Friday 5 April 2013

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, by Jared Diamond

This book, published in 2005, follows on from Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, which I reviewed on this blog in October 2012. GGS focused on the factors which had allowed civilisations to develop successfully in some parts of the world but not others. Collapse looks at the other end of the process, and considers why a variety of different societies which had become established subsequently failed.

 The author starts by proposing a five-point framework of factors which could influence the collapse of a society: environmental damage; climate change; hostile neighbours; friendly trade partners; and (of greatest significance) the society's response to such problems. He then goes on to examine in detail several societies. Somewhat surprisingly, he spends the first part of the book focusing on a single valley in Montana which he knows well, looking at the range of factors which have affected its development over the past few decades. He then goes on to more conventional case studies, first looking at historical societies: Easter, Pitcairn and Henderson Islands in the Pacific; the Anasazi, the Maya, the Viking settlements (especially Iceland and Greenland), and mention of a few other societies which have succeeded despite difficulties, notably Japan.

 A lot of the problems experienced by colonists trying to become established in new territory have been down to wrong assumptions; for instance, the scenery and vegetation may look very similar to that which the colonists were used to, but may prove to be much slower to recover from farming use, leading to rapid soil erosion.

 Next come some modern societies which are still experiencing significant problems: Rwanda (principally down to uncontrolled population growth to a very high density); Haiti and the Dominican Republic (an interesting contrast, with history and cultural factors predominant); China (severe pollution) and Australia (environmental deterioration). In the final part Diamond looks at some practical lessons, drawing a road map of factors contributing to failures of group decision-making. His "road map" includes the failure to anticipate problems (e.g. introducing rabbits and foxes to Australia); failure to perceive a problem once it has arrived, usually because it occurs so gradually (e.g. climate change); failure to act even after a problem has been perceived, particularly when the ruling elite isn't affected, only the powerless poor (e.g. subsidising fisherman when stocks collapse instead of taking steps to allow stocks to recover - the "tragedy of the commons" particularly applies here). Some reasons for failure to act may be religious or cultural (e.g. the Greenland Vikings died out when they could have survived by copying the lifestyle of the Inuit living successfully in the same area) or could simply be down to psychological denial (e.g. continuing to live close to a potential disaster - such as a potentially active volcano or earthquake-prone fault).

 One section near the end addresses some common objections to his thesis: "The environment has to be balanced against the economy" (it is always much more costly in the long run to ignore environmental problems then try to deal with the consequences than it is to take prompt action to remove the causes). "Technology will solve our problems" (technology creates at least as many problems as it solves; furthermore, the cost of technological solutions to problems is always far greater than that of preventing the problems from happening). "If we exhaust one resource, we can always switch to another" (even where that is feasible, experience shows that it takes an extremely long time for any new technology to replace a well-established one). "There isn't a global food problem, we just need to arrange efficient transportation to get it where it's needed" (that assumes that First World countries with food surpluses will be willing to transport huge quantities of food to the Third World, free of charge, indefinitely - for which there is no evidence). "Predictions of environmental disaster have always been proved wrong" (sometimes they have, but sometimes that may be because action has been taken: e.g. pollution from car exhausts in Los Angeles; furthermore, some anti-environmentalist predictions have also proved wrong, such as predictions that the Green Revolution would have banished global hunger by now). "There is no population crisis: it will level off by itself, and anyway continued growth is good for the economy" (the main problem is not actually the number of people, but the resources they use up and the waste they generate; by most criteria we are already using resources at an unsustainable rate, and economic growth in the Third World is rapidly multiplying consumption).

 I have to say that I didn't find this book as gripping as GGS. I felt that the author was being self-indulgent rather than focusing on presenting his case as crisply as possible, and believe that with judicious editing the book could have been reduced in length by around 50% without losing any of the key evidence and arguments. I therefore struggled with it to some extent, and ended up skim-reading most of the final section to get to the end. Despite this, there is a lot of solid, thought-provoking material in this book which should make it as valuable as GGS to world-building writers.


Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

Interesting take on using this as world-building source material for writers. But I definitely see your point in the review.

Bill Garthright said...

I agree, Tony. Guns, Germs, and Steel really blew me away. This one was important and thought-provoking and very pertinent to our time, but I finished it more out of a sense of duty than because I couldn't put it down.