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Note: This article is from Conservation Magazine, the precursor to Anthropocene Magazine. The full 14-year Conservation Magazine archive is now available here.

Book Review: Collapse

July 29, 2008

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed
By Jared Diamond
Viking Books, 2005
Reviewed by David Rains Wallace

Wandering in the wood, Alice heard sawing and walked that way, hopeful of getting directions. Halfway up an oak, a hedgehog in a frock coat and silk hat was sawing off the limb it sat on.

“I say,” she cried, “you ought to stop that!” The hedgehog looked at her but kept sawing.

“Why should I?” it snapped.

“You’ll fall!”

“Why should I fall?” the hedgehog shouted, turning pink. “Explain!”

“When the limb you’re sawing falls, you’ll fall too,” Alice replied, with, she thought, admirable conciseness.

“That’s not an explanation,” the hedgehog shouted, still sawing. “It’s just proximate cause. You’ll have to give ultimate cause!”

“I shall never get home for tea,” Alice sighed.

Collapse is a splendid study of why some societies have succumbed to environmental deterioration while others haven’t. It also describes modern forces which, Jared Diamond argues, will soon drive global society toward collapse if prevailing trends continue: “[B]ecause we are rapidly advancing along this non-sustainable course, the world’s environmental problems will get resolved, in one way or another, within the lifetimes of the children and young adults of today. The only question is whether they will become resolved in pleasant ways of our own choice or in unpleasant ways not of our choice, such as warfare, genocide, starvation, disease epidemics, and collapses of societies.” He brings much erudition to the book’s first subject and much evidence to its second. I found it convincing.

But then, I’ve been convinced for the past 30 years, which is why what strikes me most about the book is how much of it could have been published in 1975. None of the past collapses Diamond describes-of Easter Islanders, Lowland Maya, Greenland Norse-were unknown then, although new details have since emerged. The collapses have been canonical to environmental literature since at least the 1950s. Horrid as they are, I found myself feeling nostalgic as I read about them again-a stroll down doomsday lane.

The impending collapses Diamond examines in the book’s second half also were known thirty years ago. Rwanda and Haiti were so degraded that increasing trouble was predictable. Australia’s deforestation, erosion, pollution, and introduced organisms were well documented. The only big surprise, I think, has been China’s speedy change from a “small-is-beautiful” icon into a global generator of pollution and climate change.

Even the reasons for hope that Diamond offers after 500 pages of reasons for despair would have been familiar in 1975-increasing public awareness, a growing environmental movement, and some governmental and industrial moves toward environmental protection. An appendix with hints for aspiring environmentalists was also a standard feature of 1970s environmental literature.

Yet Collapse is a timely book, as demonstrated by lengthy reviews in mainstream publications. It is an excellent update on our predicament which will awaken many readers to its urgency. Unfortunately, other aspects of the timeliness are less encouraging. It is being reviewed widely because it comes from a best-selling author and a major publisher-it would have had similar notice if it were about colonizing Mars. And some reviews seem to be less manifestations of ongoing environmental concern than indicators of the extent to which the U.S. mainstream has first denied, then forgotten, the canon of environmental collapse.

The New Yorker’s review, by staff writer Malcolm Gladwell, exemplifies this, especially because that magazine once published versions of The Population Bomb and Silent Spring. Gladwell is sympathetic to Diamond’s message and may be familiar with its antecedents, but he doesn’t say so. Instead, he makes the idea that human welfare has an environmental component sound new. “We live in an era preoccupied with the way that ideology and culture and politics and economics help shape the course of history,” he writes, “but Diamond isn’t particularly interested in those things . . . Collapse is a book about the most prosaic elements in the earth’s ecosystem-soil, trees, and water . . .” Indeed, one of Gladwell’s comments gives the impression that the author conceived his concern with soil, trees, and water single-handedly. He notes approvingly that Diamond doesn’t blame the 1994 Rwandan genocide entirely on overpopulation, deforestation, and erosion-that he is not an environmental determinist. Then he concludes, “The real issue is how, in coming to terms with the uncertainties and hostilities of the world, the rest of us have turned ourselves into cultural determinists.”

The New Yorker seems to be saying that Collapse is timely not so much because it raises the question of how civilized human beings can live within the constraints of a finite biosphere but because it raises the question of why they won’t. Like my Lewis Carroll hedgehog, Gladwell requires an ultimate explanation of why we should stop sawing off our limb, not just the proximate one that we will fall if we don’t stop. And the latter question does seem timely a few months after we elected a president hostile to living within constraints and over two decades after we elected another. Maybe it does need an answer before the mainstream will consider the former.

One of the interesting things about Collapse is that, although the latter question is not Diamond’s main concern, he keeps circling it. The book’s subtitle, How Societies Choose to Succeed or Fail, is an example. Diamond never clearly defines success or failure while he defines the five environmental and cultural factors he thinks contribute to them: environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbors, friendly trade partners, and societal responses to environmental problems. He assumes a rational definition-failure is when people are so poor that they die or flee; success is when they are rich enough to enjoy life where they are. But then, if humans are at least potentially rational, as Diamond believes, why do they often choose failure?

Diamond offers a variety of historical reasons. The Easter Islanders chose failure because they didn’t realize that the island’s environment was different from that of their original tropical homeland. The Classic Maya chose it because their elites exhausted resources in competing for prestige. The Greenland Norse chose it for those reasons and because, like the other societies, they had religious beliefs that outweighed survival. Thus, Diamond notes, choosing environmental collapse can often seem more rational than choosing success because logical goals such as profit, group solidarity, and religious transcendence can motivate the choice. In all cases, the exponential nature of population growth makes choosing success chancy because environmental degradation proceeds at rates hard to perceive during long periods when population growth remains moderate, then spins out of control during short periods when population growth explodes.

Diamond doesn’t really try to answer Gladwell’s contemporary question of how “the rest of us became cultural determinists.” In his final chapters, he takes a few stabs at describing ways in which the U.S. is choosing failure-as with our persistence in treating the arid West like the humid East and our elites’ increasing tendency to hog resources and segregate themselves. He touches gingerly on prickly issues like immigration. Such passages are cursory, however. It would take a book of even greater length to answer Gladwell’s question. Whether an explanation would stop the hedgehog sawing is uncertain, anyway. I believe some books addressed similar questions in the 1970s, although I can’t remember the titles. And, given our pervasive amnesia, why should I?

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