Book Review: Collapse by Jared Diamond

COLLAPSE: How Societies Choose To Fail Or Succeed
by Jared Diamond
Viking Adult, 2004, 592 pages, $29.95
reviewed by Richard Heinberg

Civilizations tend to collapse. That is the rule we learn from history, a rule whose implications deserve careful thought given that our own civilization is busily severing its ecological underpinnings. Thus we should pay close attention to a new book by Jared Diamond, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel, on how and why whole societies sometimes lose their way and descend into chaos.

Diamond traces the process of collapse in several ancient societies (including the Easter Islanders, the Maya, and the Greenland Norse colony) and show parallels with trends in several modern nations (Rwanda, Haiti, and Australia).

The environment plays a crucial role in each instance. Resource depletion, habitat destruction, and population pressure combine in different ways in different circumstances; but when their mutually reinforcing impacts become critical, societies are sometimes challenged beyond their ability to respond and consequently disintegrate.

The ancient Maya practiced intensive slash-and-burn horticulture, growing mostly corn. Their population increased dramatically, peaking in the eighth century CE. But this resulted in the over-cutting of forests; meanwhile their fragile soils were becoming depleted. A series of droughts turned problem into crisis. Yet kings and nobles, rather than comprehending and responding to the crisis, evidently remained fixated on the short-term priorities of enriching themselves, building monuments, and waging wars. The population of Mayan cities quickly began a decline that would continue for several centuries, culminating in levels 90 percent lower than at the civilization's height in 700 CE.

The Easter Islanders, whose competing clan leaders built giant stone statues in order to display their prestige and their connection with the gods, cut every last tree in their delicate environment to use in erecting these eerie monuments. Hence the people lost their source of raw materials for building canoes, which were essential for fishing. Crop yields fell and the human population declined, so that by the time Captain Cook arrived in 1774 the remaining Easter Islanders, who had long since resorted to cannibalism, were, in Cook's words, “small, lean, timid, and miserable.”

Human choice can make the difference between prosperity and ruin. Diamond describes how the Inuit in the Arctic and Polynesians on Tikopia managed to create ways of life that were indefinitely sustainable, and why the Dominican Republic has had a more peaceful and economically stable history than its neighbor, Haiti. In some situations, wiser policies on the part of leaders helped create ecological stability, while in others the credit appears to go to sheer luck—favorable weather or topography. In general, smaller-scale societies that stay in one place for a long time seem to do better than empires and invasive societies.

The author argues that our modern global industrial society is creating some of the very same sorts of environmental problems that caused ancient societies to fail, and notes that many of these problems are likely to “become globally critical within the next few decades.”

Diamond devotes the last section of his last chapter to “reasons for hope,” leaving the reader with evidence for thinking that collapse will not occur in our own instance after all. This excuses him from asking, what if it's already too late?

There are many reasons for concluding that Diamond has in fact made an extremely timid case for the likelihood of global industrial collapse; here are only two:
First, Diamond does not even hint at the imminent global oil production peak. Oil production capacity is in fact declining rapidly in several key countries, while the world's reliance on oil for its essential energy needs continues to grow with each passing year. In the estimation of a growing chorus of informed observers, the oil peak is likely to trigger global economic crisis and the outbreak of a series of devastating resource wars.

Second, averting collapse would require unprecedented levels of national and international cooperation to avert deadly competition for essential resources as they become scarce. Yet the American political regime—the most important in the world, given U.S. military supremacy and economic clout—is now the province of a group of extremist ideologues who have little interest in international cooperation. Evidently the most powerful of the world's current leaders are every bit as irrational as the befuddled kings and chiefs who brought the Maya and Easter Islanders to their ruin.
Neither of these problems can be solved quickly or easily; the first is by itself a sufficient cause for collapse; if the second continues, it will preclude attempts to reverse the slide toward international chaos.

Diamond assumes that success is still an option. Yet if “success” means maintaining current per-capita rates of consumption, then we may already have exhausted our choices. We cannot replace dwindling non-renewable resources, we cannot make industrial wastes disappear, quickly restabilize the global climate, or revive species that have become extinct.

What, then, are Diamond's reasons for hope? Our problems are, in principle, solvable, and environmental thinking has become more common in recent years. But for hope to be realized, he says, modern societies will need “courageous, successful long-term planning,” which, he says, is indeed being undertaken by some political leaders at least some of the time. Yet the single instance of long-term planning that might have made all the difference to the survival of our civilization—a sustained choice by the U.S. to wean itself from fossil fuels, beginning in the 1970s—was not followed through; as a result, economic crises and resource wars are now virtually assured.

Given Diamond's emphasis on choice, it might have been helpful if he had studied what people chose to do during previous periods of collapse, and how certain actions helped or hindered personal and cultural survival.

If there is even a moderate likelihood that industrial society is headed toward history's dustbin, shouldn't we be devoting at least some mental effort toward planning for a survivable collapse? Shouldn't we be thinking about what needs to be preserved so that future generations will have the information, skills, and tools to carry on?

Initial efforts to manage collapse might be indistinguishable from efforts to prevent collapse—the sorts of things many people have been doing at least since the 1970s: the active protest of war, the protection of ecosystems and species, the defense of indigenous and traditional cultures, and the adoption of lifestyles of voluntary simplicity.

Then, as fossil-fuel-based infrastructures begin to disintegrate, other strategies might come to the fore: efforts to re-localize economies, to build intentional communities, and to regain forgotten handcraft skills. Like the European monks of the middle ages, forward-thinking groups with useful knowledge and abilities could build communities of preservation and service to help surrounding regions cope with change and stress.

It would be foolish to assert that such a program could avert all of the potholes on the road to a sustainable social order; however, if we do not make efforts to manage the process of economic and societal contraction, it is easy to imagine collapse scenarios that would be hellish indeed. If we do strive to manage contraction, we might find forms of collapse that are far more pleasant and that even offer some cultural compensations for our material losses.

One hesitates to criticize too harshly a book that tries to tell the world a truth that all too many refuse to hear. Yet at this point we could stand a prominent book by an important author that finally announces what so many of us know all too well: collapse has begun. Such a message need not be fatalistic, because fatalism implies absence of choice. Diamond is right: we always have some control over events, or at least our response to events. The choice we face now is not whether our society will collapse, but how.

Richard Heinberg is the author of The Party's Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Societies and Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World.
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