Book Review – Collapse by Jared Diamond

I won’t try to add anything insightful to the reviews of Jared Diamond’s second offering Collapse, How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Amazon lists over 900 reviews while Goodreads lists over 2,000 reviews and 50,000(!) ratings with an average of 3.92 out of 5.0. Let’s just say that the book hasn’t gone unnoticed.

In Collapse, Diamond explores cultural and human sustainability by parsing the history of ancient cultures who have not survived and by sorting out reasons modern cultures struggle. The book readable but is but not light reading. Diamond weaves threads of geography, climate, religion, and politics into a complex whole as he steps through several cultures to examine in detail what drove them to virtual extinction. Poor, biased, and greedy decisions are the typical culprit.

There is a world of questioning here. Why didn’t Vikings associate with successful Inuits on Greenland? Good gawd – why didn’t they eat fish? How did the population of Easter Island fail to recognize that they were depleting the island of everything necessary for their survival? When looking backward at these peoples the questions and answers sound elementary and simple. It’s easy to imagine that we – modern, educated, worldly-wise – would never be as closed minded and self-serving. But his investigations into current events in Rwanda, Haiti, and Australia leave you wondering.

I completely enjoyed the book as an eye-opener into the complexity of human problems. You cannot come away without a sense that few things are as easy as they seem. Or as Fox News or MSNBC would have you believe. And it’s hard to disagree with Diamond that the single most important factor in success or failure is decision making. No matter what the geography, no matter the climate, no matter about local and competing populations, cultures often make decisions that directly result in decline or sustainability.

Collapse Jared Diamond

Jared Diamond

There are detractors. Diamond’s conclusion that people and cultures are directly responsible for their successes or failures does not sit well with those who believe that aboriginal peoples lived lives of lazy harmony with others and with Mother Earth. The oddest is the vigorous claim that it wasn’t Eastern Islanders but rats that deforested their island. Diamond claims Islanders cut trees for timber and for rollers to move statues. Others say nae – it was rats gnawing for food who did the forest in. It’s interesting only that it is so odd. And within the world of geography, too, Diamond apparently has his critics. See the tab titled Geographic Determinism on his website for a rebuttal to his academic colleagues.

I agree with other reviewers that Diamond presents the blocks of his brick house without vetting. He assumes a tacit agreement with the reader on the effects of climate change and presents histories of whole peoples mostly without input of the ideas of other scholars. Not to worry: you can sort this out for yourself as the book is replete with thirty pages of Further Reading.

It’s not all ancient history. He opens with what I felt to be the best chapter of the book where he outlines challenges to residents of Montana’s Bitterroot Valley. The clash between tradition, money, and growth in this region is a sad harbinger of what is likely coming everywhere. When it comes to property and land use, money and business usually get the win. Read this chapter and you’ll have a better picture of modern challenges than anything you’ll hear from any cable news outlet.

He closes by asking big questions: why do societies make disastrous decisions? What is the role of business and climate change? Can moderns make right decisions?

The book is very readable and his arguments are well developed and generally well supported. In spots, the writing is a bit less crisp. But I recommend that the book be put firmly on top of everyone’s reading list for a necessary introduction to the complexity of cultural questions and answers.

Four Stars

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