book is sooo good and useful. i wish is was on everyone's read shelf, specially shelves like in the white house

Manny Tuck wrote: "mckay's book is sooo good and useful. i wish is was on everyone's read shelf, specially shelves like in the white house"

Hey, glad to hear you agree! I honestly don't know why it isn't better known. I haven't come across anything like it.

message 36: by Leslie (new) - added it

Leslie Glad to read your review and this line of comments. I'm stuck in the first section of this book, but now cannot wait to get home and get reading.

Manny I also found the first section just a little slow, but Greenland was terrific...

message 34: by Bibliomantic (new)

Bibliomantic Interesting review, Manny. I have this book on my to-read list. I've actually started reading it once, was fascinated by it, but had to put it away for a time, and have since neglected it. I just saw my copy while reshuffling my collection, and may get into it again soon. Anyway, long story short, I have not read far enough into it to get to the section that talks about the Vikings colonizing Greenland, so I may be missing something but, how sure are they that the Viking settlers did not eat fish? I thought that they did so in their native land, so why not there? I believe that it is to the Viking that we owe the recipe for the wonderful gravlax, being uncooked cured salmon (easy to make at home, and excellent with shots of aquavit). So, I'm puzzled.

Manny He says it's a complete mystery why they didn't eat fish. But there are no fish bones in the middens, so it seems impossible to deny it. As I said in the review, weird.

message 32: by Bibliomantic (new)

Bibliomantic Here is an interesting article that counters Diamond's thesis:, saying that they did in fact depend on fish, and that this dependence grew over time as average temperatures got progressively lower.

I gathered from other sources that the decline of Norsemen on Greenland may have had more to do with cooling temperatures that made the environment more difficult to work with for farming and even fishing, reducing trade with Europe, etc.. Even those living in Iceland at the time saw reduced fish supplies due to cod moving farther south from the shore to warmer waters.

message 31: by Leajk (last edited Jan 08, 2013 08:37AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Leajk From what I gathered from the book one theory is that the charismatic leader leader, that lead the colony to Greenland, installed some kind of taboo against fish upon arrival, possibly after someone was food poisoned after eating fish (these things happen, e.g. shell-fish in judaism, pork in Isalm, etc.).

The question is of course why the indigenous people survived while the Vikings did not. Regardless whether the Norse ate fish or not they must have been less well adapted. The large investment in farming (cows and pigs) as opposed to fishing seems plausible, but there are probably several factors.

Manny Well, I know nothing about it, but he does say that all the archaeologists start off by assuming that it's impossible and there has to be some kind of mistake...

message 29: by Bibliomantic (new)

Bibliomantic Greenland seems like it was a miserable place to live for people with relatively primitive technology. I don't find it at all surprising then that those with the ability to move to warmer climates chose to do so. Perhaps it's as simple as that.

Leajk Bibliomantic wrote: "Greenland seems like it was a miserable place to live for people with relatively primitive technology. I don't find it at all surprising then that those with the ability to move to warmer climates ..."

I don't get who you're saying moved south, certainly not the Greenland vikings (they died out). But I know a lot of Swedes who'd like move South despite their high technology. Luckily it's much easier nowadays than it was back then.

message 27: by Bibliomantic (new)

Bibliomantic I don't think they died out. It appears that they moved, perhaps leaving the weaker ones behind.

"Hermann (1954) notes that during the mid-1300's many Greenlanders had moved on to Markland (presently Newfoundland) in search of a more suitable environment, mainly due to a cooler climate and over-use of their natural resources."

They had ongoing trade deals with sea-bound traders, and therefore had the option to move. It appears they did just that.

message 26: by Riku (new) - rated it 4 stars

Riku Sayuj will come back to this wonderful review as soon as I am done with the chapter on Vikings. It has dramatic potential - don't want spoilers :)

message 25: by Aussiescribbler (new)

Aussiescribbler Aussiescribbler Although solar power stations using large areas of land in the desert are possible, one of the big advantages of solar power is that it can be decentralised and thus more secure. If a whole community of households are each producing their own electricity with solar collectors on their roof it is more secure than having power produced by a centralised power station, whether using coal, gas, nuclear, hydroelectric, geothermal, wave power or whatever, as a natural disaster or act of terrorism can't take out everyone's power.

I think a lot of people wrongly interpret the message of evolution as : "Compete or die!" when it is really "Adapt or die!"

The roots of the problem are psychological. On the one hand there is fear of change, which has its roots in insecurity in the self. The level of courage of the individual is determined by the degree to which the self is or is not undermined by internal conflicts and worries over self-worth. The courageous individual will enthusiastically embrace positive change and the challenges it brings with it.

The other issue is excessive consumption. Why do we waste so much energy and natural resources producing junk we don't really need? Because we are addicted to consumerism. New stuff and shinier toys are arguments against that inner voice that says we just aren't good enough. And that same voice is what screws up our social lives so that we find it hard to live in the kinds of cooperative ways which consume less energy and resources. But we are good enough. It is a kind of collective mental illness that makes us think we need to prove anything at all about ourselves. Once identified as such, it is quite easy to leave behind.

Anyway, I haven't read this book, but I think I once read The Third Chimpanzee.

message 24: by Traveller (new)

Traveller This convo looks so weird with all of Bird Brain's comments removed.... @_@

Why does a person get this active on a site if they know they're liable to just up an leave and take all of their comments, reviews and groups with them? Maybe he didn't know in advance when he wrote them, but he knew that if he pushed the nuke button that everything he had been involved in would become rather nonsensical to those left behind. :(

Manny Alas, BirdBrian, unlike most of the rest of us, has principles...

message 22: by Traveller (new)

Traveller Principles such as leaving your friends in the lurch and spoiling what you and those friends had built together? Hmmm... I guess, then...

message 21: by Traveller (last edited Feb 15, 2014 04:12AM) (new)

Traveller Okay, sorry, but I guess I felt angry even back when it happened, and I obviously still feel upset about it.

It apparently happened bec. of personal reasons, and of course I respect those, but sheesh, it messed up a lot of stuff. I'm pretty sure there is a way to remove your reviews only and leave you comments and groups behind, and I'm pretty sure that if I felt that that was right the thing to do, that's the option I would have chosen, but whatever.

But I honestly don't see any greater goal being served there beyond hurting the people that you have left behind.

Manny I think BB just didn't want to have anything to do with the idea of helping Amazon. I have not heard him say it was personal.

message 19: by Traveller (new)

Traveller In someone's thread, I won't commit myself too much on that, because I can't remember where, we discussed it and it was said, I can't remember if it was the new-born BB or a close friend, said there were 'reasons'-- remember that was before this censorship war that we'd been waging.

And well, he did come back after the nuke, and there's no escaping Amazon, in any case. All the alternative sites are either pay-for, or even more commercialized than GR.

But be that as it may, my point was you would be spiting Amazon by removing your reviews, sure, but why also remove all your comments and discussions? That's only hurting your friends, not Amz or Gr.

..and just look how little what we do has an influence on the big picture: a few nights ago I struggled accessing GR because they were over-capacity just like in the good old days.

message 18: by Traveller (new)

Traveller Anyway, not that I wanted to start an argument, I just went trough the thread again, and, you know, saw yet another example of a thread gone weird minus the BB comments.

message 17: by Cecily (last edited Feb 16, 2014 01:11PM) (new)

Cecily This sounds fascinating - and scary.

A couple of thoughts about your comments on solar power:

You mention questions about the economic viability of solar power-stations in the Australian outback, but isn't there also a carbon-footprint aspect - even more so with concrete-intensive "green" energy projects like dams? If the materials to make it, and the fuel etc needed to transport them and engineers to site is substantial, then isn't there a risk the facilities could be obsolete before there is a net benefit?

I wonder if those issues are less with micro generation. I've travelled around China a couple of times: once just over 20 years ago, and again about 4 years ago. There were huge changes between the two trips, but a less expected one was how ubiquitous micro generation had become, whether that be solar panels on a shack in the middle of nowhere, or larger installations in cities.

Manny Well, I am going on the figures presented in McKay's Sustainable Energy, and he makes a pretty compelling case for large-scale solar power stations. Micro-generation is better than nothing, but it isn't going to produce more than a small fraction of what's needed.

I think solar power stations are supposed to score well on the carbon footprint issue, though I don't know much about it. In all events, extremely hard to believe that they could be worse than coal!

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