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Collapse: An Extended Book Report

Diamond, J. M. (2005). Collapse : how societies choose to fail or succeed. New York, Viking.

This work presents a broad historical approach to the title question: why do societies collapse? His examples range from Easter Island to the Anasazi of the American Southwest, to the Viking colonies of Greenland, to the Maya, to Rwanda, contrasting these to modern Australia, Montana and Los Angeles, as examples of places with environmental problems that may not in fact collapse.

Diamond, J. M. (2005). Collapse : how societies choose to fail or succeed. New York, Viking.

This work presents a broad historical approach to the title question: why do societies collapse? His examples range from Easter Island to the Anasazi of the American Southwest, to the Viking colonies of Greenland, to the Maya, to Rwanda, contrasting these to modern Australia, Montana and Los Angeles, as examples of places with environmental problems that may not in fact collapse.

One would suspect that every society that lasts more than a few generations faces resource depletion issues. Diamond’s examples vividly illustrate how deforestation has often been a critical problem for societies, given the use of trees for both fuel and as a building material. What is obvious from his examples is that humans have seldom been able to assess the issue of sustainability: how many trees can they cut in a given forest and not ultimately cut down the entire forest, without having enough time for other trees to grow back. Lush vegetation, as greeted European settlers to Australia, may mask poor soils where the nutrients are actually in the very slow-growing trees: and when those trees were cut to build houses and clear land for farming, there was just nothing left to support the plants. Or perhaps, as with the Anasazi, rapid population growth ensued in a period of relatively higher rainfall, only to require drastic measures when a drought period began.

What is clear from Diamond’s examples is that, whatever the “carrying capacity,” or as we may say, resource base, of a location may be, the human population will most likely increase to that point – or even beyond. And long term climate changes can wreck havoc with the population, because if a climate trend is gradual, even the elders may not have the basis for remembering what to do from the last time that the drought occurred – or whatever.

Another important issue in a society’s stability is whether there are friendly trading partners, or unfriendly neighbors. Pitcairn Island in the Pacific was very stable as long as its two immediate trading partners were also stable. When one of them collapsed, so did Pitcairn, because the three islands were each dependent on the other. In the case of the Greenland Norse, their failure to learn from their neighbors, the Inuits, condemned them to a lifestyle that was dependent on subsidy from the Norse homeland – which was ultimately unsustainable.

But what Diamond’s present-day examples illustrate is that human activity, and specifically post-industrial human activity, has done is to add toxicity to the mix. His example of mining operations in Montana is frankly scary. The mining operations not only have destroyed large areas of land where the mining actually occurred, but the release of toxic chemicals and metals into the water system has threatened communities hundreds of miles away. And if those cities haven’t had an official catastrophe, the citizens of those cities are still ingesting chemicals at a level which could best be described as a ticking bomb. With the historic pattern of mining operations that strip and then declare bankruptcy, one has to wonder if , from a societal standpoint, these mines ever were an economic boon. Diamond doesn’t go so far as to address that question unequivocally, but he does certainly cover the topic of the idea that the perception of water and air as “free” can lead to some major economic distortions.

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