The book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond is becoming increasingly relevant in today’s world, because its growing scars of environmental damage. In his book he discusses how environmental degradation is the underlying causes of social and political collapse of society, and uses both modern and historical examples.
He starts the book close to home in Bitterroot, Montana. There he talks about the mounting environmental pressures that have been plaguing the area. From there, he examines examples from the past: the Mayan Civilization, the Anasazi of the American Southwest and the Viking colonies of Greenland, and the different island-societies in the South Pacific.
He also includes the example of Rwanda as an example of what modern societal collapse can look like. I particularly found value in this example because it was a splash of cold water to wake me to realization that what seems to be a racial or political conflict in the truth is a mask for a conflict over resources. The example of Rwanda gives a real face to the more abstract term of societal collapse.
One of the parts of the book which I found critical were the fates of the different societies on the islands of the South Pacific. As he explains, because we cannot make scientific experiments on the collapse of societies, one good place to look at are the islands of South Pacific, as their societies closest examples of case studies in the rise and fall of a societies, and microcosm of what can happen in the world.
In examining the different societies in the pacific, he includes the example of Tikopia, a small island in the southwest Pacific, as an example of a society that managed sustainable its resources. One the other end of the spectrum, he discusses in detail the famous example of Easter Island.
The story of Easter Island, know for its giant statues of human heads or moai, is one that personally fascinates me, having read accounts of it as young boy. Easter Island is the most remote inhabited island in the world. It’s original Polynesian colonists who arrived in 900AD (there are earlier dates proposed of the arrivals of humans in Easter island, but Diamond suggest this to be the more accurate date), found an abundant island, but as the population grew and irreparably degraded the island’s natural resources, war, famine and cannibalism gripped the island. In 1722 when the first Europeans arrived on the island, the island’s population had dropped to 2,000 to 3,000 after a societal collapse from an estimated high of approximately 15,000 just a century earlier. The story of Easter island serves as a cautionary moral tale of what can happen to a society, and the planet as a whole, if we allow ourselves to blindly consume and damage our resources.
As one gets closer to the end of book one will get a dreadful feeling that it is there is no stopping the momentum mankind has built up to an eventual worldwide collapse of civilization. However, he ends the book giving a gleam of hope that if we find it within us to come together and heed the lessons from history, we can save ourselves from impending devastation.
The book end with a question. Will mankind like islanders of Easter island allow ourselves to go down a path that will plunge our world into war and famine? Or will we like the islanders of Tikopia make fundamental concerted changes in our society to protect our environment and ensure the long term survival of society?
You can choose to check out more info on this book on Amazon here.
Other books by Jared Diamond:
The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal (1991);
Why is Sex Fun? – An Evolution of Human Sexuality (1997);
Guns, Germs, and Steel : The Fates of Human Societies (1997, awarded a Pulitzer Prize);
The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies (2012)