Collapse – How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive

Collapse Book Cover Collapse
Jared M. Diamond
Environmental policy
Lane, Allen

From groundbreaking writer and thinker Jared Diamond comes an epic, visionary new book on the mysterious collapse of past civilizations - and what this means for our future. Why do some societies flourish, while others founder? What happened to the people who made the forlorn long-abandoned statues of Easter Island or to the architects of the crumbling Maya pyramids? Will we go the same way, our skyscrapers one day standing derelict and overgrown like the temples at Angkor Wat? Bringing together new evidence from a startling range of sources and piecing together the myriad influences, from climate to culture, that make societies self-destruct, Collapse also shows how unlike our ancestors we can benefit from our knowledge of the past and learn to be survivors.

This is one of the best books I have ever read. It covers a broad scope and does so in considerable depth and with what looks to be sound analysis.

The part that resonates the most to me is the discussion of Easter Island. How, for 300 years the surplus of food allowed through intensive agriculture funded an allocation of 25% of the island’s resources towards building the famous statues. Ironically, the deforestation that was driven by the need for timber to move and erect the statues led to the destruction of local birdlife, access to fisheries and the intensive agriculture. The largest volcano on the island translates as “the place to get canoes”. Without the trees to make canoes, tuna and dolphin was no longer on the menu. All the native tree species were wiped out. on Page 114 is the quote I like the most “What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it?”.  “Jobs, not trees!” or “Technology will solve our problems, never fear, we will find a substitute for wood” or: “we don’t have proof that there aren’t palms elsewhere on Easter, we need more research, your proposed ban on logging is premature and driven by fear-mongering”.

It puts things nicely in context. They were not much different to us at all.

Most importantly in this book, there is a solid discussion about why societies make the choices they do. It covers not just the failures but successes too, comparing and contrasting similar situates where there were the same challenges and different decisions and outcomes.

The final message for me is that poor long-term choices eventually come up against a limit or challenge that is too great to allow a simple change of some detail or other.  A choice to do something different or suffer the (often gruesome) consequences must be made.

A must read.