Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed: Revised Edition

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed: Revised Edition

The works of Jared Diamond, a top professor in various fields at University of California, Los Angeles, have been the staple reading material at the Ivy League universities since 1999. His "Guns, Germs, and Steel," explained the manner by which Europe prevailed over the rest of the world. "Collapse" attempts to answer the question, “What caused some of the great civilizations of the past to collapse into ruin, and what can we learn from their fates?”

Indeed, in Jared Diamond’s follow-up to the Pulitzer-Prize winning Guns, Germs and Steel, the author explores how climate change, the population explosion and political discord create the conditions for the collapse of civilization. By civilization, he meant different parts of the world that formed the whole.

Environmental damage, climate change, globalization, rapid population growth, and unwise political choices were all factors in the demise of societies around the world, but some found solutions and persisted. As in Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond traces the fundamental pattern of catastrophe, and weaves an all-encompassing global thesis through a series of fascinating historical-cultural narratives.

However, as is the problem with ambitious books, the details occasionally get in the way of the simplest question posed above. Jared Diamond came closest to answering it on page 23, where it says “… group decision making can be undone by a whole series of factors, beginning with failure to anticipate or perceive a problem, and proceeding through conflicts of interest that leave some members of the group to pursue goals good for themselves but bad for the rest of the group.”

But these answers do not go very far. They leave one thirsting for the deeper fundamental causes. For example, why do societies “fail to anticipate or perceive a problem”? Why do “conflicts of interest” occur? What can be done to resolve “conflicts of interest” enough to permit solution of the problem ? 

The Fertile Crescent has a strong claim to the greatest collapse ever. Covering some 400,000 to 500,000 square miles, these were highly fertile lands, watered by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and blessed with favorable climate. It was here that agriculture was born, some 11,000 years ago. Remains of the first known Neolithic farming settlements, dating to 9,000 BC, have been found there. Long, long ago, the area was so populated and so prosperous that it has been nicknamed the Cradle of Civilization. But it collapsed.

Due to thousands of years of irrigation, subsequent salination, and displacement of forest with agriculture, the area is now the Cradle of Suffering. It is now part of the deserts and arid lands of Israel, Lebanon, Jordon, Syria, Iraq, and southeastern Turkey.  Even Jared Diamon's favourite haunt in Bitterrooy Valley in Montana is undergoing serious environmental strain.

"Collapse" moves from the Polynesian cultures on Easter Island to the flourishing American civilizations of the Anasazi and the Maya and finally to the doomed Viking colony on Greenland. Similar problems confront us today and have already brought disaster to Rwanda and Haiti, even as China and Australia are trying to cope in innovative ways.

Despite our own society’s apparently inexhaustible wealth and unrivaled political power, ominous warning signs have begun to emerge even in ecologically robust areas like Montana.

Brilliant, illuminating, and immensely absorbing, Collapse is destined to take its place as one of the essential books of our time, raising the urgent question: How can our world best avoid committing ecological suicide ?

Perhaps Jared Diamond sensed that he hadn’t gone deep enough when he wrote on page 436 that “Finally, even after a society has anticipated, perceived, or tried to solve a problem, it may still fail for obvious possible reasons: the problem may be beyond our present capacities to solve, a solution may exist but be prohibitively expensive, or our efforts may be too little and too late.”  

Still, the book is solid, valuable ground breaking work nevertheless. It lays down a substantial path all the way to a “competitive spiral” as a result of a “lust for power.” But for the reader to go any further, he or she is on their own.