Wednesday, December 17, 2008


Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed
© 2005 Jared Diamond
560 pages plus index

A few years ago, I read Guns, Germs, and Steel by this same author, who put forth the idea that the success of world civilizations owes much to the surrounding natural environment. While this is obvious in some cases -- a dependence on water, for instance -- Diamond extends the hypothesis to the effect that the uses to which local flora and fauna could put by human civilizations, and examined the possible results. The book was stimulating, and I suspect that it began my habit of looking for connections between the social sciences and the "real" or physical sciences. I enjoyed the book very much, and so I looked forward to reading Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.

While in Guns, Germs, and Steel Diamond examined the growth of civilizations, in this book he examines factors relating to their collapse. He begins with a set of five factors that he believes all collapses share in common:

  1. damage done to the environment by humans
  2. climate change (owing to non-human factors, historically)
  3. the presence or ability of hostile neighbors
  4. decreased support of friendly neighbors
  5. society's responses to the above issues.
This constitutes his introduction. He then moves into the book proper by looking at Montana. He does this to examine the way environmental factors change the way people live today and how their actions work on their environment. His goal seems to be two-fold: one, to show that humans and the environment do shape one another, and two, to put a human face on economic problems by examining individuals living in Montana.

In part two, Diamond examines past societies: their rise and fall. The evidence that Diamond is forced to draw from is usually indirect: using historic trash to come to conclusions about the people who lived there -- their numbers and their economic situation. He also uses natural evidence likes tree rings and ice "cores" to track the natural health of the environment through the years that these societies were in existence. The historic societies he examines range from small villages in Greenland to the grand civilization of the Maya. He begins with Easter Island and moves to more recent societies like shogunate Japan. Not all societies represent failures: Japan is used as an example of how societies can learn to deal with their situations.

In part three, Diamond looks at modern societies. In chapter ten, he examines Rwanda: in chapter eleven he contrasts the Dominican Republic and Haiti: in chapters twelve and thirteen he focuses on the growth of China and the woes of Australia, in each examining their relationship to the natural world and its condition. He concludes the book with Part IV, "Practical Lessons". In this last part, he examines various reasons why societies make bad economic decisions. He lists a few --
  • failure to anticipate problems
  • failures to perceive problems that already exist
  • rationalizing bad behavior
  • possessing values systems that run contrary to doing what's necessary
  • being discouraged by unscceessful attempts at solution

There are a few others, but those are the ones that stuck out. The above constitutes chapter fourteen. In chapter fifteen he looks at the relationship between big business and the enviroment, examining ways that modern industries -- oil, logging, mining, fishing -- are dealing with environmental problems and increasing public awareness. Last, he deals with potential objections to ideas in the book and looks at reasons for hope.

All in all, I found the book to be very well-written. The conclusions that Diamond comes to from the available evidence in the the part on past civilizations where little written information is available seem fairly valid to me. Diamond explains environmental problems and their connection to human history with great detail and with a knack for getting the essence of his idea across. It is a good read -- taking me several days to work my way through it -- but if you're interested in history, economics, ecology, and the relationship between the three, I'd recommend the book to you.


  1. Both of the books you mentioned are on my 'to read' list. Hopefully next year....

    I read one of his earlier books - The Third Chimpanzee - which was very good too.

  2. I've heard of "The Third Chimpanzee", but none of my libraries have it. How 'technical' is his biology writing?

  3. sc asked: How 'technical' is his biology writing?

    Not 'technical' at all I think - at least I had no problem understanding it & I stopped studying the subject @ 18. He's certainly not as technical as Richard Dawkins for example.

  4. Well, then -- I will keep my eyes open for it. :)