10 January 2006


Jared Diamond’s Collapse is a long book. But societal collapse may not take a very long time at all. An interesting juxtaposition.

Let me start out by saying that this is an outstanding book. It has a handful of minor faults, most of which are of curious nature and not worth discussing (Mongolia is neither politically nor environmentally in danger of collapse; I assume he meant Nigeria, which has many of the same letters). That a book of this size and scope should have but a handful of minor faults is remarkable, and were I to write a full review of this book it would be almost entirely positive.

But time is short these days. It feels like it always is; and that’s why it took me so long to finish this book, which I started in October. Time is the one resource we must almost deplete at a constant rate, and there’s nothing at all we can do about that.

So I’ll keep this review short. What will you get if you buy this book? In the first few chapters, you’ll learn a great deal about the collapse of several ancient societies (and no, Rome is not one of them; Visigoths are not an environmental issue). These stories present lots of interesting questions and will keep you thinking long after you’ve put the book down.

Next you’ll read several chapters about collapses in more modern societies, and about the environmental problems facing certain places and how those are causing societal changes. This is an important point: Diamond is surely an environmentalist in some sense and he is surely writing from that perspective, but he is not writing about what is happening to the environment in these places (Australia, China, Rwanda) simply because the environment is pretty and full of fluffy woodland creatures; this is a deficiency of many environmentalists, the notion that we should care about the environment for the environment’s sake. What Diamond has done is show us, both in the previous chapters about ancient societies and in the ones about the present day, is that environmental degradation creates significant impacts on human society, so significant as to result in that society’s ultimate destruction.

Taking these two sections together, Diamond is showing us how societies themselves affect the environment, and how the effects those societies themselves had on their environment led to their downfall—or, in some cases, how those societies recognized and solved their environmental problems to their own benefit. This isn’t Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance. Diamond is no breathless idealist. He’s simply using empirical evidence to show how societal mismanagement of the environment has significant, and often negative, impacts on society itself.

The final chapters of the book relate more general ideas about the environment and society, such as how on Earth could the Easter Islanders have been so stupid as to cut down all their trees. Diamond examines how societies fail to perceive, to understand, and to solve environmental problems. He discusses how major players in any society, be they tribal chieftains or corporate CEOs, have looked at environmental issues.

The final chapter of Collapse summarizes what Diamond sees as the largest environmental problems currently affecting society, how they are interconnected, and how they can be solved. He doesn’t propose solutions, he simply points out that all of the problems can, in fact, be solved by modern world society. But it will take sustained political will. And a part of that sustained will must come from us First Worlders, in the form of embracing a lifestyle that involves less consumption. Less consumption frequently is translated to "lower standard of living," but this need not necessarily be the case. Diamond does not get into this but I'm thinking about it and will probably post on it later.

I would love to discuss this book at length with anyone who is interested in doing so. But I must leave this review here. In summary, this is an outstanding book, one that deserves to be read by everyone. One reviewer called it "the most important book of the decade," and he may not be far off. You owe it to yourself and your children to read it. My only fear is that most Americans will likely turn their backs to Diamond's message. Jared Diamond calls himself a "cautious optimist" about the future. I hope he's right.

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