Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail Or Succeed, a brief review


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:

  1. Environmental damage (deforestation, unsustainable use of the land, etc)
  2. Climate changes (notably long term cycles of droughts or temperature fluctuations)
  3. Hostile neighbors
  4. Trade with friendly neighbors (notably dependencies between societies)
  5. 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.

14 thoughts on “Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail Or Succeed, a brief review

  1. Do you think Diamond is guilty of pre-selecting certain types of societies to study? Could you find alternative reasons for the collapse of those societies, e.g. the failure of those societies to develop technologies that would have overcome the problems they faced?

    As I understand it, the Easter Island civilization collapsed not because of population pressure or environmental devastation, but because their small population condemned them to low economic and technological status, and a resulting failure to make productive use of land.

    It’s very fashionable to say that the world is overpopulated and our civilisation is unsustainable. However, the increase in population has been sustained precisely because of economic and technological growth, which is accelerating. Every year we are able to support a higher standard of living using fewer resources.


    1. First, I should say that I vastly oversimplified things for my brief blog post. There is a lot of nuance in Diamond’s views which is hard to quickly distill.

      I suspect he focused on societies primarily accessible through anthropological methods such as archaeology. He was upfront in the book that environmental damage was never the sole cause of a collapse. There were always complications. But it played a substantial role in all of the cases he looked at.

      Easter Island was definitely an agriculturally marginal environment. When the natives first arrived, wood and other resources were plentiful. But they used the resources faster than the land could replenish them. As the island became largely deforested, it had many consequences, for the health of its soil, and for the availability of bird and fish species and other food sources. After deforestation, the standard of living of the population (which had declined substantially) was pretty miserable. None of this is to imply that it was the natives’ fault. They had no way to know what was happening, particularly without written records to track changes over time.

      I have some sympathy with your views about declarations of unsustainability. Diamond makes a convincing case, but I’m not entirely convinced myself. He talked about Malthus, but Malthus predicted worldwide famine long before now. It seems like technology keeps saving the day, increasing agricultural productivity. Still, some of the issues in Africa mirror Malthus’s warnings, and counting on new technological developments to keep saving us seems risky; our faith will be rewarded, until it isn’t.


      1. If technological progress were a hit and miss affair, with occasional leaps forward followed by periods of stagnation, then Malthus-type projections would be wise warnings to heed. But when technological growth and productivity gains are sustained exponentially over periods of centuries, it becomes a pretty certain bet, especially when in recent decades it became obvious that the process is accelerating, and when there are sound theoretical explanations for why this should continue to happen.

        But there are warnings here too. In particular, the Easter Island case, as well as Greenland, Australia and perhaps Montana illustrate what can happen if a society becomes isolated and has to rely on self-sufficiency. There are many lessons here, not least the importance of globalization, free trade agreements and the dangers of the “food miles” argument.


        1. Actually, despite the rate of progress, I fear it is a hit or miss affair. Technological progress in any area follows an S-curve. When you’re on the upward slope of that S-curve, particularly when you have been for a long time, it seems like it will never end.

          Consider the rapid increase in transportation speed between 1914 and 1964, compared to the tepid increases since then. If the 1914-1964 progress rate had continued (as a lot of science fiction at the time thought it would), then we’d have humans all over the solar system by now.

          The laws of physics, conservation of energy, and all the rest mean that eventually that curve will level off. Hopefull it will be a gentle leveling off that gives us enough time to adjust, but it seems risky to bank on that.

          I’m in total agreement with your last paragraph. Isolation makes societies weaker.


    1. That an excellent question. He had a few reasons.

      First, he’s personally familiar with Montana, vacationing every year in the Bitterroot valley.

      Second, it has a number of growing environmental issues: the land isn’t as productive as it might at first appear, there are a number of unsustainable practices currently happening there, and a number of social factors complicating effective management of community resources.

      Third, he was able to get personal testimonies about the issues there, giving a personal aspect he couldn’t provide for any of the other places he looked at, and demonstrating how easy it is for a society to fail to take necessary actions.

      Finally, it allowed him to make a sobering point: if Montana were a civilization on its own, it would have already collapsed. It benefits by being interconnected with the rest of the world.


      1. Very interesting. I’ve only visited Montana once, and I found it to be one of the most surprisingly beautiful places I’ve ever been, but I got the impression from the people I met that something was wrong, either with the state government or the state economy. But it’s not like Montana’s local problems make national headlines, so I never really found out anything more.


        1. Interesting. I’ve never been there. Diamond describes it as a very conservative region (which given its rural nature doesn’t surprise me) with an abhorrence for any kind of collective management or regulation, which is part of its environmental problem.


  2. “Consider the rapid increase in transportation speed between 1914 and 1964, compared to the tepid increases since then. If the 1914-1964 progress rate had continued (as a lot of science fiction at the time thought it would), then we’d have humans all over the solar system by now.”

    Although maximum transportation speeds have plateaued, consider these facts:
    1. Between 1950 and 1999 rates of worldwide car ownership increased from 2% to 8%.
    2. Passenger miles by air travel has increased from less than 100 billion in 1960 to about 6 trillion today. Freight transport by air has matched this growth.
    3. Modern jet aircraft use 70% less fuel than early jets. The cost of air travel has dropped even more.

    So although the maximum travel speed has not increased, the effective utility of transport has continued to rise dramatically. Consider also the fact that the internet is rendering the need to travel on business obsolete. A company in Europe can do business with a US company without anyone needing to leave the office. This would have been impossible just 20 years ago.

    To increase productivity of apples, it isn’t necessary to grow ever bigger apples!


    1. That’s true, and I made similar points in an earlier post, although I think Diamond would point out the environmental costs.

      My point about transportation was in comparison to the fact that increases in agricultural efficiency and sustainability aren’t guaranteed to go on forever. At some point, if the population increase continues unabated, we will be utilizing the resources beyond their ability to renew. Many fear that we’re already at that point. I’m skeptical of whether we can know that, but that extends in both directions. If we’re wrong about being there, the cost is only that we restrained ourselves unnecessarily. If we’re wrong about not being there yet, the cost may be a Malthusian catastrophe, and all that goes with it.

      The easiest way to arrest the population increase is to do something I think we both agree with, promote women’s rights so they have something other than motherhood to look forward to in life. Everywhere that has happened, population growth have leveled off, and often reversed itself.


      1. I certainly agree that ending poverty and promoting women’s rights should be top of our agenda, and both will have the effect of stabilising population, as well being desirable ends in themselves.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Too bad he doesn’t consider social cohesion, as I would find that more interesting. Do you think he does a nuanced job with the eco-angle? Or do you sense an ax to grind? Not that I’m against saving the planet, but I get tired of hearing dire predictions based on speculation and assumptions treated as facts.

    When it comes down to it, I’m with you on this argument:
    “If we’re wrong about being there, the cost is only that we restrained ourselves unnecessarily. If we’re wrong about not being there yet, the cost may be a Malthusian catastrophe, and all that goes with it.”

    Might as well go at the problem with all we’ve got. That said, I rarely hear about the technologies being explored nowadays to tackle some of these environmental issues, but the ones I have heard of are fascinating. I like that they don’t rely on trying to get people to change their ways out of the goodness of their hearts. (Here’s where the social cohesion side of things might be highlighted.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s been several years, but it did seem like he had a little bit of an axe to grind. But Diamond embeds it in so much interesting information that I didn’t really mind that much. In the years since, I’ve seen some of his accounts disputed, primarily the one about Easter Island. The problem is that I see a major axe to grind with the disputers.

      It was the same with another book of his that I read, The World Until Yesterday, where he portrayed traditional societies’ faults as well as their virtues, noted that they tended to be pretty warlike, and that most people from traditional societies were quick to adopt modern lifestyles, when they get the chance. All of which offended a lot of the post-colonial guilt crowd.

      Sometimes the only thing you can do is read the various accounts of completing axes grinding and see what truth you can derive out of it. 🙂

      I do think social cohesion is a very big deal. In the case of the western Roman Empire, I think it was the main deal. But yeah, I don’t recall it really being Diamond’s focus in this book. He’s much more interested in ecological factors.

      Liked by 1 person

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