"Collapse" by Jared Diamond (2011)
"I also have to reflect on my own experiences while working in Indonesia from 1979 to 1996 under its military dictatorship. I loathed and feared that dictatorship because of the things that it did to many of my New Guinea friends, and because of its soldiers almost killing me. I was therefore surprised to find that that dictatorship set up a comprehensive and effective national park system in Indonesian New Guinea. I arrived in Indonesian New Guinea after years of experience in the democracy of Papua New Guinea, and I expected to find environmental policies much more advanced under the virtuous democracy than under the evil dictatorship. Instead, I had to acknowledge that the reverse was true."
The author of this book is perhaps better known for his "Guns, Germs, and Steel," which was published before "Collapse." "Collapse" first appeared in 2005, but the version I am reviewing includes an afterward written in 2011. The author is a Professor of Geography at the University of California, Los Angeles.
In "Collapse," the author outlines the reasons that past societies have collapsed, and creates a framework for determining how present and future societies might collapse. At the outset, he is careful to point out that the difference between "collapse" and "decline" is often ambiguous at best, though he might have done better in creating a criteria for where one society ends and another begins. One might well ask, for example, whether Easter Island's society really did collapse if residents were still there to meet the first European ship. One might also ask the same question about the Maya, given that there are still people speaking and identifying as Mayan today. I'm not saying that ancient Mayan society and modern Mayan society are the same thing, but I don't think distinguishing one society from another is as easy as the author claims.
The first half of the book is dedicated to past societies, and symptoms leading up to their collapse, invariably from a combination of environmental factors and something else. In turn we are led through the collective histories of Easter Island, the Anasazi, the Maya, Norse Greenland, and several South Pacific communities. In all of the examples we see how over-exploitation of their respective environments triggered the collapse of these societies, and how they might have averted their fate. The author makes a good case for his arguments, but I couldn't help but think he was oversimplifying in the more recent examples, and often overgeneralizing from insufficient data.
In the second half of the book he discusses modern societies, in particular Rwanda, Japan, China, and Australia. Rwanda's genocide is presented as the consequence of overpopulation, Japan is praised for its forest management, and both China and Australia serve as examples of how modern societies exhaust their natural resources. In the case of China, I think that his arguments are well thought-out, and I found the chapter on Australia to be the most interesting part of the book.
The book closes with a more general discussion of societal collapse and how it can be avoided. The author delves into the dynamics of group decision-making, and theorizes on societies that fail to avoid collapse. This last section is by far the most theoretical, and compared to the rest of the book it feels a bit rushed.
"Collapse" is not a bad book, but it's really, really long and not especially informative. There are much better books on environmental topics, all of which are much shorter and to the point. "Collapse" is also, at times, an extremely condescending book. The author repeats himself often, and at one point he even deigns to explain the meaning of the word "exponentially" for those readers too ignorant to use a dictionary.
I did learn things from this book, but I don't feel that the effort put into reading it equaled the knowledge gained from doing so. This book gets points for trying, but I felt that it went into too much detail, and that this detail distracts the reader from the author's purpose in writing the book.