February 2006

James Campbell Martin


Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond

The problem with Collapse, as a book, is that it didn't. Jared Diamond's follow-up to Guns, Germs and Steel would have made an interesting 200-page book, but it measures 560 pages with notes. The book, subtitled How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, was motivated by concern about the environmental failures our own First World societies face today, but that discussion is postponed again and again as we consider in detail what is surely every society from the past or the (Third World) present that has ever collapsed in ecological catastrophe.

Even more important than the length is the fact that the book feels static. It is a basic principle of narrative that everything in a story should be moving it forward, driving toward a point. Diamond violates this principle in his desire to make his book comprehensive: he includes everything that is known about each past society he discusses, as well as how it is known. He loves to list the 27 types of native seabirds in the Pitcairn Islands, every crop planted by the Anasazi, all the implements made by the Easter Islanders; he talks about dating ancient societies through pollen studies, dating through the study of rat middens, radiocarbon dating and its pitfalls. This encyclopedic detail, which doesn't contribute to his argument, would be appropriate for an encyclopedia. It just makes a book boring.

When we do reach the book's final section and pick up the argument -- namely, what lessons we can draw from collapsed societies of past and present -- it feels rushed. For example, after 419 pages, Diamond spends only 22 on why societies make disastrous decisions, and only a few on the most important question of why a society that is able to see it has a problem that threatens its existence sometimes chooses to ignore it.

The concluding section's brevity and once-over-lightly feeling are too bad, because Diamond makes many intriguing points. Diamond juxtaposes two maps, one of the environmental trouble spots of the modern world and one of the political trouble spots of the modern world -- and lo and behold, the countries colored in are identical. Political problems, he is saying, have their ultimate origin in resource shortages (rather than in, say, ideological or religious conflicts).

And speaking of shortages, Diamond makes the rarely heard statement that it is simply not possible for everyone currently on earth to live at a First World standard. Since he also believes "[i]t is impossible for the First World to resolve that dilemma by blocking the Third World's efforts to catch up" (a point I find sadly arguable), Diamond must be saying that in the near future we First Worlders will have to lower our standard of living ("as measured by lower resource consumption and waste production rates") or face catastrophe. This is tough talk, though Diamond doesn't say it directly, and I would have loved opinion on how to sell it to people. Diamond is a professor of geography, so social psychology or advertising is not his area of expertise. But it feels like something the book cries out for-perhaps he could have written it with a co-author.

As hard as it might be to get First Worlders to agree to go "backwards," Diamond considers himself a "cautious [environmental] optimist." This is because he feels that due to the speed of communication technologies and the permanence of recording technologies, "we have the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of distant people and past peoples. That's an opportunity that no past society enjoyed to such a degree." It's a shame that Diamond's book isn't less a textbook and more a persuasive exhortation that could help with that necessary learning.

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond
ISBN: 0143036556
592 Pages