Sunday, July 10, 2011

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

In his million-copy bestseller Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond examined how and why Western civilizations developed the technologies and immunities that allowed them to dominate much of the world. Now in this brilliant companion volume, Diamond probes the other side of the equation What caused some of the great civilizations of the past to collapse into ruin, and what can we learn from their fates?

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (also titled Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive) 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:

“ This book employs the comparative method to understand societal collapses to which environmental problems contribute. My previous book (Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies), had applied the comparative method to the opposite problem: the differing rates of buildup of human societies on different continents over the last 13,000 years. In the present book focusing on collapses rather than buildups, 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 collapse does occur. By relating output variables to input variables, I aim to tease out the influence of possible input variables on collapses. ” —page 18

Diamond identifies five factors that contribute to collapse: climate change, hostile neighbors, collapse of essential trading partners, environmental problems, and failure to adapt to environmental issues.

He also lists 12 environmental problems facing mankind today. The first eight 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
Increased per-capita impact of people

Further, he says four new factors may contribute to the weakening and collapse of present and future societies:

Anthropogenic climate change
Buildup of toxins in the environment
Energy shortages
Full human utilization of the Earth’s photosynthetic capacity
Diamond also writes about cultural factors, such as the apparent reluctance of the Greenland Norse to eat fish.

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, climate change, hostile neighbors, loss of trading partners, and the society's own responses to its environmental problems. The societies Diamond describes are:

The Greenland Norse (climate change, environmental damage, loss of trading partners, irrational reluctance to eat fish, hostile neighbors and most unwillingness to adapt in the face of social collapse)
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)

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.

Easter Island collapse

Jared Diamond's thesis that Easter Island society collapsed in isolation entirely due to environmental damage is contested by ethnographers and archaeologists who argue that the introduction of diseases carried by European colonizers and slave raiding, which devastated the population in the 1800s, had a much greater social impact than environmental decline and that introduced animals, first rats and then sheep, were greatly responsible for the island's loss of native flora which came closest to deforestation as late as 1930-1960.


Tim Flannery gave Collapse the highest praise in Science, writing

"... 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. 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:

"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 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.

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.

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.

In 2006 the book was shortlisted for The Aventis Prizes for Science Books award, eventually losing out to David Bodanis' Electric Universe.

Similar theories

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.

The Canadian author Ronald Wright penned a similar but shorter book-length essay A Short History of Progress in 2004. Wright surveys fewer societies in less detail than Diamond, but begins much earlier in human prehistory with the worldwide slaughter of megafauna whenever and wherever humans migrated to new lands in the Stone Age, including Neanderthal man. His conclusions did not share the "cautious optimism" of Diamond.

In 1966 American historian and polymath Carroll Quigley explored sociocultural evolution and posited economic & political theories for collapse.

In 2010, National Geographic released the documentary film Collapse based on Diamond's book.

Jared Mason Diamond

Jared Mason Diamond (born September 10, 1937) is an American scientist and author whose work draws from a variety of fields. He is currently Professor of Geography and Physiology at UCLA. He is best known for the award-winning popular science books The Third Chimpanzee; Guns, Germs, and Steel; and Collapse.

Diamond was born in Boston, Massachusetts, to a Bessarabian Jewish family. His father was the physician Louis K. Diamond, and his mother the teacher, musician, and linguist Flora Kaplan. He attended the Roxbury Latin School, earning his A.B. from Harvard College in 1958, and his Ph.D. in physiology and membrane biophysics from the University of Cambridge in 1961.

After graduating from Cambridge, he returned to Harvard as a Junior Fellow until 1965, and, in 1968, became Professor of Physiology at UCLA Medical School. While in his twenties, he also developed a second, parallel, career in the ornithology of New Guinea, and has since undertaken numerous research projects in New Guinea and nearby islands. In his fifties, Diamond gradually developed a third career in environmental history, and became Professor of Geography at UCLA, his current position. He was awarded an honorary doctorate by Westfield State University in 2009.

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