Guns, Germs and Steel occasionally felt like monday morning quarterbacking, but Collapse is superb In GGS, Diamond tried to explain how technologies that evolved in some places did not in others, how some communities thrived due to excess food and advanced agriculture, while others, perpetually on the verge of starvation, had to devote all of their time to dealing with that and thus didn t have time for building the Parthenon The argument was not airtight his notion of what constitutes a reasonable amount of time to spend on gathering food could use a little sharpening, and he didn t approach work as part and parcel of culture, which it most certainly is GGS also overlooked a lot of crops available to people he strenuously argued had nothing to eat for example, Acai in the Basin a superfood which constitutes 45% of the diet of some locals and others elsewhere.In Collapse, Diamond examines how several ancient societies Easter Island, Mangareva Pitcairn Lapita, Maya, the Norse colonies in Iceland, Greenland, and Vinland fell apart due to resource management issues, the environmental challenges faced by a few modern countries Australia, Japan, China , and the best ways to avoid a tragedy of the commons type situation that results in a drastically reduced standard of living for everyone The author is breathtakingly impartial, sometimes to a fault he laconically remarks, for example, that George W Bush remains unconvinced of the reality of global warming Overall, Diamond seems most worried about erosion, which he sees as a bigger problem than global warming because of the difficulty of replacing arable land, and the multitude of ways it can be destroyed You can buy all the long line caught Chilean sea bass you want, and eat organic lettuce all day, and still have an awful impact on the environment because the soil in which the lettuce grows is a limited resource, as are the fisheries that produce the fish you buy, which also suffer from land degradation.Diamond thinks that a lot of the resources we rely on have been made artificially cheap through subsidies and foolish government management of limited resources He s right, but there is a conflict between egalitarianism and environmentalism lurking between the pages of this book I don t think you can charge the right amount for energy or food or other essentials without further immiserating the poor That s the unmet challenge of the environmental movement, the one this and most books on the subject dodge Despite that, I d wholeheartedly recommend Collapse for its details on everyday life in Norse Greenland and Easter Island alone, not just for the nuanced analysis. I considered giving this book 4 instead of 5 stars simply because it can be over dense in its detail and the style can be rather dry but then I figured that says about my stamina and laziness than about the quality of the book, so the book gets 5 and I get a 4 for effort We re all winners.So despite the headline grabbing title, the author Jared Diamond a cross between an Amish garden gnome and avuncular Glastonbury festival supremo if you go by his picture tries its darndest to avoid sensationalism, and the author opts instead for what is sorely needed in the environmental debate sober, empirical analysis But don t let that put you off once you put your brain into the right gear this book can be completely consuming and fascinating, and the message and lessons it gives are electrifying.Diamond examines in turn a number of societies, ancient and modern, successful or unsuccessful, and forensically examines what were the factors in their collapse or survival before turning to our modern, global society to ask what lessons we can apply from those past cases to the predicament we face today We learn about the Easter Islanders about whom one of Diamond s pupils asked What was going through the mind of the man who chopped down the last tree on the island , the Anasazi, the Maya, the Greenland Norse and Greenland Inuit, modern day Australia and Montana, shogun ruled Japan and others.He identifies common environmental problems which collapsed societies have tended to share deforestation and soil erosion as well as resource depletion cropping up again and again , as well as cultural factors such as systems of government and contact with other societies He cites some incredible studies such as the examination of ancient middens, of crystallised rodents piss and of pond sediments to show how we can unravel the mysteries of some of these collapses by using the study of, for example, pollen in sediment or animal bones in middens to paint a vivid picture of climates, deforestation and diets at precise times in these societies stories It was this quite academic precision that gave me a quiet thrill and which gives this book its calm authority.Diamond ends by looking at our modern global society and assessing its chances of overcoming the sheer number, breadth, scale and interconnectedness of the ecological problems facing us, and although he insists he is an optimist and argues that our globalised society gives us advantages in finding solutions as well as giving us zero escape routes if we fail by the time you finish reading, you feel that as a planet we ve got a sheer cliff face to climb, and his optimism sounds a little disingenuous But educating yourself to understand these issues is a necessary step to doing your bit, and this book will certainly arm you with the sobering facts If only the debate were always conducted in these civilised in the best sense of the word terms. The Pulitzer prize winning Guns, Germs and Steel by this dude forever changed the way I look at history And believe me, I am a history buff of sorts so this means a lot Unfortunately, Collapse fails to measure up to that classic.The real problem with Collapse isn t the research that goes into the thesis, or even the soundness of the thesis itself though there are some qualms I have about how politically unstable Mongolia is or basing his analysis of cod fisheries on a single popular accunt The central contention, that population explosion, interdependency, unsustainable harvest, adverse cultural values, and about 8 other factors contributed to a society s collapse, is innocuous enough, though admittedly somewhat vague Rather, the problem is that Diamond is so intent upon clearly and explicitly detailing every freaking argument to paint a convincing picture of the ancient medieval societies or the current polluting industries that he often loses sight of his larger arguments For instance, his discussion of Viking Greenland v Iceland is insightful but whether it warrants nearly 100 pages in a 500 page book I doubt The same could be said of his discussion of modern Australia China, in contrast, gets really short shrift He goes at pain to explicate the archaeological evidence by which we understand the Anasazi collapse, but here too he gets a little repetitive and locquacious For instance, the logic behind dendrochronolgy and salinization were explained than once to elucidate yet another nuance Indeed, here Diamond the scientist persistently gets in the way of Diamond the popular writer Were it not for his stellar writing skills this would have been even of a chore to read.Apart from the lack of effective editing, Collapse suffers from Diamond s penchant to almost bend over backward to point out that he is not engaged in a crude form of Environmental determinism whereby the significance of cultural and political events are misleadingly downplayed He certainly didn t do this in Guns Germs and Steel but many people, including the NY Times, accuse him of it Nevertheless Diamond was sufficiently sensitive to this interpretation as well as eager to show that we can prevent environmental catastrophe that he repeats this ad nauseum and, IMHO, belabors this point to being beyond repetitive The cumulative effect of all these shortcomings is that the book ends up presenting really rather very little that is new, argues persistently against straw man hypotheses, and is informative but almost in a trivial sense At 520 odd dense pages this is a lot to ask of a reader, and it is a pity that this simply does not measure up to Diamond s earlier works. This is a major work Diamond looks in detail at the factors at play in the demise of civilizations in human history, using a wide range of examples He offers a framework in which to structure the analysis and looks in great detail at possible and in many cases certain reasons why various societies collapsed He is not a one note analyst All problems do not fit the same mold There is considerable nuance and common sense brought to bear on this examination Foolishness plays a part, greed, corruption But just as frequently, the actors behave rationally Maybe they were unaware or could not possibly be aware of the larger implications of their actions Maybe the land in which they lived was ill suited to large numbers of humans Maybe changes in climate made what seemed a reasonable place a death trap Clearly an analysis of why societies failed in the past, with particular attention to environmental issues, has direct relevance to our world today For example, Polynesian islands that were dependant on resources from other islands collapsed when their import supply dried up That has relevance to oil dependant first world nations today, for example Diamond goes out of his way to make a case that business is business and they are not in the business of performing charity or taking responsibility for the common weal He does point out that some businesses have been instrumental in forcing improvements in producers He cited Home Depot and BP among others, although I expect he might have second thoughts about the latter s net impact I found the book to be extremely eye opening and informative It was a long, slow read, but well worth the effort It makes my short list of must read for anyone seriously interested in current affairs. In Collapse, Jared Diamond draws our attention to the following problems, which have plagued humanity throughout history.1 Deforestation and loss of habitat2 Overhunting3 Overfishing4 Soil degradation5 Water management problems6 Population growth7 Increased per capita impact of people8 Impact of non native speciesAnd now we face four 9 Human caused climate change10 The build up toxic waste11 We re approaching the limits of the Earth s photosynthetic capacity12 Energy shortagesThere are societies that failed to resolve these problems and they collapsed because of it Perhaps the best example of this is Diamond s discussion of the isolated Polynesians on Easter Island They used all of their trees, which led to soil erosion, which led to food shortages, which led to cannibalism We now live in a globalized world, but perhaps we should say that we re finally realizing that we live on an island It seems that we have yet to realize the demands we make on our island Is this a bad time to point out that NASA, which apparently costs less per year than the American military spends per year on air conditioning, retired its fleet this week I wish that I could just knock off one or two of those problems from Diamond s list, but I can t Many of them are linked, so if we fail to respond to one, we fail to respond to several At other times, we lean too hard on solving one problem and end up causing new problems For example, many forests Diamond refers to Montana, but I ve read about this dynamic elsewhere have been developed as cottage areas, so we do not allow fires or any logging The buildup of old forest and underbrush makes for a tinderbox, which means that when fires do happen, they are massive And putting them out is not free, either.How do you gather political will to deal with a problem like this We could try to log sustainably and selectively, but what company can we trust to log in such a way Sure, many companies will claim to do good, but we ve been tricked before, haven t we So the environmentalists are out The cottage owners are certainly not going to recommend logging or allowing fires of any sort to threaten their investments So basically, every stakeholder is stuck.Diamond quickly moves on from Montana and illustrates the role of ecological problems in societal collapses by comparing past societies that collapsed as opposed to declined throughout history In each case, he methodically outlines how these societies destroyed themselves by failing to resolve ecological problems It s pretty convincing, if you need convincing.I think there is a common concern for the environment I m not even 30, so perhaps I can t speak with a great deal of authority on the subject, but it feels to me that North America is obsessed with post apocalyptic settings right now If there is a spirit of a society that is translated in its literature, then I think it s safe to say that the bearded guy holding a the end is nigh sign is finally getting the mainstream audience he dreamed of.It seems to me the real problem is that it is very difficult to minimize our impact on the environment We can call upon America to lead the way, but they can t even manage their debt In fact, the societies that Diamond relies on to illustrate that it is possible to limit deforestation, tend to be autocratic though so were the societies that Diamond relies on to illustrate failure Now, some NGOs have set up certification procedures that identify wood that was harvested sustainably, but other corporate commissions have set up their own certification bodies to confuse consumers.Nevertheless, Diamond outlines reasons to be cautiously optimistic before concluding Unfortunately, this may have been the least convincing part of Collapse.So I ll close with the cynical words of Danny Archer from Blood Diamond When was the last time the world wasn t ending Usually, I find these words very soothing Now I feel like the world always has been ending It s just that until recently, humanity could only end one specific part of it at any given time Now we re a global society. The halfway point review One question I ve been wrestling with as I read, as I watch these societies move slightly past sustainability, as I read about societal collapse and the squandering of resources by the wealthy and then the inevitable cannibalism that always seems to show up in the last act, I keep asking myself how the environment became a political issue There s no question that environmental resources aren t infinite, yet it seems like the majority of people or at least the loudest faction care less about human life on earth than their own comfort and status Or else, how can they justify placing jobs, business interests, or anything else ahead of the environment in their values Is it because environmental damage is such a gradual process If so, we need to come up with some way to drive home the importance of creating a sustainable way of living Politicians hedging around environmental issues while placing these issues on the same level of importance as gays in the military is clearly not getting us anywhere Literature on the dangers of global warming and about the human effects on the environment isn t going to get the point across to those who willfully avoid learning about the topic Does the environmental movement need advertisements More celebrity endorsements I hate asking rhetorical questions, even if my goal is to generate conversation, so my hypothesis, without any evidence to support it, is YES we need a much fucking better PR department, and we need it quickly If we are going to keep the global society from reaching the point of some real collapse, we need to change the rhetoric with which we talk about the environment The environment is an abstract out there that doesn t necessarily include human babies or grandchildren The way we abstractly think of the environment makes this separation of humans from their environment easier We need rhetoric that makes it clear that when we speak of the environment, what we are really concerned with is the continued ability for humanity to survive on this planet What we re talking about isn t separate from people, physically or ethically I ll end my halfway point review by bringing up the personal guilt that reading these pages has reawakened in me Reading about the way the Easter Islanders squandered resources building the tremendous statues and headpieces for the glorification of rich people has reminded me of my own complicity I ve always thought of myself as an environmentalist I take the light rail whenever possible, recycle, eat with an awareness of where my food comes from But, even as someone passionate about the environment, I ve spent several years working at a bank I ve spent my time too focused on my own education to dedicate much time to preservation which is what I m complaining about others doing What have I truly done to rebel against a society that places greed and opulence above sustainability I ve found ways to reduce the damage that I inflict, but I have done nothing to challenge my society s destructive way of being So, what right do I have to climb up on my soap box . This is an exhaustive and exhausting read Should ve been tightened up and trimmed down, not only did I get tired of the meandering but I got worn down from getting machine gunned with an avalanche of what I considered often superfluous details Still, I thought it was very good, the historical examples of collapse and also the examples of societies that successfully changed to avoid disaster were interesting It put the contemporary analysis problems we face in perspective I remember reading Guns, Germs, Steel and while I enjoyed it Diamond s geographical determinism was tiresome and I suspect overplayed In this book he focuses on environmental stresses and issues playing a role in collapsing societies I think he does a good job in explaining the multitude of factors beyond this arena, so it isn t quite as one tracked and only focused on environmental determinism I think environment is crucial but it s important to add proper qualifiers and try to not overplay your thesis.My impression is anthropologists really seem to have an ax to grind with Diamond Always interesting to see what people from certain fields have to say about popular books written about their domain especially those books written by someone who isn t part of their tribe I haven t read specific critiques of this book just remember some articles I ve seen where anthropologists have absolutely smashed Diamond for his other work I imagine some of their critique is right but it seems overly harsh, a bit overdone leading me to wonder if they aren t just trying to protect their turf Anyhow, I m sure in such a huge book as this one, covering so much material, Diamond made some missteps but I think his overall thesis is ballpark correct and important and the general historical analysis strikes me as solid Given the interwoven nature of the global economy, intricate complexity of our systems, and rates of environmental destruction and pressures we are applying on environment Diamond readily admits we are facing huge, potentially civilization changing downshifts Grave risks, weakness or breakdown in one part of the global system can reverberate throughout So it was kind of jarring to me when he states at the end of his book that he is cautiously optimistic we can turn things around in regards to preventing environmental breakdowns and catastrophes for global civilization I was a bit surprised by that tbh, maybe I was struck by the nonchalance of his optimism especially given his devastating analysis of what we are facing I m certainly not as sanguine I always kind of hope that hey, maybe I ve just drank too much of that Jonestown Climate Change Environmental Apocalypse kool aid ha Would love to be magnificently wrong on everything but I d rather try and see things as they are than try and lie to myself with beautiful illusions I m just a lay person, but my sense given what I ve read is that we are in big trouble and courting a slowly unfurling disaster There were some great sections I liked the one where he spells out something like a list of 10 reasons statements people use to minimize environmental problems This includes people who have magical belief in deux ex machina future tech that will come save us from problems we have or are causing I m glad he hates this because I hate it, it really drives me bonkers, the use of this concept is a great way to sidestep any responsibility or accountability for present actions and greenlights continuation of pernicious status quo I do think tech and innovation can be tools to help us, but they all have various externalities and can cause new problems of their own, plus in regards to environment, since the systems are all so interconnected you destroy or damage one aspect it can lead to a grand cascade At that point tech can maybe help minimize issues but it is hard impossible if damage is too great the unleashed cascade will shudder throughout the systems Good luck putting the genie back in the bottle, some changes are irrevocable 6th extinction underway is a good example, even the destruction of what can seem an innocuous tiny microorgamisn can completely change the ecosystem with implications for species in that system Diamond also points out another argument people use to justify environmental destruction well the environment is a luxury and we need to do everything we can for our economy which includes destroying the environment The economy is driven by the environment you break the environment or elements of it and you will likely hamstring your economy in various ways Happens again and again And it s not simple, I understand the tension in this dynamic because if you are hungry today you need to do whatever it is you can to put food on the table and sometimes that includes destroying the environment which will have long term implications, but if you are hungry and desperate you don t have as much luxury to think about or emphasize the long term I m not sure how I feel about his soft defense of corporations and his emphasis on the consumer I think it annoys me, lol He doesn t give corporations a free pass, but he tries to explain why they do what they do He tries to play a balanced view on all this, hey corporations have to operate under their prime directive PROFITS at all costs or they will be sued by shareholders if they don t regardless of damage done to environment, community, etc He also very much emphasizes consumer ability to exert pressure on companies to shift to environmentally friendly habits I believe this is a good tactic but can also be limited not to mention not all consumers have luxury to shift to environmentally friendly consumption nor the luxury of time to research and learn what those options might be Ultimately I am of the belief one has to reform the systems we are operating in, this includes reforming how corporations operate instead of monolithic submission to shareholders I believe in a multi foundational mission for corporations where community, workers, management, shareholders are all taken into consideration This is holistic in my view than the blind submission to shareholders who hold companies and company policy strategy hostage The concept of sustainable living might be a high priority for me but it is very hard given the way the system is set up, I still generate a massive amount of trash and use tons of energy this is not to sidestep accountability, because I should be held accountable and I can do better and many things I can do but I think even the best intentioned have a hard time because our society is set up in such a way that we are nudged pushed towards environmentally destructive options these are cheaper, convenient options usually, sometimes the only option Diamond doesn t really get into this concept of reforming corporations or the infrastructure and systems within our society I think this is a good book but if you are looking for a concise systems analysis text on the environmental issues we are facing and the earth s capacity to sustain it I highly recommend Donna Meadows Limits to Growth 30 year edition This was my favorite quote from the book and I think it is very good and can be applied to how blinded our thinking can be, including my own T he values to which people cling most stubbornly under inappropriate conditions are those values that were previously the source of their greatest triumphs Oh, and here is another good quote Diamond touches on this concept and it is pertinent to many problems elites being insulated from the problems they create It is often elites corporations who extract wealth then hightail it out of there with no consequences for their actions environmental destruction letting other people deal with the destruction or messes they create, while elites pocket all the This quote is about the insulation of elites on the consumption side of things, but the extraction production side is important imo and I was glad to see Diamond explore that problem In much of the rest of the world, rich people live in gated communities and drink bottled water That s increasingly the case in Los Angeles where I come from So that wealthy people in much of the world are insulated from the consequences of their actions.
- Collapse: How Societies Chose to Fail or Succeed
- Jared Diamond
- 15 October 2019 Jared Diamond