Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed Collapse discussion


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How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed




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message 22: by Greg (new) - rated it 4 stars

Greg Matthew wrote: "If that's the guess, then it's questionable whether some of his choices for the book meet the descriptor "collapse". There were still some Mayan urban areas when the Spaniards arrived, for instance..."

Lohengrin pretty much hit it, but I want to add to his point that evidence does suggest environmental and population growth issues as ultimate causes of the Roman collapse, though the proximate causes were not obviously environmental, but appeared to be invasion/violence and a loss of traditional Roman culture due to immigration and low birth rate of Romans relative to immigrants. Incidentally, this pattern appears to be recurring in several Western nations of our day. The distinction between the ultimate and proximate causes of collapse is one that Diamond makes specifically in his book. For hundreds of years, Rome's population and living standard were such that Roman land couldn't support the population, and that essentially drove their need to conquer fertile lands elsewhere and demand tribute. However, as Diamond notes, this situation costs lots of money and makes societies fragile to agricultural and societal upheaval in the states on which they depend for food and materials. As Lohengrin said, Rome had been in decline for some time, and in no small part due to costs of colony subjugation and endless military campaigning to protect their food and raw materials sources.

I'll have to end the discussion there, because I'm not an expert on that collapse, but it's given a full treatment in the book Topsoil and Civilization, which is maybe even a better book than Collapse on the same topic, and written much earlier. Diamond cites that book in his bibliography, so he's clearly aware that there is an argument that can be made about environmental degradation affecting the Roman collapse.

My theory is that he doesn't talk about it for a reason that he mentions early in the book--that because Europe is still densely-inhabited, there's less access for archaelogical excavations of the kind that might needed to reach a level of rigor that he felt comfortable in publishing. An example of this kind of complication was recently seen in the UK, where the body of King Richard III was excavated from under a parking lot after some hand-wringing. Probably there's less access for archaelogists who want to tear down buildings, parks, or parking lots to dig up Roman outhouses to count the proportions of farro hulls to fish bones in Roman dung.

I'm not sure if my reason makes sense or not, but it would also seem to explain the reason that Diamond foregoes the chance to talk about the collapse of the Fertile Crescent, which is probably the choicest of all of the choices of societal collapses due to environmental degradation. Nevertheless, academic access to this region is limited for obvious reasons at the moment.

One last thing is that I wouldn't be so sure that Diamond is afraid of mentioning societies that don't fit his pattern. Lohengrin is right that Diamond's argument is not that all societal collapses are environmental, and there's proof in the book, because Diamond makes numerous references to the Inca empire. Unlike the Romans, the collapse of the Inca empire was not even ultimately environmental, it was both proximately and ultimately an issue of conquest. It happened over the course of about 10 years, if I'm remembering aright, even shorter than the Roman collapse. Yet Diamond doesn't shy away from mentioning the Incas and their environmental practices of land terracing and reafforestation of the steeply-sloped Andes. He just doesn't claim that their collapse was an environmental one.


Lohengrin Matthew wrote: "If that's the guess, then it's questionable whether some of his choices for the book meet the descriptor "collapse". There were still some Mayan urban areas when the Spaniards arrived, for instanc..."

The final fall of Rome may have been pretty rapid, but the Empire had been in decline for centuries, certainly relative to its heyday. Also, the population decline was not as great as in most, if not all, the case studies (zero survivors in Viking Greenland and in Pitcairn, a small fraction of the population in Easter Island). You could argue that the Mayan collapse was comparable to that of Rome, but as others note it's not Diamond's point that all collapses are caused by environmental factors, but that bad environmental stewardship and poor governance can lead to collapse while good stewardship and far-sighted leadership can stave collapse even in fragile environments (Iceland, Japan).


James Kraus The Forester

There is a powerful message in this book. If you read, MAO'S WAR ON NATURE, the problems & results of over population, running out of resources & abusing nature become obvious with the fact that between 35 & 50 million people starved to death because Mao was a dictator & made many serious mistakes with his relationship with nature & his slogan, "Man Must Conquer Nature."


Mitali Matthew wrote: "The main problem with this book is that if it doesn't his narrative of environmental causes, he ignores other collapses. "

That's the whole point of the book: to analyse societal collapses that have environmental causes. Nowhere does Diamond state that he's trying to cover all the societal collapses in history (which would be a much bigger undertaking).

It's a valid criticism if you disagree with the basic assumptions of the book, or the author's agenda, or whatever. But it's idiotic to criticise a book because it doesn't do something it never says it's trying to do.


Matthew If that's the guess, then it's questionable whether some of his choices for the book meet the descriptor "collapse". There were still some Mayan urban areas when the Spaniards arrived, for instance.

And he specifically emphasized crappy relations with neighbors as a reason for a collapse to happen, at least regarding the Nordic colonies in Greenland. As it is, the Western Roman collapse was very quick, happening as it did over a 80 year period(really, shorter than that since the Romans were still winning spectacular victories against invaders in battles like Châlons).

The fall of the Western Roman Empire absolutely was a rapid collapse, and being the biggest one in history, the only reason why he couldn't have mentioned it is because it didn't fit the environmental causes narrative he was trying to push.


message 17: by Hank (new) - rated it 3 stars

Hank Drews Matthew wrote: "The main problem with this book is that if it doesn't his narrative of environmental causes, he ignores other collapses.

He managed to completely ignore the biggest collapse in history, the fall ..."


I think his point is that decay and conquest dont fit the decripter "collapse"


Matthew The main problem with this book is that if it doesn't his narrative of environmental causes, he ignores other collapses.

He managed to completely ignore the biggest collapse in history, the fall of the (Western)Roman Empire...probably because there isn't a environmental factor you can just point to and go "see! they did it to themselves by ignoring the environment!"


Pankaj Goyal Martha wrote: "This is a must read for all people to understand our national problems at a deep level."

And this book should also interest the people who want to understand their past. Really a must read....


message 14: by Ted (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ted Smith The last tree on Easter Island may have died due to rodents or other natural causes, not because someone cut it down.


Stella Atrium Actually, I read Left to Tell following the recommendation from Hank. The story was helpful, but coached as part of the writer's faith.

My review is here:
http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...


Pankaj Goyal A must read for all, especially for those who are trying to understand the past..........


message 11: by Hank (new) - rated it 3 stars

Hank Drews Too grievous? perhaps, depending on your sensitivity, but very redeeming when you consider the human spirit's will to survive and providence.


Stella Atrium Hank, I'll pick up Left to tell. Is it too grievous to read? I know the Rwanda crisis is ancient history now.


Harry A quite revealing study of the environmental history of the third planet from the sun; since the advent of a two legged creature's dominance.


Hank Drews Re:your Rwanda comment; have you read "Left to Tell" by Imaculata ______. That was an amazing story.


Stella Atrium I read this book a while back. The discussion of what happened in Rwanda was illuminating, if grievous. I always wondered how the genocide got started and what made it burn out.

Some part of Collapse can be skipped, especially the part about his childhood and the district where he grew up. This reads like a filler chapter, sorry.


Alvin Dulcan Reading this book freed me, because there is no way we can solve all of these problems. I will sing now like the grasshopper and dance when the endless winter comes.


Hank Drews Stewardship of resources and the impact of climate change are both clear messages of Collapse, as is the idea that societies rise and fail. I'm left believing we're destined to die off and leave this a lifeless planet unless we learn to burn water for fuel.


Michael T "What did the Easter Islander think when he was cutting down the last tree?"

G.G.G. is nowhere near as good as this.


message 3: by Lala (last edited Apr 01, 2011 05:02PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lala reads This is definitely a long read as it has lots of information. However, each chapter is a case study on a single society so you can choose to read only the case studies that interest you if you don't want to read the book entirely, although that is not recommend. I found Ch.2 on Easter Island most interesting and insightful as it is the society that is most similar to our global society now. Easter Island was an isolated island that used up all of its resources without any means for producing or conserving much like our global economy today- isolated Earth, away from all other planets and once our resources are all used up on Earth, how will we acquire more? Are we choosing the same fate as the Easter islanders or do we just need to be better informed in order to make better decisions? Everyone must read this book.
Thank you Jared Diamond!


Michael This is a long, dense book, but full of insight into past and current environmental challenges. Diamond has a repetitive writing style (as with his well-known "Guns, Germs and Steel") but clearly demonstrates the connection between a society's long-term survival/prosperity and its commitment to environmental stewardship. His chapters on current day China and Australia are particularly informative.


Martha This is a must read for all people to understand our national problems at a deep level.


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Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (other topics)
The Forester (other topics)