How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond

Viking Press 2005

        From the dust cover of the book: “Huge in scope, clear and passionate in style, Collapse is destined to take its place as one of the essential books of our time, raising the question: How can our world best avoid destroying itself?” In my opinion the book actually lives up to this praise.  Jared Diamond’s curriculum vitae reads as if it had been designed to prepare him to write this book.   I am blessed as an amateur reviewer of books in that I am never compelled to review bad books.  I hope to persuade you to read this one by emphasizing some quotations from the book.

        “By collapse I mean a drastic decrease in human population size and/or political/economic/social complexity over a considerable area, for an extended time.” (page 3)

        “The processes through which past societies have undermined themselves by damaging their environments fall into eight categories, whose relative importance varies from case to case: deforestation and habitat destruction, soil problems (erosion, salinization, and soil fertility losses), overhuntiing, overfishing, effects of introduced species on native species, human population growth, and increased per capita impact of people.” (page 6)

       “The environmental problems facing us today include the same eight that undermined past societies, plus four new ones: human-caused climate change, buildup of toxic chemicals in the environment, energy shortages, and full utilization of the Earth’s photosynthetic capacity.” (page 7)

        The author begins with some environmental problems experienced in Montana because he lived there and knows a great deal about it.  Montana has many of the twelve problems listed above, most notably monumental toxicity of land and aquifers from freewheeling early mining.  Montana was an optimistic place to start his discussion because they are confronting serious problems head on with real prospects of success; for instance, $100,000,000 to remove a flimsy dam seven miles upstream from Missoula. This dam not only threatens flooding by collapse, but also the toxicity of the sediments behind it are already contaminating aquifers with arsenic.  I liked this implication early in the book that mankind’s problems may not be insoluble.

       Part II of Collapse deals with five past societies that did in fact collapse.  He starts with Easter Island, the most geographically isolated island on earth.  After 40 pages describing Easter Island and its history comes one page labeled “Easter as Metaphor”.

       “Easter’s isolation makes it the clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by overexploiting its own resources.  If we return to our five point checklist of factors to be considered in connection with environmental collapses, two of those factors—attacks by neighboring enemy societies, and loss of support from neighboring friendly societies—played no role in Easter’s collapse.... For a role of a third factor, climate change, we also have no evidence....That leaves us with just two main sets of factors behind Easter’s collapse, human environmental impacts, especially deforestation and destruction of bird populations; and the political social and religious factors behind the impacts, such as the impossibility of emigration as an escape valve because of Easter’s isolation, a focus on statue construction for reasons already discussed, and competition between clans and chiefs driving the erection of bigger statues requiring more wood, rope, and food.

       “The Easter Islanders isolation probably also explains why I have found that their collapse, more than the collapse of any other pre-industrial society, haunts my readers and students….”(pages 118-19)

       Dr. Diamond goes on to draw the parallel of the isolation of pre-industrial  Easter Island with the isolation in space of all mankind’s Planet Earth--neither possessing any outside help.

       There follow four more ancient societies which collapsed: Pitcairn Island, the Anasazi of the American Southwest, The Maya of Central America and the Viking colony in Greenland that survived 450 years until the early 15th century, each an example of a distinctly different path to collapse. The Viking colony’s experience is especially interesting because these were cousins of some of our ancestors.  After these failures our author surprises us with examples of success in the face of impending failure, most notably Japan, which nearly succumbed to deforestation in the 17th century.  Two hundred years of enlightened leadership, research in silviculture, and vigorous law enforcement preventing poaching of forbidden trees restored Japan’s forests—the Japanese had invented modern forestry practice independent of the Germans.

        Part III entitled “Modern Societies” deals with four modern countries and how they illustrate potential and actual collapses.  All four contain surprising information and insightful interpretations.  Here is a paragraph from Malthus in Africa, Rwanda’s Genocide (n.b. Jared Diamomd writing).

        “That last quote about what the Rwandans themselves say about the genocide surprised me.  I had thought that it would be exceptional for people to recognize such a direct connection between population pressure and the killings.  I’m accustomed to thinking of population pressure, human environmental impacts, and droughts as ultimate causes, which make people chronically desperate and are like the gunpowder inside the powder keg.  In most areas of Rwanda, that match was ethnic hatred whipped by politicians cynically concerned with keeping themselves in power. (I say “most areas” because the large-scale killings of Hutu by Hutu at Kanama demonstrate a similar outcome even where everybody belonged to the same group). As Gérard Prunier, a French scholar of East Africa puts it, ‘The decision to kill was of course made by politicians for political reasons. But at least part of the reason it was carried out so thoroughly by the ordinary rank-and-file peasants in their ingo [=family compound] was feeling that there were too many people on too little land, and that with a reduction in their numbers, there would be more for the survivors.’” (page 326)

         The other three Modern Societies are “One Island, Two Peoples, Two Histories, The Dominican Republic and Haiti”, “China Lurching Giant”, and “Mining Australia”.  These contain much information and useful interpretation of modern events just as unique as the synthesis of cause and events in Rwanda. 

         Part IV, “Practical Lessons”, manages some credible cautious optimism. The section on China had mentioned “exporting deforestation” by buying timber from impoverished tropical countries.  Here is our author’s cautious optimism of facts and interpretations (from pages 473 to 476).

        “....In a worst-case scenario all the world’s readily accessible remaining forests outside those protected areas would be destroyed by unsustainable harvesting within the next several decades, although in a best-case scenario the world could meet its timber needs sustainably from a small area (20% or less) of those forests if they were well managed.

       “Those concerns about the long-term future of their own industry impelled some timber industry representatives and foresters in the early 1990s to launch discussions with environmental and social organizations and associations of indigenous peoples.  In 1993 those discussions resulted in the formation of an international non-profit organization called the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)....The FSC’s original tasks were three-fold: to draw up a list of criteria of sound forest management; then to set up a mechanism for certifying whether any particular forest satisfied those criteria; and, finally, setting up another mechanism for tracing  products from such a certified forest through the complex supplier chain….

       “The list of big businesses that participated in the initial formation of the FSC, joined the board of directors, or committed themselves more recently to  FSC goals includes some of the largest....Among the U.S.-based companies are Home Depot....”[there follows a long paragraph listing the names of large companies worldwide].

       And finally here is the last paragraph of the book. It is preceded by several pages of “chapter-and-verse” reasons for optimism.

       “My remaining cause for hope is another consequence of the globalized modern world’s interconnectedness. Past societies lacked archeologists and television.  While the Easter Islanders were busy deforesting the highlands of their overpopulated island for agricultural plantations in the 1400s, they had no way of knowing that, thousands of miles to the east and west at the same time, Greenland Norse society....the Khymer Empire….the Anasazi…. Classic Maya society had collapsed a few more centuries before that, and Mycean Greece 2000 years before that. Today, though, we turn on our television sets or radios or pick up our newspapers and see, hear, or read what happened in Somalia or Afghanistan a few hours earlier....That  is an opportunity that no past society enjoyed to such a degree....My hope in writing this book has been that enough people will choose to profit from that opportunity to make a difference.”

            My hope also.

John A. Frantz, M.D.

May 1, 2005