I just finished reading Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, by Jared Diamond. As you may know, Diamond is the author of the Pulitzer Prize winning book Guns, Germs, and Steel, one of my favorites.
Collapse is a similarly fascinating read, with case studies of why certain civilizations like the Mayans, Easter Islanders, and Greenland Norse failed while others like the Inuit, Icelanders, and Tikopians managed to survive under similar conditions. He creates a five-point framework for considering how a successful a society might be in a given environment:
- Environmental damage caused by the population. This is really a combination of the resiliance of the environment and the practices of the people. For instance, the topsoil in Greenland is very thin so it blows away very easily. Also, in Greenland, trees and plants grow very slowly, so recovery from harvesting is slow.
- Climate change. Historically, this has been the result of natural events like volcanic eruptions, changes in the tilt of the earth, and natural cycles. Clearly, today, the effects may be manmade. In either case, growing seasons and hunting may shift causing reduced crop yield, ice may form blocking shipping, or ingrained habits may no longer be effective in the new conditions.
- Hostile neighbors. It's unclear whether warfare was sufficient to cause the collapse of societies, but certainly societies weakened by other factors became vulnerable to final collapse via fighting with neighbors. Also, fighting would reduce the resources and focus available for more productive activities.
- Decreased support by friendly neighbors. Societies heavily dependent on trade are vulnerable to weakening when trading partners become weak or unavailable for whatever reason. This could be things like essential trade goods (e.g. oil for the US) or cultural ties (Australia's cultural ties to England.)
- Society's responses to problems. In some cases societies acted decisively in the face of impending disasters and staved off collapse; Japan's management of their near deforestation is one example. In other cases, the society ignored or failed to see the coming disasters and did not act; Easter Island is a classic example of the failure to prevent deforestation and the resultant societal collapse.
His claim is that it's overly simplistic to assign one of these factors as the sole reason a society might fail (i.e. the Roman Empire did not fall strictly because of hostile neighbors.) His case studies show how the various factors then came into play and contributed to a collapse or were mitigated to prevent collapse.
Perhaps more interesting than the more historical cases were the more modern ones. I especially found the study of Haiti vs. the Dominican Republic interesting. Here are two countries sharing the same island. While they have had some differences in their history (for instance, Haiti was colonized by the French, the Dominican Republic by the Spanish) and geography (Haiti is drier and more mountainous than the DR) they have much in common. Nonetheless, Haiti is a disaster in human, political, environmental, and economic terms while the Domincan Republic is much better off (although it has it's share of problems). This one case study really highlights how the factors came into play in a reasonably apples-to-apples comparison.
I found it impossible to read this book without continually applying the lessons from the past to our modern day situation of global warming, depleted natural resources, global conflict, global trade dependence, and short-term political problem solving. While the learnings in the book provide the basis for solutions, I did not leave the book with a optimism about our future on our current track. I did feel more compelled to take action to prevent the collapse our society and hopefully leave something good for my kids and their kids.
If you liked Guns, Germs, and Steel or enjoy this kind of scholarly discourse, you'll really enjoy Collapse. I highly recommend it.