Commentary Magazine


Collapse by Jared Diamond

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed
by Jared Diamond
Viking. 575 pp. $29.95

When the ancient Greeks happened upon ruins whose origins they could not fathom, they called them “Hebrews’ castles”—a nod to the Hebrew Bible as the oldest available source of recorded history. In reality, the sites belonged not to the Hebrews but to earlier Aegean societies like the Myceneans and the Minoans. Regional powers in their day, those societies had disappeared, leaving the Greeks to wonder about their fate. Were they conquered or enslaved, stricken by plague or by famine, by earthquake or by flood?

Even today, the desolate places of the world are littered with “Hebrews’ castles.” We gaze in wonder at, among others, the Anasazi pueblos of the American Southwest (Anasazi being the Navajo word for “the ancients”), the monumental statues of Easter Island, and the grand cities of the Maya entombed in the Yucatán jungle. Aided by the tools of modern archaeology, from the analysis of midden heaps and pollen grains to radiocarbon dating and even more sophisticated physical methods, we often are able to know a good deal about the people responsible for these artifacts. In some cases, like that of the long-deserted Viking settlement in Greenland, detailed written records exist alongside the stone shells of churches, barns, and great houses.

But none of the records, written or material, speaks directly of the final moments of their authors. We are left, like the Greeks, to puzzle over the reasons these castles were abandoned, what became of their erstwhile inhabitants—and whether a similar fate might one day befall us.

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This puzzle is Jared Diamond’s subject in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. In his best-known previous book, Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997), Diamond—a physiologist by training and a professor of geography at UCLA—sought to explain why the peoples of Europe succeeded in outpacing all others in technology and exploration, leaving their mark on the entire modern world. In Collapse, he turns his attention to the opposite extreme: societies that appear to have experienced spectacular crashes. His thesis is that collapse is a consequence of “ecocide”—environmental damage caused by deforestation, intensive agriculture, and the destruction of local flora and fauna.

Diamond begins by considering the land and people of Montana, often regarded as one of the few remaining unspoiled corners of the United States. As he tells it, however, Montana is in fact a microcosm of collapse, or at least of major social change, driven by environmental problems. Logging and mining, the traditional pillars of the economy, have declined as the state has become increasingly deforested and polluted. Soil that once supported apple orchards is nearly gone, and so are the glaciers for which Montana is famous. At the same time, a burgeoning population in the Black-root Valley has put a strain on the state’s water supply and job market.

Although environmental damage is a nearly ubiquitous corollary of human activity, what makes certain societies vulnerable to ecocide, Diamond argues, is the combination of particularly fragile ecosystems with particularly destructive land-use practices. Like Montana, societies that have collapsed in the past have been situated in areas marginal for agriculture, with climates unfavorable to farming and tree growth.

On both Easter Island and Greenland, for example, trees grow slowly and topsoil is relatively poor; their former inhabitants cut down the available trees without realizing, apparently, that more would not soon grow to replace them. Similarly, the Anasazi of Chaco Canyon (in present-day New Mexico) prospered in wet years by employing innovative methods of irrigation, but they grew so numerous that they could not sustain their population in years of drought.

What might such societies have done differently, and how have societies in similar straits managed to survive? The key, Diamond finds in each case, is successful adaptation to the fragility of the local environment. The Inuit of Greenland subsist on fish, whales, and seals, at least some of which are present even in periods of cold. The Japanese, who came perilously close to deforestation in the 17th century, instituted a strict system of tree management under the early Tokugawa shoguns, regulating the use of literally every tree on the main islands of Honshu, Kyushu, and Shikoku. Most radical of all were the measures taken by the inhabitants of Tikopia Island in the Pacific, who planted every inch of their land with edible trees and roots, eliminated their pigs, and adopted stringent population controls, including abortion and infanticide. All of these successful societies recognized the dangers they were about to face, Diamond argues, and changed their behavior accordingly.

Collapse provides a series of such vignettes, rendered in meticulous detail. Although Diamond admits to having set out with the notion that all collapses are brought about by ecocide alone, he recognized early on that this was never the whole story. The Easter Islanders, for example, may have denuded their homeland of palm trees and depleted its fisheries, but their problems were compounded by the rivalries of competing tribal chieftains, who sought to outdo each other by erecting more and bigger statues, thus consuming enormous quantities of wood and food. The Tikopians, by contrast, have a history of weak chiefs and little internecine competition.

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Still, despite Diamond’s repeated bows to the complex interaction of such other factors as history, political economy, and social structure, it is clear that, to his mind, the overriding cause of social collapse remains ecocide, which he also considers the major threat to the survival of civilization on earth today. Indeed, contemporary tales of social change brought about by ecological damage bracket his discussion of the past and constitute the larger portion of the book.

Diamond portrays the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, for example, as a classic Malthusian crisis: too many people, too little food and land. Tensions between Hutus and Tutsis were real, to be sure, and were exploited by Rwandan politicians for their own purposes. But Diamond believes that the scale of the bloodbath can only be explained by the inability of Rwandans to support themselves on small farms. Haiti offers a similar cautionary story, having long been the basketcase of the Western hemisphere because of almost total deforestation and agricultural insufficiency.

Diamond sees the early stages of ecological collapse in two larger nations as well—where he also finds signs of hope. China faces problems of soil erosion, desertification, urbanization, and rapid industrialization, all of which contribute to rapid ecological destruction and the overuse of resources. But the Chinese have taken steps to preserve their remaining forests and to limit their population. In Australia, the government is rethinking its historic support for industries like sheep-herding and wheat cultivation—both poorly suited to Australia’s ecosystem—and is embarking on projects to restore the continent’s native flora and manage its scarce water supplies. Such reforms suggest to Diamond that some of us may yet be able to save ourselves from the fate of the Easter Islanders.

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Collapse is not light reading. Each of Diamond’s vignettes is laden with facts and statistics—in one paragraph, for example, he lists the common and scientific names of fourteen different plants harvested by the Tikopians, followed by a description of the agronomy of Tikopian swamps. Such dry fare is not made easier to digest by the prose style, which tends to be ponderous and repetitive. All the same, Collapse is an impressively researched and keenly argued book.

The fatal weakness of Collapse is Diamond’s constant overreaching. In trying to apply the lessons of the past to the present, he wanders down several paths with no obvious connection to the main point of the book. His opening section on Montana, for instance, is interesting in its own right, but the problems faced by Montanans are similar only superficially to the problems that were faced by Easter Islanders or Mayans. The fact that Montana’s traditional industries have turned out to be unprofitable and impractical is perhaps unfortunate for longtime residents, but it hardly seems to qualify as a historic catastrophe.

Other applications of Diamond’s thesis to the modern world are even more far-fetched. He repeatedly alludes to the dangers of globalization, suggesting that it makes the entire planet more vulnerable to the collapse of a single nation. This might be a reasonable conjecture in the short term, but in the long term it seems more likely that globalization would act to insulate the world from such collapse, since resources that formerly would have had to be provided by a single country could now eventually be supplied by another.

The unstated premise of Collapse seems to be that the entire planet is headed for a Malthusian crisis, which can be staved off only by extreme measures like China’s one-child policy. But is this view defensible? Diamond takes no note of the extraordinary increases in food production achieved in recent decades; nor does he consider the likelihood that crises in places like Rwanda owe more to poor land management than to a shortage of farmland as such.

As for the population controls Diamond seems to endorse, he says nothing about their unhappy practical consequences—including the sort of intensive urban development he decries—let alone their question-ability on moral grounds. Indeed, as Collapse progresses, Diamond’s arguments grow increasingly one-sided. The entire final chapter is a discursive screed on the need for urgent environmental action, accompanied by a series of rather unconvincing potshots at those who are skeptical of such measures.

To his credit, Diamond takes pains to avoid what he rightly calls “environmental determinism.” But although he recognizes the role played by social and cultural factors, he does not seem to appreciate how such recognition serves again and again to undermine his emphasis on ecocide, making his thesis seem arbitrary, if not ideologically motivated. For many of the societies Diamond discusses, it is not even clear that environmental damage was a major determinant of collapse.

Thus, the Vikings certainly were not helped in the long run by the rapid deforestation of Greenland, or by their concerted effort to maintain cattle in the face of unfavorable local conditions. But they were probably hurt even more by their rigid customs, which apparently included the avoidance offish (as Diamond reports, fish bones are almost never found in their middens). Diamond himself notes that the inhabitants of Iceland, who faced similar problems, managed to survive by switching from an agrarian economy to one based on the production and export of salted cod. Their brethren on Greenland might have survived by similar means, if only they had eaten fish.

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A prominent theme of Collapse, but one which Diamond almost completely ignores, is that societies tend to do best if their decision-making is open and democratic. Many societies that failed—like Easter Island and the Mayan empire—were ruled by elites more concerned with self-aggrandizement than with the stewardship of natural resources for the common good. The Vikings maintained economically ruinous subsidies for cattle farms to serve the needs of rich landlords and foreign-born bishops. Societies that succeeded, by contrast, were often governed by some form of representative democracy. To this day Iceland has the world’s oldest legislative body, and the Tikopian “government” (if one can call it that) resembles a condo association.

Diamond cites these as examples of “bottom-up” management, but he also praises “top-down” successes, like Tokugawa Japan. Centralized rule, however, has been responsible for many of the worst ecological disasters of modern times, as in the industrial wastelands of the former Soviet Union and Eastern bloc. Judging from Diamond’s examples of successful bottom-up societies, and of corporations that have found it in their financial interest to adopt ecologically friendly policies, our best course of action is the one exemplified by the state of Montana: governance at the local level based on democratic values and economic realities. It is, in other words, the course we are already following.

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About the Author

Kevin Shapiro is a research fellow in neuroscience and a student at Harvard Medical School.




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