Jared Diamond. Collapse - How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive. London: Penguin Books, 2006

 

Book reviewer: Dr. Sevket Akyildiz

 

Jared Diamond. Collapse - How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive. London: Penguin Books, 2006.

The title of Diamond's text is ambitious, topical and thought-provoking. Although the book comes under the heading of history its content is closely connected with contemporary environmental issues of sustainability, permaculture and humankind's use of natural resources. This linkage between the history of human societies and the environment has become more poignant in recent decades as the threat of climate change is made apparent in our everyday lives and in broadcast news stories.

 

PROLOGUE:

 

Diamond discusses how societies have collapsed in the past and in response he searches for questions and patterns which contemporary societies can possibly use to prevent such catastrophes. The risk of such collapses today is now a matter of increasing concern; indeed, 'collapses' have already materialized for Somalia, Rwanda, and some other Third World countries. Many experts and people fear that ecocide has now come to overshadow nuclear war (p. 7).

 

What makes Diamond's work readable is his enthusiasm and knowledge acquired over several decades of research. Although at 528 pages it is not a book to read over a long weekend. (Thoughtfully Diamond has included a further readings section at the back of the book which is over 30 pages in length. This section is divided by 16 chapter headings, and indeed encourages the keen reader or student to further pursue their research.) Still, I do not think that it intended for this purpose, rather, it contains sufficient information about environmental problems and historical research themes for it to be read and reflected upon over time - and revisited. His work is balanced and he makes no grand claims and makes no dooms day scenarios about our future.

 

His structure contains four main studies: Part One Modern Montana, Part Two Past Societies, Part Three Modern Societies and Part Four Practical Lessons. Diamond addresses 12 environmental problems facing contemporary humankind: Points one to eight have historically contributed to the collapse of societies in the past - 1. Deforestation and habitat destruction, 2. Soil problems (erosion, salinization, and soil fertility losses), 3. Water management problems, 4. Over hunting of local wildlife, 5. Overfishing of the seas, 6. Effects of introduced species on indigenous species, 7. Human population growth, 8. Increased per-captia impact of people (Source: Diamond, p. 6). Points nine to twelve: 9. Energy, 10. the Photosynthetic ceiling, 11. Toxic chemicals, and 12. Atmospheric changes have become serious in the contemporary era Points one to four relate to the loss of natural resources; points five to eight refer to ceilings on natural resources; and nine to 12 consider harmful things that humans make (p. 486).

 

Furthermore, his five point framework of factors in the study of the collapse of societies is explained on p.11 - he considers a study of these factors necessary "...in trying to understand any putative environmental collapse." These are: environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbours, and friendly trade partners - and they "may or may not prove significant for a particular society." The fifth factor relates to the "response" to impending environmental problems. This last factor is "significant."

 

The historical analysis is focused upon the past societies of Easter Island, Pitcairn and the Henderson Islands, the North American Anasazi and their neighbours, the Maya, the Vikings of Greenland - and the modern societies: Rwanda, Haiti and Dominican Republic, China and Australia. Part One is a detailed study of the North American state of modern Montana, its environment and society.

 

PART ONE: MODERN MONTANA:

 

CHAPTER 1 Diamond makes what one perhaps might think would be a less than exciting topic, a very engaging and revealing study. Clearly, his U.S. roots and residence in Montana adds to this understanding, empathy and motivation. His local knowledge shows through his writing. The picture he paints of the mid-western state is mixed and despite the natural beauty of the region, there are several major environmental and social issues (forestry, soil erosion, water quality, air pollution, employment opportunities, and gated communities) that both the federal government in Washington and private companies have failed to address adequately.

 

PART TWO: PAST SOCIETIES:

 

CHAPTERS 2, 3, 4, and 5: Chapter 2 on Easter Island; Chapter 3 on Pitcairn an Henderson Islands; Chapter 4 on the Anasazi; and Chapter 5 on the Maya Collapses have been detailed in a number of contemporary texts, both academic and in popular histories. Rather than repeat the words of others and paraphrasing Diamond I would suggest to the reader that each of these chapters is suitable for a general understanding of these regions, islands and peoples. Each is about 20 to 30 pages in length, and therefore not too long and readable in day (or two). Diamond's work is well structured and this is helpful because the reader moves between sections on geography, local politics (of the masses and the elites), economics, religious studies, climate change, archaeology and environmental issues.

 

CHAPTERS 6, 7 and 8: Those readers who like their Viking history of the West Atlantic are in for a real treat. Chapter's 6 to 8 detail, and I mean detail, the two key settlements established on Greenland by the Vikings. These settlers were part of a Westward expansion of the adventurous Norwegian sailor-farmers-marauders. They moved on from the Shetland Islands, the Faeroe Islands, Iceland and finally a group settled in Greenland. So named as a ruse to get settlers to migrate there, in what is otherwise a harsh climate for Europeans. Actually, Greenland was not the last stop, in fact we learn about the 'Viking discovery' of Newfoundland (Vinland) in about 1000 CE and hence North America (for European society). Diamond comments that had it not been for the large number of Native Americans the Viking Greenlanders might have survived their ecological problems, and the Vinland settlers might have persisted. In that case, Vinland might have undergone a population explosion; the Norse might have spread over North America and North American history might have been very different (p. 210).

 

Returning to Greenland, we are told that early Norse immigrants were fortunate to find a virgin landscape untouched by agriculture or forestry, suitable for pasture, with a mild climate, with precious walrus ivory tusks available for the European market (when ice did not prevent sea travel), and with no Native Americans close by their settlements (p. 248). We are informed that the Norse lived harsh existence in their Greenland colony. Significantly, they retained their Christianity and sense of European identity. Diamond considers this honourable and understandable, but also problematic. He raises a number of questions: why did the Norse refuse to adopt Inuit dress (that was better suited to the local climate)? Why did the Norse not intermarry with the Inuit? Why did the Norse refuse to adopt Inuit hunting techniques and tools? (p. 246).

 

CHAPTER 9: This chapter is intriguing and explains how and why societies such the wonderful example of the Pacific island of Tikopia (pp. 286-293), and Japan (pp. 294-306) have managed to sustain their societies, whilst others have collapsed or else are currently struggling. In reference to environmental planning and to the historical experiences discussed in examples throughout Collapse he states that proactive leaders can influence top-down and impact upon society, and equally active citizens can change policies from the bottom-up (p. 306).

  

PART THREE: MODERN SOCIETIES:

CHAPTER 10: discusses the modern history of Rwanda and the genocide within that country during the 1990s. It's a shocking read and Diamond argues that we should not confine the events to claims, actually made at the time, that the aggression and violence was the cause of long suppressed ethnic hatreds, rather he examines economic conflicts and communal pressures caused by population growth and environmental degradation. This one of Diamond's more sympathetic chapters and he explains the terrible clearly and with some understand (pp. 311-328).

 

CHAPTERS 11, 12, 13 discuss the modern societies of the Dominican Republic, Haiti, China and the Australia. China is the topic of many books and television documentaries and due to limited space I would say that the pressures caused by the human need and industry on the land, soil, air, and water in that country are serious and growing; in this case, Diamond highlights the darker side of the industrial development, especially in the context of environmental damage caused by humans. A significant factor about the Australia story is the poor soils of that land, the need to import many crops that other countries such as Britain and Turkey would take for granted. The introduction of alien species such as rabbits, foxes and plant life that was unsuitable to the environment and that have grown in number significantly is discussed around British values (and this conceptual discussion is expanded in Chapter 14). A point is made about the secular values of the Australians, for examples they do not eat kangaroo meat, rather like the Greenland Vikings refusing to eat fish (because fish was associated with the Inuit). Sheep farming was introduced because the first British settlers wanted to eat roast lamb and wear wool. The problem is the size and scale of that industry and what the land can sustain. The human population of Australia is given consideration; debate reflects upon the government policies about the ethnic origins of this group, and the ideal size that this population should be in relation to the environment (approximately eight million). The exploitation of the country's natural resources, particularly mining is examined in the context of its effect on the environment. Reading this chapter from a European perspective the most revealing and interesting story is that of the Spanish speaking Dominican Republic and the other country it shares an island with, namely French influenced Haiti. The history, economic development, and authoritarian top-down rule (by Balaguer in the Dominican case, and Papa Doc Duvalier and 'Baby Doc' in Haiti) that these countries have experienced and there effect on the local forests, water supplies, mining and society in general are detailed - and based upon his travels to the Dominican Republic. Diamond reports that environmental issues in the Dominican republic represent eight of the 12 given above: "forests, marine resources, soil, water, toxic substances, alien species, population growth, and population impact" (p. 349). He writes that the contrasting case studies of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and that of the Norse and the Inuit in Greenland explain how a society's destiny is in its own hands and largely upon choices of its own making. Of all the examples he provides he thinks are these most notable (p. 341).

 

PART FOUR: PRACTICAL LESSONS

 

CHAPTERS 14 and 15 discuss the "…oft-complicated reasons why people do or don't pursue environmentalist policies" (Diamond, p. 346) and "why do some societies make decisions". Arguably this is the most interesting chapter in the book, at least in the context of trying to explain the reasons why societies decline, or seem to fail to respond to perception of environmental problems. Diamond makes clear that he is not advocating 'environmental determinism' (p. 417). This chapter analyses the theories about human and group motivation, action ad inaction. Diamond then goes on to analyse four factors which contribute to the failures within group decision-making (p. 421). These are (1) the failure to anticipate the problem (p. 421), (2) when the problem materializes the group might fail to realise it (p. 424), (3) and even if they perceive a problem they might fail to find a solution (p.427), (4) and finally, their attempts to resolve the problem might fail (p. 429). Chapter 15 investigates big business and the environment and looks at the different conditions in world regions and historical cases and the outcomes of the utilisation of resources. Industries reviewed cover oil, mining, logging, and fishing.

 

CHAPTER 16: The final asks: "what does this mean to us today", the major environmental threats to humankind and the timescale, and "what can I do as an individual"? (p. 487). Diamond looks at loss: 1).our effect on the natural environment, 2). wild foods (such as fish) and aquaculture, 3). loss of species (animal and plant) and biodiversity issues, 4). water and wind erosion of soils of farmland; ceilings: 5). use of fossil fuels, 6). use of water, rivers, and lakes, 7). The capacity of photosynthesis - which is dependent on soil fertility, locale, 8). chemical and industrial pollution of the air, water, soil, 9). 'alien species' of animals and plants, 10). human activity that releases gases into the atmosphere thus damaging the ozone layer or the greenhouse gases; human population: 11). that requires feeding, energy, space, homes, services, 12). But what is significant is not the number of humans but their environmental impact; Third World peoples and societies (but not all of them) desire First World lifestyles and mass consumption (p. 494). Diamond expresses that all these points (problems) are linked. The ideal would be environmentally sustainable societies - but how do we get to this point, peacefully or otherwise (p. 498).

 

"Cautiously optimistic"

 

The 12 environmental problems or points are legitimate grounds for debate and discussion, disagreement and argument. Arguments critical or questioning of the environmental debate: the environment versus the economy debate; technology will solve our problems; we can always find another resource if one runs out; has not the 'Green revolution' solved the food problem - or cannot we not transport food to where it is needed most? Look around you, the supermarkets are full and we live longer know than before; the environmentalists are "doom mongers"; the human population will level off at some point the future; environmental concerns are the ideas of western yuppies or hippies; the environmental meltdown occurs after I die anyway, why should I care? (pp. 503-514). Diamond remarks that it will not be easy to reduce our impact on the impact on the earth, but not impossible either. The internet, greater democratization, and mass media have informed the public in new and unofficial ways. It is about choices and opportunities, hopes, courageous leaders, and long-term thinking - and managing shared resources fairly and better (pp. 521-524).

 

Lastly, I find this book absorbing if a little long and sometimes the detail is a little too much. However, I think that it is crucial to understand his core message if we are t o creatively and sensitively establish new ways of sustainable living, whilst at the same time not generate unnecessary fear about extensive economic, financial and industrial meltdown. For this reason I agree with Diamond's outlook at the beginning of the book: Thus, I am writing this book from a middle-of-the-road perspective, with experience of both environmental problems and of business realities (p. 17). As the author of this book review I believe that whatever (natural and manmade) crises that humankind will inevitably have to face in the future, one thing is for sure, if any species has the creativity, imagination and mental and physical resilience to find solutions and adapt to new ways of living appropriate to changing environmental circumstances it is us humans.

 

Book reviews and criticism:

The Energy Reader. http://www.energybulletin.net/node/4182 accessed 2011.

Michael Kavanagh. Grist. http://www.grist.org/article/kavanagh-collapse accessed 8 Nov 2011.

Jack Harish Reading Notes. http://www.thwink.org/sustain/articles/misc/ReadingNotes_Collapse.pdf accessed 8 Nov 2011.

Jonathon Porritt. "Man vs nature." The Guardian. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2005/jan/15/society accessed 8 Nov 2011.

Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collapse:_How_Societies_Choose_to_Fail_or_Succeed accessed 8 Nov 2011.