Pondering the palimpsest and panoply of the planet.

Jared Diamond’s Collapse: A Review

It is by now a well-known and undisputed fact that climate change in all its guises is, or will soon be, the biggest problem for life on planet Earth. There is no longer any credible debate that it is occurring, and even the debate whether or not it has been caused mostly by human activity now depends only on an individual’s acceptance of the head-in-the-sand propaganda led by the oil lobby. My position is that regardless of whether climate change is caused by humans or not, we should treat it as if it were and take the threat seriously. If it turns out that the 97% of scientists who have been studying the issue in depth for decades were actually wrong and we ended up with cleaner, cheaper energy, a less wasteful and more sustainable way of living, and cleaner air, water, and land, then that is a consequence we can happily live with. On the other hand, if it turns out that the scientists are correct, but governments do not take action soon enough, we may risk if not total human extinction, quite probably the large-scale extinction of the type of modern civilization, values, and rights we have come to take for granted (as well as a mass extinction of huge numbers of plant and animal species). For all its faults, our modern civilization is infinitely better and more livable than the type of apocalyptic scenarios we are used to seeing in films and TV, but can hardly imagine actually happening in our lifetimes. In the worst-case scenario, the effects of climate change will rip apart the fragile trappings of civil society and make survival and the defense of basic natural resources the daily priority of most of the remaining humanity.

collapseThe collapse of individual human societies, either suddenly or over a long period of time, is nothing new. Just as a huge majority of the animal species that ever existed have gone extinct, a very large percentage of human societies that ever existed have gone extinct in different ways. Some have slowly transformed, migrated, or integrated into something completely different from what came before. The entire human species can be seen as one big melting pot in this way, genetically, culturally, linguistically, and anthropologically. In many well-known cases, there have been total or near collapse of entire societies. Jared Diamond, in his 2005 book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, examines several examples of such societies and analyzes the main factors that lead to societal collapse, and some examples of how other societies have avoided such a fate through various actions. The book is very interesting from a historical perspective alone, but the lessons we can draw from it still have very clear and present ramifications given that there are no longer individual isolated human societies as such, but just one single global human society whose fate will be shared be all–with the biggest burden upon the shoulders of the poorest and least culpable of us.

Collapse is the follow-up book to Diamond’s celebrated Guns, Germs, and Steel, in which he attempted to show how European countries quite suddenly and unexpected came to dominate the world for the last five centuries (I summarized and discussed that book at length in this article). Like its predecessor, Collapse is so rich in details, anecdotes, and useful analysis that it is impossible for a brief review to fully capture everything, and I would obviously suggest reading and pondering upon it for yourselves. In any case, I will attempt to give as brief a synopsis as possible and some relevant observations from my own reading. Why do I write a review of a book that came out 10 years ago? I read the book four years ago and, like Guns, Germs, and Steel, its lessons and conclusions stuck with me as I continued my ongoing education and search for how to live a good life. As I watch the news and reflect upon the state of the world and the environment today, I am often reminded of one or another of the lessons and wisdom from this book, which remains more relevant than ever.

The book compares a select group of past and present societies that either collapsed due to some of a variety of factors, or were able to recognize and overcome those factors in time to ensure their survival. The five factors Diamond identifies that contribute to societal collapse are: climate change, hostile neighbors, loss of essential trading partners, environmental problems, and failure to adapt to these environmental problems. He shows that the one shared trait among all collapsed societies is environmental problems, and that the single most decisive among the five factors is the failure to adapt to these problems. This is emphasized and shown throughout the book, thus anticipating and dismissing the charge of environmental and geographical determinism that is often leveled at Diamond by superficial critics. He further delineates 12 examples of environmental problems faced by human societies today, of which the first eight have all contributed in different levels to past societal collapses, and the last four or which are totally novel problems that have never before been faced by any human society:

Soil problems such as erosion, salinization, and loss of fertility
Water management problems
Effects of introduced plant and animal species on native species
Impact of increased human density

Current and future factors to further complicate matters:
Man-made climate change
Buildup of toxins in the land and water
Energy shortages
Full use of the planet’s photosynthetic capacity

Deforestation of the Amazon in Brazil

Deforestation of the Amazon in Brazil

The single most important factor that causes other problems is overpopulation relative to the environmental and geographic carrying capacity (amount of sustainable human density allowed by geography and natural resources). The most representative environmental problem that leads to collapse is the destruction of forests, as Diamond says here: “Deforestation was a or the major factor in all the collapses of past societies described in this book.” Diamond also clarifies that environmental factors have not been the most important factor in all historic societal collapses; there are also military and economic factors to consider, such as in the cases of the Soviet Union and ancient Carthage to name two (and the hypothetical occurrence of nuclear war would fit into this category as well). Nevertheless, given the interconnectedness of the world today and the warming and deteriorating state of the environment, we will focus on the twelve factors that Diamond has listed and how they affect human survivability.

The first part of the book discusses at length the modern American state of Montana and shows some of the problems faced by several individuals and the work they are doing to protect their environment. Here he discusses especially how toxic to the environment the mining industry has been and still is for entire ecosystems.

Part two focuses on five historical examples of societal collapse and three historical success stories. The first is the Norse settlers of Greenland, who died out due to climate change, environmental damage, loss of trading partners (from Iceland), hostile neighbors (the Inuit, who have survived to modern times showing that adaptability is important), and unwillingness to adapt despite impending doom. On this last point, Diamond shows how the religious and political leaders continued to use their limited resources to import luxury status symbols for their own good rather than useful tools and metals that could be used to improve the colony; they also stubbornly refused to eat fish due to a social taboo even though they were living next to the water; furthermore, they continued to focus on raising cows despite the fact that the land could not support them.

Diamond next discusses Easter Island in a controversial chapter in which he holds that that island’s tribal societies collapsed completely owing to environmental damage. Specifically, he shows that the island was gradually deforested in order to build the huge monoliths that rival chiefs and tribes used as prestige symbols. When the island was deforested, the topsoil eroded and the island, already in a precarious situation as the most isolated place on Earth, could no support itself with no hope of help or escape.

The Anasazi people of southwestern North America, modern-day Arizona and New Mexico, collapsed due to environmental damage and climate change.

The Mayans of modern-day Mexico and Guatemala collapsed due to environmental damage, climate change, and hostile neighbors.

Then, he shows how some past societies avoided collapse due to recognizing their problems and changing course. The Pacific island of Tikopia is a small community where inhabitants assumed a bottom-up approach to limit and reverse deforestation and overfishing. On the island of New Guinea, highland peoples developed sophisticated agricultural techniques that fully used and conserved their natural resources, allowing them to thrive and survive undisturbed for thousands of years despite total isolation. In the 1600-1800s in Japan, the Tokogawa shogunate reversed centuries of deforestation due to constant warfare by dictating a top-down law restricting the felling of trees. It is one of the earliest and most successful examples of forest management, and ensured the survival and prosperity of societies in Japan to the present day (though he adds that the wood needed was outsourced from more distant countries, thus outsourcing as well the problem of deforestation, a problem which also has modern-day parallels).

Part three looks at some modern societies and the problems they face. The first of these is Rwanda. Diamond points out some of the political and environmental factors that led up to the horrific 1994 genocidal civil war in that country. As is often the case, Diamond speaks from decades of his own observations and travels in the places around the world he discusses. He had been to Rwanda before the civil war and noticed that there was no available land remaining for cultivation, with terraces running up to the very tops of the hills. This is one of the points that illustrates his conclusion that the main factor behind the violence was ultimately overpopulation and overuse of its available resources.

The next chapter interestingly compares two countries that share the same island and have had quite different paths: Haiti and the Dominican Republic. He does this on purpose to show that while environmental factors are always important, the most crucial aspect of a society’s collapse or survival is always attributable to the human reaction to the problems at hand. As he says: “For anyone inclined to caricature environmental history as “environmental determinism,” the contrasting histories of the Dominican Republic and Haiti provide a useful antidote. Yes, environmental problems do constrain human societies, but the societies’ responses also make a difference. So, too, for better or for worse, do the actions and inactions of their leaders.”

The last two chapters of part three look at problems facing a developing nation–China–and a first world nation–Australia. In both cases he lists some of the enormous environmental challenges faced by these countries as a way to show that the potential future outcomes can be positive or negative based on the actions or lack of actions by the leaders and citizens.

The last part of the book, and probably the most important, is what we can do to make a difference. Diamond writes: “It should also be understood that bottom-up and top-down approaches can coexist within a large-scale society that is organized as a pyramidal hierarchy of units. For example, in the United States and other democracies we have bottom-up management by local neighborhood and citizens’ groups coexisting with top-down management by many levels of government (city, county, state, and national).”

He goes on: “Leaders who don’t just react passively, who have the courage to anticipate crises or to act early, and who make strong insightful decisions of top-down management really can make a huge difference to their societies. So can similarly courageous, active citizens practicing bottom-up management. The Tokugawa shoguns, and my Montana landowner friends committed to the Teller Wildlife Refuge, exemplify the best of each type of management, in pursuit of their own long-term goals and of the interests of many others.”

About business, he has this to say: “When government regulation is effective, and when the public is environmentally aware, environmentally clean big businesses may outcompete dirty ones, but the reverse is likely to be true if government regulation is ineffective and if the public doesn’t care. It is easy and cheap for the rest of us to blame a business for helping itself by hurting other people. But that blaming alone is unlikely to produce change. It ignores the fact that businesses are not non-profit charities but profit-making companies, and that publicly owned companies with shareholders are under obligation to those shareholders to maximize profits, provided that they do so by legal means. Our laws make a company’s directors legally liable for something termed “breach of fiduciary responsibility” if they knowingly manage a company in a way that reduces profits. The car manufacturer Henry Ford was in fact successfully sued by stockholders in 1919 for raising the minimum wage of his workers to $5 per day: the courts declared that, while Ford’s humanitarian sentiments about his employees were nice, his business existed to make profits for its stockholders. Our blaming of businesses also ignores the ultimate responsibility of the public for creating the conditions that let a business profit through hurting the public: e.g., for not requiring mining companies to clean up, or for continuing to buy wood products from non-sustainable logging operations. In the long run, it is the public, either directly or through its politicians, that has the power to make destructive environmental policies unprofitable and illegal, and to make sustainable environmental policies profitable. The public can do that by suing businesses for harming them, as happened after the Exxon Valdez, Piper Alpha, and Bhopal disasters; by preferring to buy sustainably harvested products, a preference that caught the attention of Home Depot and Unilever; by making employees of companies with poor track records feel ashamed of their company and complain to their own management; by preferring their governments to award valuable contracts to businesses with a good environmental track record, as the Norwegian government did to Chevron; and by pressing their governments to pass and enforce laws and regulations requiring good environmental practices, such as the U.S. government’s new regulations for the coal industry in the 1970s and 1980s. In turn, big businesses can exert powerful pressure on their suppliers that might ignore public or government pressure.”

Diamond shows the urgency of the situation we are facing in this quote: “Our world society is presently on a non-sustainable course, and any of our 12 problems of non-sustainability that we have just summarized would suffice to limit our lifestyle within the next several decades. They are like time bombs with fuses of less than 50 years. For example, destruction of accessible lowland tropical rainforest outside national parks is already virtually complete in Peninsular Malaysia, will be complete at current rates within less than a decade in the Solomon Islands, the Philippines, on Sumatra, and on Sulawesi, and will be complete around the world except perhaps for parts of the Amazon Basin and Congo Basin within 25 years. At current rates, we shall have depleted or destroyed most of the world’s remaining marine fisheries, depleted clean or cheap or readily accessible reserves of oil and natural gas, and approached the photosynthetic ceiling within a few decades. Global warming is projected to have reached a degree Centigrade or more, and a substantial fraction of the world’s wild animal and plant species are projected to be endangered or past the point of no return, within half a century. People often ask, “What is the single most important environmental/population problem facing the world today?” A flip answer would be, “The single most important problem is our misguided focus on identifying the single most important problem!” That flip answer is essentially correct, because any of the dozen problems if unsolved would do us grave harm, and because they all interact with each other. If we solved 11 of the problems, but not the 12th, we would still be in trouble, whichever was the problem that remained unsolved. We have to solve them all.”

“The prosperity that the First World enjoys at present is based on spending down its environmental capital in the bank (its capital non-renewable energy sources, fish stocks, topsoil, forests, etc.). Spending capital should not be misrepresented as making money. It makes no sense to be content with our present comfort when it is clear that we are currently on a non-sustainable course.”

Diamond offers a few solutions here: “Is there anything that a poor individual who is neither a CEO nor a political leader can do to make a difference? Yes, there are half-a-dozen types of actions that often prove effective. But it needs to be said at the outset that an individual should not expect to make a difference through a single action, or even through a series of actions that will be completed within three weeks. Instead, if you do want to make a difference, plan to commit yourself to a consistent policy of actions over the duration of your life. In a democracy, the simplest and cheapest action is to vote. Some elections, contested by candidates with very different environmental agendas, are settled by ridiculously small numbers of votes. An example was the year 2000 U.S. presidential election, decided by a few hundred votes in the state of Florida. Besides voting, find out the addresses of your elected representatives, and take some time each month to let them know your views on specific current environmental issues. If representatives don’t hear from voters, they will conclude that voters aren’t interested in the environment. Next, you can reconsider what you, as a consumer, do or don’t buy. Big businesses aim to make money. They are likely to discontinue products that the public doesn’t buy, and to manufacture and promote products that the public does buy. The reason that increasing numbers of logging companies are adopting sustainable logging practices is that consumer demand for wood products certified by the Forest Stewardship Council exceeds supply. Of course, it is easiest to influence companies in your own country, but in today’s globalized world the consumer has increasing ability to influence overseas companies and policy-makers as well. A prime example is the collapse of white-minority government and apartheid policies in South Africa between 1989 and 1994, as the result of the economic boycott of South Africa by individual consumers and investors overseas, leading to an unprecedented economic divestiture by overseas corporations, public pension funds, and governments. During my several visits to South Africa in the 1980s, the South African state seemed to me so irrevocably committed to apartheid that I never imagined it would back down, but it did. Another way in which consumers can influence policies of big companies, besides buying or refusing to buy their products, is by drawing public attention to the company’s policies and products. One set of examples is the campaigns against animal cruelty that led major fashion houses, such as Bill Blass, Calvin Klein, and Oleg Cassini, to publicly renounce their use of fur. Another example involves the public activists who helped convince the world’s largest wood products company, Home Depot, to commit to ending its purchases of wood from endangered forest regions and to give preference to certified forest products. Home Depot’s policy shift greatly surprised me: I had supposed consumer activists to be hopelessly outgunned in trying to influence such a powerful company. Most examples of consumer activism have involved trying to embarrass a company for doing bad things, and that one-sidedness is unfortunate, because it has given environmentalists a reputation for being monotonously shrill, depressing, boring, and negative. Consumer activists could also be influential by taking the initiative to praise companies whose policies they do like. In Chapter 15 I mentioned big businesses that are indeed doing things sought by environmentalist consumers, but those companies have received much less praise for their good deeds than blame for their bad deeds. Most of us are familiar with Aesop’s fable concerning the competition between the wind and the sun to persuade a man to take off his coat: after the wind blew hard and failed, the sun then shone brightly and succeeded. Consumers could make much more use of the lesson of that fable, because big businesses adopting environmentalist policies know that they are unlikely to be believed if they praise their own policies to a cynical public; the businesses need outside help in becoming recognized for their efforts. Among the many big companies that have benefited recently from favorable public comment are ChevronTexaco and Boise Cascade, praised for their environmental management of their Kutubu oil field and for their decision to phase out products of unsustainably managed forests, respectively. In addition to activists castigating “the dirty dozen,” they could also praise “the terrific ten.” Consumers who wish to influence big businesses by either buying or refusing to buy their products, or by embarrassing or praising them, need to go to the trouble of learning which links in a business chain are most sensitive to public influence, and also which links are in the strongest position to influence other links. Businesses that sell directly to the consumer, or whose brands are on sale to the consumer, are much more sensitive than businesses that sell only to other businesses and whose products reach the public without a label of origin. Retail businesses that, by themselves or as part of a large buyers’ group, buy much or all of the output of some particular producing business are in a much stronger position to influence that producer than is a member of the public. I mentioned several examples in Chapter 15, and many other examples can be added. For instance, if you do or don’t approve of how some big international oil company manages its oil fields, it does make sense to buy at, boycott, praise, or picket that company’s gas stations. If you admire Australian titanium mining practices and dislike Lihir Island gold mining practices, don’t waste your time fantasizing that you could have any influence on those mining companies yourself; turn your attention instead to DuPont, and to Tiffany and Wal-Mart, which are major retailers of titanium-based paints and of gold jewelry, respectively. Don’t praise or blame logging companies without readily traceable retail products; leave it instead to Home Depot, Lowe’s, B and Q, and the other retail giants to influence the loggers. Similarly, seafood retailers like Unilever (through its various brands) and Whole Foods are the ones who care whether you buy seafood from them; they, not you, can influence the fishing industry itself. Wal-Mart is the world’s largest grocery retailer; they and other such retailers can virtually dictate agricultural practices to farmers; you can’t dictate to farmers, but you do have clout with Wal-Mart. If you want to know where in the business chain you as a consumer have influence, there are now organizations such as the Mineral Policy Center/Earthworks, the Forest Stewardship Council, and the Marine Stewardship Council that can tell you the answer for many business sectors.”

And finally: “Working to fix your local environment has another benefit besides making your own life more pleasant. It also sets an example to others, both in your own country and overseas. Local environmental organizations tend to be in frequent contact with each other, exchanging ideas and drawing inspiration. When I was scheduling interviews with Montana residents associated with the Teller Wildlife Refuge and the Blackfoot Initiative, one of the constraints on their schedules arose from trips that they were making to advise other such local initiatives in Montana and neighboring states. Also, when Americans tell people in China or other countries what the Chinese should (in the opinion of the Americans) be doing for the good of themselves and the rest of the world, our message tends to fall on unreceptive ears because of our own well-known environmental misdeeds. We would be more effective in persuading people overseas to adopt environmental policies good for the rest of humanity (including for us) if we ourselves were seen to be pursuing such policies in more cases. Finally, any of you who have some discretionary money can multiply your impact by making a donation to an organization promoting policies of your choice. There is an enormous range of organizations to fit anyone’s interests: Ducks Unlimited for those interested in ducks, Trout Unlimited for those into fishing, Zero Population Growth for those concerned with population problems, Seacology for those interested in islands, and so on. All such environmental organizations operate on low budgets, and many operate cost-effectively, so that small additional sums of money make big differences. That’s true even of the largest and richest environmental organizations. For example, World Wildlife Fund is one of the three largest and best-funded environmental organizations operating around the world, and it is active in more countries than any other. The annual budget of WWF’s largest affiliate, its U.S. branch, averages about $100 million per year, which sounds like a lot of money—until one realizes that that money has to fund its programs in over 100 countries, covering all plant and animal species and all marine and terrestrial habitats. That budget also has to cover not only mega-scale projects (such as a $400million, 10-year program to triple the area of habitat protected in the Amazon Basin), but also a multitude of small-scale projects on individual species. Lest you think that your small donation is meaningless to such a big organization, consider that a gift of just a few hundred dollars suffices to support a trained park ranger, outfitted with global positioning software, to survey Congo Basin primate populations whose conservation status would otherwise be unknown. Consider also that some environmental organizations are highly leveraged and use private gifts to attract further funds from the World Bank, governments, and aid agencies on a dollar-for-dollar basis. For instance, WWF’s Amazon Basin project is leveraged by a factor of more than 6-to-1, so that your $300 gift actually ends up putting almost $2,000 into the project. Of course, I mention these numbers for WWF merely because it’s the organization with whose budget I happen to be most familiar, and not in order to recommend it over many other equally worthy environmental organizations with different goals. Such examples of how efforts by individuals make a difference can be multiplied indefinitely.”

There is so much rich detail of information and historical example in Collapse that it is hard to capture in a short review. This book, now over 10 years old, is still as relevant as when it was published because its lessons are universal and timeless. They can be summarized as something like the following: the only path to a successful society is an environmentally sustainable one; and, leaders need to take action to solve problems, and citizens need to be aware of the problems and push leaders to act. There is still time to make a difference, especially with the United Nations Climate Conference happening in Paris at the end of this year, but failure to adapt will be as deadly for us as it was for Easter Islanders.


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One thought on “Jared Diamond’s Collapse: A Review

  1. Pingback: Are We Still Charlie Hebdo?: The Growing Dissonance between Extremism and Free Speech – Wrath-Bearing Tree

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