Friday, June 13, 2008


Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond. Highly recommended.

The Pulitzer prize winning author Jared Diamond of Guns, Germs and Steel is back with an examination of societies of the past and today, and how they deal with challenges that can lead to their collapse. While there are 5 main reasons that he examines, the book looks heavily into environmental degradation as a leading cause for many civilizations' demises.

Diamond is well versed in many subjects and this book showcases his knowledge. One of the remarkable qualities of the book is the ability of the author to see the many sides of problems and not become entrenched on any one side of the issue. While he certainly takes the large mining and oil companies to task for certain inexcusable environmental disasters, he is very fair and balanced. While many environmentalists are fundamentally opposed to such business ventures, Diamond not only acknowledges their necessary contributions to society, but also their fundamental right to exist as a profit making enterprise. He even mentions his surprise at the strict environmental standards that Chevron had implemented at one of their sites:

For months I was greatly puzzled by these conditions in the Kuntubu oil field.
After all, Chevron is neither a non-profit environmental organization, nor a
National Park Service. Instead it is a for-profit oil company, owned by its shareholders. If Chevron were to spend money on environmental policies that ultimately decreased its profits from oil operations, its shareholders would and should sue it. The company evidently decided that those policies would ultimately help it make more money from its oil operations.
So Diamond is neither in the pocket of the oil companies nor a raving green hippie. He delivers a clear and concise message, however. Ignore the environment at our peril.

Here are the five reasons for past collapses:
1. Environment Degradation
2. Climate Change (man-made and natural)
3. Hostile Neighbors
4. Decreased Support from Friendly Neighbors
5. Society's Responses to Environmental Problems

All of history's collapses may not have had all of these factors, but all of the societies the author examines were affected by at least several of them.

Here is the list of societies investigated, with a few comments on some of my favorites:

Modern Montana

Easter Island-
Without written history, we have limited knowledge of this mysterious society. Over several hundred years, they seemingly deforested their remote island to provide food for a growing population and to erect larger and larger monuments in a evident inter-tribal competition. Too far from other islands, they had nearly died off by the time Europeans arrived, who quickly eliminated even more of them with disease.

Other pacific islands: Pitcairn and Henderson
Native Americans: Anasazi and neighbors

Norse Greenlanders-
A hardscrabble group of exiled Norsemen lived for hundreds of years on the forbidding landscape of Greenland (as well as being the first to reach North America). Their stubbornness to cling to European ideals and inability to adopt Inuit technologies eventually led to their downfall as the climate grew colder over several decades.

New Guinea

Japanese shoguns realized the implications of deforestation and enacted laws to reverse its course.

A horrible, horrible story.

Dominican Republic/Haiti

Recent food crises are partially due to decreased wheat exports from Australia. According to Diamond, we should not expect much change in the future. Australia has such little economical farm land that it could go from a net exporter of food to net importer in the near future. Poor soil, mismanagement and introduced pests have wreaked havoc on Australia. Not an uplifting chapter.

Diamond then ties his thoughts together in the final chapters with practical lessons and the following subjects:

Why some societies make good and bad decisions.
Different business and how they interface with the public and environment (Oil, mining, logging, and seafood industries)
Ultimately, he draws up 12 vital areas that we must be vigilant against today:

1. Preserving Natural Habitats
2. Sustainable maintenance of wild food sources (mainly seafood)
3. Maintain biodiversity
4. Protect farmland from degradation (erosion, salination, etc)
5. Reliance/dependence on finite fossil fuels
6. Water issues
7. Earth's photosynthetic capability
8. Toxic Chemicals
9. Harmful alien species (introduced non-native plants and animals, not ET)
10. Atmospheric gas releases
11. Population Issues
12. Per capita environmental impact

He makes the point that since they are all very interconnected, we must treat each with care. Any failure in any one of these areas could spell major trouble to our civilization. And unlike the ancient Easter Islanders, we are now a global community. We are all on a remote island...the Earth. Will we obliviously continue to build larger and larger statues until we no longer can support ourselves? Or will we take the lessons from those that have come before us, both those that have failed and succeeded, and triumph over the coming obstacles? Time will tell.

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