Jason Bense

Book Review

Diamond, Jared. Collapse – How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.
New York : Penguin Books, 2005.

Jared Diamond, professor at UCLA and formerly of physiology at the medical school, begins Collapse by asking a colleague professor, Stan, of why Stan went to Montana. Stan’s lure to Montana is fly-fishing as a relief from the stress and strain of life. One can not help get caught up in wanting to pick up their own fly-fishing rod under Montana’s big sky and start fishing from the description given by Diamond. Stan reflects that, “It [fly-fishing in Montana] filled me with a sense of peace, and with an extraordinary perspective on my place in the world” (28). Amidst the overriding lengthy discourses in the book of societies that have fallen beyond ecological and cultural survival, the hope and joy of fly-fishing in Montana is an image that carries throughout the book as a love for the environment. Clearly, Diamond desires for the reader to enter Stan’s perspective.

In the prologue, Diamond gives a clear purpose for the book. He writes, “This book employs the comparative method to understand societal collapses to which environmental problems contribute. … I compare many past and present societies that differed with respect to environmental fragility, relations with neighbors, political institutions, and other ‘input’ variables postulated to influence a society’s stability. The ‘output’ variables that I examine are collapse or survival, and form of the collapse if a collapse does occur. But relating output variables to input variables, I aim to tease out the influence of possible input variables on collapses” (18). Diamond is successful in the book’s purpose. He examines numerous past and present societies to comprise a rather comprehensive listing of variables in the survival of a society to provide a study of societies’ collapses “scientifically”.

In Part One, Diamond focuses on Montana and studies several family farms including the Huls and the Hirschys. The dangerous effects of poorly controlled mining, logging/deforestation, and deregulation in Montana is explored in depth. In Part Two, Diamond researches societies that have collapsed in history: Easter Island in the Pacific, Pitcairn Island, Henderson Island (all Polynesian), the Native American Anasazi in the present day Southwest United States, the Maya, Norse Greenland, Fertile Crescent societies, Angkor Wat, and the Harappan Indus valley. Two societies are also given in the section that succeeded amidst environmental problems in history: Polynesian Tonga, Tikopia (a tiny tropical island in the Southwest Pacific Ocean), Tokugawa Japan, and the New Guinea highlands. Part Three examines many contemporary cultures and world situations including Third World disaster in Rwanda, Third World survival in the Dominican Republic, Third World catching up in China, First World Australia, and the deep poverty and hope in Haiti. In Part Four, Diamond “extracts” practical lessons for today. He asks in the final section how a society can fail to have seen dangers that seem clear in retrospect, considers the role of modern business, and summarizes types of environmental dangers.

A five-point framework guides the book in evaluating a society’s collapse. The first four factors (environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbors, and friendly trade partners) are said by Diamond as “may or may not proving significant for a particular society. However, the fifth factor (the society’s responses to its environmental problems, “always proves significant” (11). 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, overhunting, overfishing, effects of introduced species on native species, human population growth, and 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 toxic chemicals in the environment, energy shortages, and the full human utilization of the Earth’s photosynthetic capacity.

The final summary chapter asks, “What does it all mean to us today?” to which Diamond offers twelve answers. First, “At an accelerating rate, we are destroying natural habitats or else converting them to human-made habitats” (487). Examples of human-made habitats are cities and, roads and golf courses. Second, “Wild foods, especially fish and to a lesser extent shellfish, contribute a large fraction of the protein consumed by humans” (488). Especially the poor depend on the oceans for protein and wild fish stocks are healthy, overfishing plagues most of our waters and has led to a collapse before (Easter Island, Mangareva, and Henderson). Third, “A significant fraction of wild species, populations, and genetic diversity has already been lost, and at present rates a large fraction of what remains will be lost within the next half-century” (488). Losing lots of unnoticeable species can do big harm for humans. Four, “Soils of farmlands used for growing crops are being carried away by water and wind erosion at rates between 10 and 40 times the rates of soil formation, and between 500 and 10,000 times soil erosion rates on forest land” (489). Soil erosion contributes to all of the historical collapses described in the book. Five, “The world’s major energy sources, especially for industrial societies, are fossil fuels: oil, natural gas, and coal” (490). These energy sources are limited non-renewable resources and have “a ceiling”. Six, “Throughout the world, freshwater underground aquifers are being depleted at rates faster than they are being naturally replenished, so they will eventually dwindle” (490). Fresh, reliable desalinized water also has “a ceiling”. Seven, sunlight has a ceiling as well. Diamond finds that “Given the rate of increase of human population, and especially of population impact … we are projected to be utilizing most of the world’s terrestrial photosynthetic capacity by the middle of this century” (491). Eight, “The chemical industry and many other industries manufacture or release into the air, soil, oceans, lakes, and rivers many toxic chemicals” (491). Toxic chemicals if broken down in the natural environment only do so very slowly. Nine, alien species transferred from place to place “cause big effects” on native plants and species (492). Ten, human activity damages the ozone layer leading to global warming and harmful changes in greenhouse gases (493). Eleven, “The world’s human population is growing” (494). And the growing human population is taxing on an environment. Twelve, humans drastically “impact” their environment (494). And more times than not the impact often leads to collapse. Diamond notes that the twelve problems are not separate from one another but must be read together. He writes, “they are linked: one problem exacerbates another or makes its solution more difficult” (496). The modern societies environmental problems as well as their environments are interdependent.

Diamond also rebuffs numerous ecological myths. Calling them common one-liner objections, he says the objections dismiss the significance of the environmental crisis (503-514). The dozen most common objections are answered by Diamond: the environment must be balanced with the economy, technology will be our savior, an alternative resource to an exhausted one is always possible, there is no real problem with the a supply of the world’s food, the signs of affluence (GNP, lifespan, and health) show we are improving, doom-and-gloom predictions are old news, world population will level off, the more the better in terms of human population, concern for the environment is a luxury afforded by the affluent, I can take care of environmental problems later, we can not straightforward apply the lessons from the past.

Attention is given to the polder model as a way Dutch society has addressed its challenges. The Netherlands has “the world’s highest level of environmental awareness”, and asked why on a recent trip, a native of the Netherlands suggests that one has little option but not to care for their land and one another. Reclaimed lands that have been pumped out below sea level are called polders. A Netherlands expression says, “You have to be able to get along with your enemy, because he may be the person operating the neighboring pump in your polder” (519). The polder model is cooperation between employers' organizations, labor unions, and the government. The Social Economic Council of the three then serves as the central forum to discuss issues and has a long tradition of consensus.

Societies that are vulnerable and recognize their precarious nature and the intrinsic need to value the earth and live in communion with the earth and one another have the greatest potential for valuing their resources and survival in Diamond’s accounts. The Netherlands serves as one example, and Haiti is a second example. Haiti and neighbors such as the Dominican Republic have no choice but to collaborate together. Despite being the poorest country in the hemisphere there are signs of hope for the country. With such dire poverty, disease and neglect, some from the outside see no hope. However, “Those who did see hope began by acknowledging that they were in a minority and that most people saw no hope, but they themselves then went on to name some reason why they clung to hope, such as the possibilities of reforestation spreading out from Haiti’s existing small forest reserves, the existence of two agricultural areas in Haiti that do produce surplus food for internal export to the capital of Port-au-Prince and the tourist enclaves on the north coast, and Haiti’s remarkable achievement in abolishing its army without descending into a constant morass of secession movements and local militias” (354).

Collapse has drawn national attention in media and the arts and brought attention to the environmental crisis for many good reasons, and the book deserves much acclaim for education and broadening awareness. By placing ourselves in a historical picture that is both biological and cultural, one is able to have a better understanding of our interrelated earth in both historical time and place. As one, myself, who will soon be moving to Los Angeles to serve in ministry, I read with interest in Diamond’s thirty-nine years in Southern California that has seen unprecedented human growth, sprawl, traffic, and resource consumption. Once the most fertile land on the entire west coast of the US, Los Angeles is no covered with freeways and average congestion of waiting an hour to travel a few miles. And despite the gloom of the geographical, biological and cultural failure of past societies, there is hope in the book living into the vulnerable aspect of life on a global scale.

One simplistic reading of book may cause one to suggest that we can divide environmental issues between two opposite camps of “environmentalist” or “pro-environment” and a later camp of “non-environmentalist” in Diamond’s language. In this sense it is nearly like having the elect and the non-elect in Calvinist theology, and the elect or pro-environmentalist thinking can save the world. Whereas those who are not part of the elect do not have the knowledge, the intellectual elect can enable salvation. Such a black and white read of human nature is not possible.

In fact, I feel that Collapse takes a rather simplistic view of human nature. There is an underguiding ideal that if humans are simply given a logical and scientific viewpoint with the proper rationale for saving the earth, that they will do it. Humans and human nature is much more complex and in a view of original sin or fallen humanity, there is little hope even in a scientifically knowledgeable human race. Diamond writes “we [the present generation] are the first to enjoy the opportunity of learning quickly from developments in societies anywhere else in the world today, and from what has unfolded in societies at any time in the past. That’s why I wrote this book” (23). Can such knowledge and learning provide such an optimistic hope? Perhaps, but it will take even more. Cooperation and a world communion are necessary in the task and even then natural causes outside of humans threaten life.

A final cause of hope for Diamond given in the book is the “globalized modern world’s interconnectedness” (525). It is my hope as well that we live in communion one with another and the delicate environment of earth.