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Date: 2007
Page count: 580 pages
Format: B/5
ISBN: 978-963-9664-69-2
Category: from English

Original price: 4800 Ft

How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

Sustainability:Science, Practice&Policy
February 6, 2006

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond (The best-selling author of Guns, Germs and Steel) is an invigorating book. Invigorating because you have that moment when you start reading it, and that is where you think, "I would have loved to have written this book!"-especially if you are a sustainability practitioner. Combining the essences of the rise and fall of civilizations dotted throughout history with those of present-day environmental calamities, Diamond is like a master chef, delivering an appetizing concoction that the audience will lap up. Unlike doomsday scenarios that are often depressing and sometimes one-sided stories about why the human race will not be able to sustain itself, Diamond gives examples of both past communities that have failed and those that have lived sustainably for thousands of years, giving us a glimpse of optimism. He articulates a five-point scale for the success or failure of civilizations-climate change, hostile neighbors, friendly trade partners, environmental damage, and response to environmental problems. Diamond suggests that the first four may or may not prove significant in each society's demise, but claims that the fifth always is, because a society's response to environmental problems is largely within its control, unlike the other factors. Hence, as his subtitle puts it, a society can "choose to fail." He expresses an all-new meaning to the words "learning from our past."

Diamond, who teaches geography at UCLA, is well known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning best seller Guns, Germs, and Steel, which focuses on environmental and structural factors to gauge why Western societies came to dominate the world. In Collapse, he continues this theme, but this time considers societies that made their choices, whether, as he says, to succeed or fail. Collapse is mostly about the basic elements of the earth's ecosystem-flora, fauna, climate, and geology-that when preserved make us more sustainable, because societies fail, in Diamond's view, when they mismanage these resources.

Diamond examines the lost civilizations of Easter Island, the Maya, and the Norse colony on Greenland to show how a combination of cultural and population factors, and a disregard for natural resources, contributed to their collapse. Extending those lessons, he shows how environmental and population pressures affect present conditions in Haiti and Rwanda, and how events in China, Australia, and Montana could follow the same path.

Diamond then identifies twelve environmental problems that portend doom: natural habitat destruction (mainly through deforestation); wild food reduction; biodiversity loss; soil erosion; natural resource depletion; freshwater pollution; natural photosynthetic resource maximizations; human introduction of toxins and alien species; climate change induction; and finally, overpopulation impact.

It is striking that the World Business Council for Sustainable Development has spelled out a similar list of ten environmental issues that threaten the planet's ecosystem viability: crop and grazing land loss, tropical forest depletion, species extinction, rapid population growth, fresh water resource shortages, overfishing, habitat destruction, marine pollution, human health threats, climate change, acid rain, and energy resource pressures. 1

What was then, is what is now. This is the essence of the book. For those critics that say that Diamond does not consider contemporary technological advances that could slow down, or prevent, a collapse, I would argue that the environmental issues of today are more global and widespread, requiring exponentially more knowledge.

The historical fate of Easter Island presents a challenge to our own civilization. One day in the middle of the seventeenth century, the very last tree on Easter Island was felled. Diamond asks, "What went through the mind of the person who cut down that last tree?" What indeed went through the mind of the person who killed that (second) last Tasmanian Tiger (the last one died in captivity)? And what will the person who uses the last gallon of petrol be thinking? To reiterate an old Cree Indian saying, "Only after the last tree has been cut down/only after the last river has been poisoned/only after the last fish has been caught/only then will you know/that money cannot be eaten." This is the lesson the book provides.

Because Diamond covers a vast span of time, as well as several serious issues, he invariably glosses over some key matters, makes significant assumptions, and commits large omissions, like, say, the collapse of Rome. Still, he weaves around these potholes and, in general, the book provides a compelling and well-conceived account of historical evidence. He connects the dots, from the collapses of medieval Greenland and the Maya, to the seriousness of climate change, to the future of the planet, leading to a series of present-day mini-collapses, or "ecocides" (ecological suicides), such as dry land salinity in Australia and the mass murder of Tutsi civilians in Rwanda. Collapse is a long book, and Diamond gives away the ending at the very beginning. Like a true scientist, he postulates his hypothesis early and then sets out to prove it through supporting evidence. Accordingly, one could read the introduction, gloss over the table of contents, and read the last few chapters to get the point. But, then one would miss the book's essence, which proceeds through telling captivating stories, like the old Cree Indian once did.

"The societies that ended up collapsing were (like the Maya) among the most creative and (for a time) advanced and successful of their times... past peoples were neither ignorant bad managers who deserved to be exterminated or dispossessed, nor all-knowing conscientious environmentalists who solved problems that we can't solve today. They were people like us, facing problems broadly similar to those that we now face. They were prone either to succeed or to fail," lest we forget. In this realm, one example that Diamond has left out, since it had not yet occurred, is New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina. The Boston Globe calls Katrina's real name global warming and predicts that, as the atmosphere warms, it will generate longer droughts, more intense downpours, more-frequent heat waves, and more severe storms. New Orleans collapsed before I managed to experience the jazz, just as we all missed the sun worship of the Inca and the statue building of the Easter Islanders. This is what makes the book so relevant a case study in history for a range of issues faced by today's global community.


1 World Business Council for Sustainable Development. 1997. Exploring Sustainable Development: WBCSD Global Scenarios 2000 - 2050, Summary Brochure.



Terence Jeyaretnam

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