January 17, 2005


Jared Diamond | First published 2005 | Amazon

Like Diamond's earlier bestseller, Guns, Germs, and Steel, Collapse assembles an argument from a variety of stories. In that book he looked at why civilizations succeed, while in this one he looks at why they fail - in particular, why they sometimes fail at what seems to be the peak of their achievement. That framework of stories approach is a pleasant alternative to the usual statistical pile-on, though no doubt it will give an out to people who'd rather not listen to Diamond's hypothesis.

Diamond's stories range from Montana to Easter Island to Chaco Canyon to Greenland to Africa to Australia and back again to Los Angeles. Despite the book's title, collapse isn't the only theme. He studies cases of success as well as failure, situations where people learned from previous problems to do better the next time. (He also notes cases where successful adaptations later proved to have their own problems.) The stories come with some delightful tidbits - make sure never to eat crystallized sugar off a desert cliff face - and all kinds of archeological detail.

Diamond's final chapters assemble all the stories to look at ways we can escape collapse, and how different parties within a society take different roles. One of the more interesting pieces for me was his look at different extractive industries - petroleum, coal, metal mining, logging, and fishing. The closer an industry is to the public, the better the public understands the connection between their purchases and the environmental consequences, the better the odds of making changes for the better. Oil companies that sell to the public have more of an interest in maintaining their reputation than copper miners whose product reaches the public deeply hidden in various devices that people want to buy as cheaply as possible. Corporate cultures also matter - Diamond cites oil company employees who want the environment preserved and mining company officials who expect the world to end soon anyway.

I'm not sure I can write a simple review of this one, but I'll be digesting its lessons for a long time.

Posted by simonstl at January 17, 2005 09:08 PM