Collapse (book)

Collapse (book)

infobox Book |
name = Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed
title_orig =
translator =

author = Jared M. Diamond
cover_artist =
country = United States
language = English
series =
genre = Non Fiction
publisher = Viking Press
release_date = 2005
media_type = Print (Hardback & Paperback)
pages = 592
isbn = ISBN 0143036556
preceded_by = Guns, Germs, and Steel Reader's Companion

"Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed" is a 2005 book by Jared M. Diamond, professor of geography and physiology at University of California, Los Angeles. Diamond's book deals with "societal collapses involving an environmental component, and in some cases also contributions of climate change, hostile neighbors, and trade partners, plus questions of societal responses" (p. 15). In writing the book Diamond intended that its readers should learn from history (p. 23).


In the prologue, Diamond summarizes "Collapse" in one paragraph, as follows.

Diamond lists eight factors which have historically contributed to the collapse of past societies:
#Deforestation and habitat destruction
#Soil problems (erosion, salinization, and soil fertility losses)
#Water management problems
#Effects of introduced species on native species
#Population growth
#Increased per-capita impact of people

Further, he says four new factors may contribute to the weakening and collapse of present and future societies:
#Human-caused climate change
#Buildup of toxins in the environment
#Energy shortages
#Full human utilization of the Earth’s photosynthetic capacity

The root problem in all but one of Diamond's factors leading to collapse is overpopulation relative to the practicable (as opposed to the ideal theoretical) carrying capacity of the environment. The one factor not related to overpopulation is the harmful effect of accidentally or intentionally introducing nonnative species to a region.

Diamond also states that "it would be absurd to claim that environmental damage must be a major factor in all collapses: the collapse of the Soviet Union is a modern counter-example, and the destruction of Carthage by Rome in 146 BC is an ancient one. It's obviously true that military or economic factors alone may suffice" (p. 15).

Book structure

"Collapse" is divided into four parts.
*Part One describes the environment of the US state of Montana, focusing on the lives of several individuals in order to put a human face on the interplay between society and the environment.
*Part Two describes past societies that have collapsed. Diamond uses a "framework" when considering the collapse of a society, consisting of five "sets of factors" that may affect what happens to a society: environmental damage, climatic change, hostile neighbors, loss of trading partners, and the society's own responses to its environmental problems. The societies Diamond describes are:
** Easter Island (a society that collapsed entirely due to environmental damage)
** The Polynesians of Pitcairn Island (environmental damage and loss of trading partners)
** The Anasazi of southwestern North America (environmental damage and climate change)
** The Maya of Central America (environmental damage, climate change, and hostile neighbours)
** The Greenland Norse (environmental damage, loss of trading partners, climate change, hostile neighbours and unwillingness to change in the face of social collapse)
** Finally, Diamond discusses three past success stories:
*** The tiny Pacific island of Tikopia
*** The agricultural success of central New Guinea
*** The Tokugawa-era forest management in Japan.
*Part Three examines modern societies, including:
** The collapse into genocide of Rwanda, caused in part by overpopulation
** The failure of Haiti compared with the relative success of its neighbour on Hispaniola, the Dominican Republic
** The problems facing a developing nation, China
** The problems facing a First World nation, Australia
*Part Four concludes the study by considering such subjects as business and globalization, and "extracts practical lessons for us today" (p. 22 – 23). Specific attention is given to the polder model as a way Dutch society has addressed its challenges and the "top-down" and most importantly "bottom-up" approaches that we must take now that "our world society is presently on a non-sustainable course" (p. 498) in order to avoid the "12 problems of non-sustainability" that he expounds throughout the book, and reviews in the final chapter. The results of this survey are perhaps why Diamond sees "signs of hope" nevertheless and arrives at a position of "cautious optimism" for all our futures.


Tim Flannery gave "Collapse" the highest praise in "Science", writing [Flannery, T. (2005, January 7). "Learning from the past to change our future". In "Science, 307", 45.]

:... the fact that one of the world's most original thinkers has chosen to pen this mammoth work when his career is at his apogee is itself a persuasive argument that "Collapse" must be taken seriously. It is probably the most important book you will ever read.

"The Economist"'s review was generally favorable, although the reviewer had two disagreements. First, the reviewer felt Diamond was not optimistic enough about the future. Secondly, the reviewer claimed "Collapse" contains some erroneous statistics: for instance, Diamond supposedly overstated the number of starving people in the world. [ [ "Of Porpoises and Plantations"] . (2005, January 13). In "The Economist, 374", 76.] University of British Columbia professor of ecological planning William Rees wrote that "Collapse"'s most important lesson is that societies most able to avoid collapse are the ones that are most agile; they are able to adopt practices favorable to their own survival and avoid unfavorable ones. Moreoever, Rees wrote that "Collapse" is "a necessary antidote" to followers of Julian Simon, such as Bjørn Lomborg who authored "The Skeptical Environmentalist". Rees explained this assertion as follows: [Rees, W. (2005, January 6). "Contemplating the Abyss". In "Nature, 433", 15 – 16.]

:Human behaviour towards the ecosphere has become dysfunctional and now arguably threatens our own long-term security. The real problem is that the modern world remains in the sway of a dangerously illusory cultural myth. Like Lomborg, most governments and international agencies seem to believe that the human enterprise is somehow 'decoupling' from the environment, and so is poised for unlimited expansion. Jared Diamond's new book, "Collapse", confronts this contradiction head-on.

In a recent edition of "Energy and Environment", Jennifer Marohasy of the Institute of Public Affairs, (both the author and the right-wing Australian think-tank have stated positions of climate change scepticism), has a critical review of "Collapse", in particular its chapter on Australia’s environmental degradation. Marohasy claims that Diamond reflects a popular view that is reinforced by environmental campaigning in Australia, but which is not supported by evidence, and argues that many of his claims are easily disproved. [Jennifer Marohasy, [ "Australia's Environment: Undergoing Renewal, Not Collapse"] (PDF), "Energy and Environment" 16 (2005)]

In his review in "The New Yorker", Malcolm Gladwell highlights the way in which Diamond's approach differs from traditional historians by focusing on environmental issues rather than cultural questions. [Malcolm Gladwell, [ "The Vanishing"] , "The New Yorker", 2005-01-03] :Diamond’s distinction between social and biological survival is a critical one, because too often we blur the two, or assume that biological survival is contingent on the strength of our civilizational values... The fact is, though, that we can be law-abiding and peace-loving and tolerant and inventive and committed to freedom and true to our own values and still behave in ways that are biologically suicidal.While Diamond doesn't reject the approach of traditional historians, his book, according to Gladwell, vividly illustrates the limitations of that approach. Gladwell demonstrates this with his own example of a recent ballot initiative in Oregon, where questions of property rights and other freedoms were subject to a free and healthy debate, but serious ecological questions were given scant attention.

imilar theories

In writing the book Diamond intended that its readers should learn from history (p. 23), re-igniting a theme explored by other historians. British historian Arnold J. Toynbee in "A Study of History" (1934-1961) also studied the collapse of civilizations. Diamond agrees with Toynbee that "civilizations die from suicide, not by murder" when they fail to meet the challenges of their times. However, where Toynbee argues that the root cause of collapse is the decay of a society's "creative minority" into "a position of inherited privilege which it has ceased to merit", Diamond ascribes more weight to conscious minimization of environmental factors.

From another angle, U.S. historian Joseph Tainter in "The Collapse of Complex Societies" (1988) argues that observable causes of collapse such as environmental degradation ultimately result from diminishing returns on investments in energy, education and technological innovation.

In a coincidence perhaps revealing the zeitgeist or "spirit of our times", the Canadian author Ronald Wright penned a not dissimilar but shorter essay-like work "A Short History of Progress" in 2004. Whilst surveying fewer societies in less detail than Diamond, Wright nevertheless began his journey much earlier in human prehistory with the worldwide slaughter of megafauna whenever and wherever we migrated to new lands in the Stone Age, including perhaps our closest evolutionary competitor, Neanderthal man. His own conclusions left him with far less room for the "cautious optimism" of Diamond.

American historian and polymath Carroll Quigley, highly praised by former U.S. President Bill Clinton, also explored the evolution of civilizations and posited a theory about collapse. His book "Tragedy and Hope: A History of the World in Our Time" explores the development of Western Civilization in the 20th century and offers considerable insight into the role of the power elite, and the financial and economic systems in sustaining and destroying societies.

ee also

* Societal collapse
* Sustainability
* Creeping normalcy
* "A Study of History" by Arnold J. Toynbee
* "The Collapse of Complex Societies" by Joseph Tainter
* "A Short History of Progress" by Ronald Wright
* Decline of the Roman Empire, over 200 theories on why Rome collapsed.
* Deforestation during the Roman period
* "" by Jared Diamond


External links

* [ The first chapter]
* [ Tokugawa Shoguns vs. Consumer Democracy] : Diamond interview on the subjects raised in the book with "NPQ", Spring 2005, concentrating on the intersection of politics and environmentalism. One observation by Professor Diamond: ::"The historical record, at least, shows no general case for either democracy or dictatorship in terms of curbing environmental damage. The Tokugawa Shoguns made a good decision; the ruling kings of the Maya failed to take action."
* [ How Societies Fail - And Sometimes Succeed] , video of a seminar given in June 2005 at the Long Now Foundation.
* [ Seminars About Long Term Thinking] , The Long Now Foundation
* [ Learning from Past Societies: The Sustainability Lessons Are There, If Only We Can Find Them] – This is an assessment of the process maturity used in Collapse and a similar book, Treading Lightly, to answer their driving questions. The assessment sheds light on the process maturity of any similar effort to solve difficult complex social system problems, particularly the sustainability problem.
*" [ Book Review Perspectives] " on Collapse from " [ Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy] "
* [ Jared Diamond's video presentation of "Collapse"] – Video of a talk given at Columbia University in April 2007
* [ COLLAPSE?] – museum exhibit developed by the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles in collaboration with Jared Diamond

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