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The last to die for a mistake

  • Nov 2, 2012
This Springsteen lyric came to mind when reading Diamond's environmental history of major societal collapses.  From his study of ancient collapses like Easter Island, the Mayan empire of Central America, and Norse Greenland, Diamond draws principles that determine when and why societies fail to adapt to environmental changes.  Ignoring their lessons, says Diamond, may leave even us wealthy first world citizens "the privilege of being the last to starve" (p. 520).

Diamond posits five a five-point framework of environmental factors that contribute to societal collapse:
  1.     Climate change
  2.     Environmental damage
  3.     Hostile neighbors
  4.     Friendly trade partners
  5.     Society's responses to environmental problems
You will quickly note that some of these (climate change, hostile neighbors) are external factors not controlled by the society in peril, while the others, particularly the last, are directly controllable by that society.  Diamond's history is fascinating as he provides solid (if sometimes speculative because of the impossibility of historical corroboration) evidence of the ways environmental factors led to the death of societies.  If, like me, you haven't read anything about the Easter Island mystery since Thor Heyerdahl, you will find his account of their decline fascinating.

In response to the charge of "environmental determinism" that has been leveled at Diamond because of his focus on the role environmental factors has played in the death (and birth, as described in his previous Pulitzer Prize winning Guns, Germs, and Steel) of societies, Diamond provides examples of parallel societies sharing the same environment, one surviving and one failing.  The Norse and the Inuits shared Greenland until the Norse society failed to adapt and expired, while the Inuits continued to survive, and the modern societies of Haiti and the Dominican Republic share the same Caribbean island, with drastically different levels of quality of life and chances of personal and societal survival.  These examples, says Diamond, "provide the clearest illustrations that a society's fate lies in its own hands and depends substantially on its own choices."

While Diamond's book is severely sobering, it isn't terminally depressing.  His biggest concern for today is that in the face of environmental pressures, the vast majority of world population that lives under Third World conditions now knows of and aspires to the higher living standard, and commensurate resource and environmental impact, of the traditional First World countries.  Those of us who already live in these affluent societies show no desire to voluntarily reduce our living standard, and the globe's economic and environmental resources don't seem likely to support, for example, 1 billion Chinese living at US standards of living, a conflict that continues to play out on the world economic and political stage today.  What will happen?  Who will "win"?  Diamond provides plenty of material for the reader to answer those questions on their own.

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November 08, 2012
What an impressive review. This reads as if it were a college paper and I'd give it an A.
November 02, 2012
The conclusion is that we need to pursue things like solar energy, fusion power, electric cars etc.
More Collapse: How Societies Choose... reviews
review by . May 21, 2010
A decade ago I read Jared Diamond's Pulitzer Prize winning classic "Guns, Germs and Steel". I have just completed reading this recent work by him. Like his previous work, both take the long view of human history, except this one looks specifically at how different societies have collapsed or endured. The author examines about a dozen societies across human history, presents the evidence from various sources such as written records, pollen records, weather data from tree rings, dated human remains, …
review by . December 03, 2007
Diamond has followed the triumph of Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies(W.W. Norton & Co., 1997) with another brilliant take on history, this one with more profound implications concerning our imminent future. Read in conjunction with Kevin Phillips' American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21stCentury, and in light of recent climatological data, one can't escape the feeling that we are in very deep trouble. In a recent interview …
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Todd Stockslager ()
Ranked #36
I love reading and writing about what I have read, making the connections and marking the comparisons and contrasts. God has given man the amazing power to invent language and the means to record it which … more
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Jared Diamond'sCollapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeedis the glass-half-empty follow-up to his Pulitzer Prize-winningGuns, Germs, and Steel. WhileGuns, Germs, and Steelexplained the geographic and environmental reasons why some human populations have flourished,Collapseuses the same factors to examine why ancient societies, including the Anasazi of the American Southwest and the Viking colonies of Greenland, as well as modern ones such as Rwanda, have fallen apart. Not every collapse has an environmental origin, but an eco-meltdown is often the main catalyst, he argues, particularly when combined with society's response to (or disregard for) the coming disaster. Still, right from the outset ofCollapse, the author makes clear that this is not a mere environmentalist's diatribe. He begins by setting the book's main question in the small communities of present-day Montana as they face a decline in living standards and a depletion of natural resources. Once-vital mines now leak toxins into the soil, while prion diseases infect some deer and elk and older hydroelectric dams have become decrepit. On all these issues, and particularly with the hot-button topic of logging and wildfires, Diamond writes with equanimity.

Because he's addressing such significant issues within a vast span of time, Diamond can occasionally speak too briefly and assume too much, and at times his shorthand remarks may cause careful readers to raise an eyebrow. But in general, Diamond provides fine ...

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ISBN-10: 0143036556
ISBN-13: 978-0143036555
Author: Jared Diamond
Genre: History, Nonfiction
Publisher: Penguin
First to Review

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