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

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed - Jared DiamondFifteen Years

It was Jared Diamond’s answer to the last question of a 2005 presentation of “Collapse” at Frankfurt University’s Museum of Natural Sciences. Given the comparative shortness of human existence in our planet’s entire history, what does it matter, someone asked, “if in 20,000 years or so we do exterminate ourselves, and another species takes over. It’s happened to the dinosaurs and the mammoths … why should we be any different?” My own thoughts had run along similar lines earlier that evening: surrounded by skeletons of species extinct for 100,000s of years, I had recalled a recent visit to a historic museum chronicling social development in a part of Germany – and I, too, had reflected on the rocket speed that had brought us from the Stone Age to the 21st century, and I had wondered, “what if?”

Yet, even knowing the book presented that evening and its author, his answer came as a clarion call. “I don’t think we have another 20,000 years,” Jared Diamond said in his impeccable German and with the same unassuming, polite composure with which he had answered all preceding questions. And he added: “I think it’s closer to fifteen years.”

Fifteen – not fifteen thousand or even just fifteen hundred. In the grand scheme of cosmological development, that’s less than a millisecond.

And this is precisely why “Collapse” is so important. For much more than exploring select past societies’ failures (primarily those of pre-European Easter Island, the Anasazi, Maya and Vikings), which it contrasts with select success stories (New Guinea, Japan), it actually asks what we, living today, have to learn from the past in order to avoid the fatal mistakes of those unable to secure their own survival; a question highlighted even by the book’s very first chapter, which examines no past society at all but modern-day Montana: serene, sparesly-populated, big-skied, mountain-river-and-valley-graced Montana, which both geographically and figuratively seems leagues away from the problems associated with modern metropoles like New York and Los Angeles (or isolated Polynesian Easter Island, for that matter), and whose social, political and ecological landscape is nevertheless every bit as fragile as theirs. Indeed, for us today the issue is no longer a mere matter of one society’s (or species’s) extinction in favor of another. For us, Jared Diamond emphasizes, the issue is that of our planet’s survival as such. In this, our situation actually does very much resemble that of the Easter Island’s inhabitants, who had nowhere to go after depriving themselves of their natural resources by reckless logging and their island’s resulting desertification, and who were ultimately driven into cannibalism. Like their island to them, our earth to us is the only inhabitable world … in our own solar system (tried to settle on Mars or Venus lately?) and probably also beyond: for all we know, those far-away galaxies of Star Trek, Star Wars, and Discworld belong to the world of science fiction only; “fiction” being the operative word.

Bearing this in mind, the subtitle of “Collapse” is as important, and even more telling than the book’s title itself: “How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.” It indicates that: (1) failure, even under adverse conditions, is not a necessity; and (2) whether (or how well) a society survives depends crucially on its values and goals, and the choices resulting therefrom, both collectively and individually. And of all the factors that Jared Diamond highlights as impacting a society’s survival – environmental changes, changes and conflicts of interest within that society, changes in neighboring societies and in the two societies’ relationships, technological advances, and the inability, unwillingness or other failure to anticipate or acknowledge the impact of choices made – it seems to me that this last point, the question how we play the hand we’ve dealt ourselves by our past and present choices, will ultimately prove decisive. The author himself likes to say he is “cautiously optimistic” in this regard, pointing to his young twin sons, who have practically their entire life yet to live. I hope, however, that his answer will also prove justified by the growing respect he enjoys in public opinion and with national and international decisionmakers.

So does he have all the answers? No – and he himself would probably be the first to emphasize that he actually has many more questions than answers (only coming from him, it wouldn’t sound like a cliché). Is “Collapse” argued less stringently than, say, his Pulitzer-Prize-winning “Guns, Germs and Steel”? Personally I don’t think so, but I’m admittedly biased. What’s the use of “popular science writing” anyway – why doesn’t he, like any other good scientist, seek peer review and a discussion with his colleagues? Well, I believe that he does enjoy a spirited scientific debate and welcomes comments that force him to put his own theories to the test. Yet, it only takes one look at the broad space that pseudo-arguments like those he refutes as “one-line objections” at the end of “Collapse” still occupy in the public debate (“The environment must be balanced against the economy,” “Technology will save us,” “This is just another end-of-the-world-prophecy like the many that have already proved false in the past,” “Environmental concerns are a first-world luxury,” and of course the ubiquitous, “Why shoud I care anyway?”) to realize this book’s necessity. This is also why I have decided to set aside my reluctance to review any of his books; although personal acquaintance and unconditional respect render me patently incapable of objectivity, and a review like this might be construed as an exercise in flaunting an association with an internationally renowned scientist and award-winning author (even worse, an association occasioned not by any achievement of my own but by mere coincidence). But “Collapse” concerns us all – it’s as simple as that.

In signing my copy, Jared referenced the aforementioned never close, but long-lasting acquaintance: “to 2005 – – –.” Both on a personal and a global level, I hope those three dashes stand for much, much more than fifteen years.


Favorite Quotes:

“[T]he values to which people cling most stubbornly under inappropriate conditions are those values that were previously the source of their greatest triumphs.”

“The metaphor is so obvious. Easter Island isolated in the Pacific Ocean – once the island got into trouble, there was no way they could get free. There was no other people from whom they could get help. In the same way that we on Planet Earth, if we ruin our own [world], we won’t be able to get help.”

“Two types of choices seem to me to have been crucial in tipping the outcomes [of the various societies’ histories] towards success or failure: long-term planning and willingness to reconsider core values. On reflection we can also recognize the crucial role of these same two choices for the outcomes of our individual lives.”

“Science is often misrepresented as ‘the body of knowledge acquired by performing replicated controlled experiments in the laboratory.’ Actually, science is something broader: the acquisition of reliable knowledge about the world.”

“History as well as life itself is complicated – neither life nor history is an enterprise for those who seek simplicity and consistency.”

“People often ask, “What is the single most important environmental population problem facing the world today?” A flip answer would be, “The single most important problem is our misguided focus on identifying the single most important problem!”

“Above all, it seems to me wrongheaded and dangerous to invoke historical assumptions about environmental practices of native peoples in order to justify treating them fairly. … By invoking this assumption [i.e., that they were/are better environmental stewards than other peoples or parts of contemporary society] to justify fair treatment of native peoples, we imply that it would be OK to mistreat them if that assumption could be refuted. In fact, the case against mistreating them isn’t based on any historical assumption about their environmental practices: it’s based on a moral principle, namely, that it is morally wrong for one people to dispossess, subjugate or exterminate another people.”

“For anyone inclined to caricature environmental history as ‘environmental determinism,’ the contrasting histories of the Dominican Republic and Haiti provide a useful antidote. Yes, environmental problems do constrain human societies, but the societies’ responses also make a difference.”

“Globalization makes it impossible for modern societies to collapse in isolation, as did Easter Island and the Greenland Norse in the past. Any society in turmoil today, no matter how remote … can cause trouble for prosperous societies on other continents and is also subject to their influence (whether helpful or destabilizing). For the first time in history, we face the risk of a global decline. But we also are the first to enjoy the opportunity of learning quickly from developments in societies anywhere else in the world today, and from what has unfolded in societies at any time in the past. That’s why I wrote this book.”

“The Anasazi did manage to construct in stone the largest and tallest buildings erected in North America until the Chicago steel girder skyscrapers of the 1880s.”

“Many of our problems are broadly similar to those that undermined … Norse Greenland, and that many other past societies also struggled to solve. Some of those past societies failed (like the Greenland Norse) and others succeeded … The past offers us a rich database from which we can learn in order that we may keep on succeeding.”

[On the beginning of the mid-1990s’ genocidal war in Rwanda:]
“Within six weeks, an estimated 800,000 Tutsi, representing about three-quarters of the Tutsi then remaining in Rwanda, or 11% of Rwanda’s total population, had been killed.”

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