Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed
by Jared Diamond
Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down
A review by Douglas Brown
Most people who have seen pictures of Easter Island's massive stone figures have wondered at how the stone was moved on a treeless island where you couldn't make rollers. Seeing pictures of the Anasazi ruins nestled into canyon walls in the American Southwest likewise triggers wonderment at where the people went, as does seeing Mayan ruins in Central America. In Collapse, Jared Diamond covers these "failed" societies, along with several others. Like Diamond's Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel, Collapse is a sprawling epic encompassing centuries of history while spanning the globe.
Diamond identifies five primary sets of factors in societal collapse: environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbors, friendly trade partners, and how societies respond to their problems. He shows that each example of a collapsed society has a different combination of factors at its root, and it is very rare for only one factor to cause a collapse. For Easter Island, it was a case of environmental damage combined with isolation (no friendly trading partners). There used to be trees all over Easter Island, but they were denuded over time. With nothing to make canoes with, the islanders were completely cut off from the world on a dying island. For the Anasazi, it was a combination of environmental damage, climate change, and hostile neighbors.
As a former SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism) hanger-on, I particularly liked the chapters on Vikings in Iceland, Greenland, and North America. In North America they only lasted a decade or so, primarily due to hostile neighbors. In Greenland they lasted for a few hundred years, but eventually lost out to climate change and hostile neighbors. Only in Iceland did they hang on, and their ancestors live there still.
A remarkable omission is that none of Diamond's examples are the "classic" collapsed societies that people usually discuss as object lessons for today. No Rome, no Greece, no Egypt, not even the collapse of any of the European empires. As he notes, in all of his past examples deforestation was a major factor in bringing down the societies in question. That makes a nice tidy anti-logging message, but America's inevitable collapse will likely have little to do with forest cover (as it had little to do with the fall of Rome, Greece, the British Empire, etc.). Diamond's examples all relied on timber for housing, transportation, and heat, but we have a variety of other resources available to us. It is the availability of those other resources (petroleum in particular) that will likely cause us problems. He addresses mining and petroleum concerns in the second part of the book, but it creates a disconnect between the two halves.
While the first half of the book covers past civilizations, the second half starts with the present day. Rwanda, the Dominican Republic and Haiti, China, and Australia are covered, with an emphasis on environmental degradation vs. industry. Then Diamond offers several hypotheses on why societies make disastrous decisions, most of which are fairly obvious. They include failing to anticipate a problem, failing to recognize a problem that has arisen, failing to attempt to solve the problem (it's someone else's problem, a.k.a. "the tragedy of the commons"), and reluctance to relinquish harmful practices. I said these ideas are fairly obvious, but people keep making the same mistakes over and over, so Diamond probably is right to point them out yet again.
In general, the book has a "collection of essays" feel to it, possibly due to seven of the sixteen chapters having begun life as magazine articles. The Montana chapter that opens the book particularly doesn't fit in with the rest; as Diamond points out, they aren't even experiencing an economic depression, let alone a societal collapse. It's just where he spends his summer vacations. Folks will undoubtedly find some of Diamond's conclusions debatable. There is an amount of repetition in this work as well, both internally and with material covered in Guns, Germs, and Steel. However, the scope and basic themes provide much to consider, as well as suggesting some interesting vacation destinations. Collapse doesn't have quite the coherence of Guns, Germs, and Steel, but is still well worth reading for folks interested in how successful cultures can wither and die.