After my post the other day on what fields I thought someone needed to be familiar with for coming up with credible theories about why civilizations collapse, a number of people recommended I read Jared Diamond’s book, ‘Collapse‘. I finished it this week, and like the other books I’ve read by Diamond, I enjoyed it.
Diamond is familiar with many of the subjects listed in that post, most notably the crucial ones of history and archaeology. But his prime interest in the book, which he states up front, are the effects of a society’s ecological environment. He admits that he naively thought, when first starting to work on the book, that environmental damage would be the whole story, before finding out that, while environmental issues are often part of the mix, there are many other reasons for collapses.
In the course of doing his research, he arrived at a five point framework, which includes:
- Environmental damage (deforestation, unsustainable use of the land, etc)
- Climate changes (notably long term cycles of droughts or temperature fluctuations)
- Hostile neighbors
- Trade with friendly neighbors (notably dependencies between societies)
- A society’s responses to its environmental issues
Diamond then looks at the collapse of several past societies including Easter Island as well as other Polynesian societies, Southwest Native American societies such as the Anasazi, the Mayans, and Norse Greenland. He also looks at the health of several modern societies such as Montana, Rwanda, Haiti, China, and Australia. Obviously all of these modern societies haven’t collapsed; his review of them is an assessment of their current health.
Certain factors surfaced repeatedly in the book. One was the devastating effects of deforestation, often leading to soil erosion problems, along with removing a society’s source of wood for fires and other needs. Other factors were the problems of living on land with marginal agricultural productivity, often paired with unsustainable agricultural practices, taxing the land beyond its ability to recover, and the related overpopulation and poor resource management issues.
Yet more factors are societies that have structural issues that either cause them to act in destructive ways, or prevent them from adopting beneficial practices. An example includes chiefs and kings acting for their own comfort or aggrandizement, often at a substantial cost to their citizens. Another includes societies like Greenland and Australia, both of which historically considered themselves European, to the extent that they clung to practices and values that, while effective in Europe, didn’t serve them well in their new environment. Particularly in the case of Greenland, where the Norse could have learned how to survive from the Inuit, at least if they hadn’t antagonized them.
Toward the end of the book, Diamond goes into full environmental mode, discussing the global issues that the world faces. I’ve noted before that the runaway world population is a major global issue, with many of the other major issues effectively being details of that issue. Diamond acknowledges the importance of the issue. He also responds to some projections that the population may level off eventually by noting that this is far from certain.
But he also points out that it’s not just population that matters, but also human impact. The western industrialized lifestyle, a “first world” lifestyle, is far harder on the environment than the lifestyle of many third world citizens. Those third world citizens aspire to have first world lifestyles, and this is beginning to happen in many places like China and India. As that happens, the human impact on the environment will be multiplied.
Diamond asserts that if every person in the world suddenly had a first world lifestyle, the increase in human impact would be far more than the strain from linear population increases, possibly by a multiple of twelve. There are few people, of those who’ve researched the matter, that think the planet can sustain this kind of impact over the long haul. Diamond asks what the reaction of third world citizens will be when they learn that they can’t all have first world lifestyles. How would they feel about those currently leading such lifestyles?
Despite these issues, Diamond considers himself to be a cautious optimist, noting that our problems are solvable if we collectively take them seriously enough. We have advantages over past civilizations in that we are aware of the dangers and have the ability to do something about them. He points to success stories like Japan, an island with a large population, but with marginal natural resources. With a disciplined society, and strict central management of resources such as its limited forests, Japan managed to survive where many other societies have either struggled or collapsed.
Of course, if we don’t address our issues, then the problems will eventually solve themselves, but history doesn’t paint a pretty picture for how that generally works out. It usually involves war, famine, and pestilence. Anyone familiar with the term “Malthusian“, which Diamond discusses in relation to places like Rwanda, will understand the dangers.
As I noted above, I enjoyed this book, and I think it has an important message, but I don’t consider it to be a complete accounting of how or why societies collapse. Diamond focused on societies where ecological issues were a large factor, and an understanding of those dynamics is crucially important for our future.
But I haven’t read anything to indicate that the fall of the Roman Empire was due to ecological issues, or the Byzantine Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the Islamic Caliphates, the Mongol Empire, the Spanish Empire, or any of the other empires of old. One big factor that I don’t think Diamond considers much is societal cohesion, or lack thereof, which arguably played a role in many of these historical collapses.
Still, this was a fascinating work, and I think anyone interested in the question of societal health should have it on their reading list.