Study Guide

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

by Jared Diamond

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed Summary

Extended Summary

In Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Jared Diamond provides an overview of ecological problems that can lead to a society’s collapse. Diamond defines a collapse as a

drastic decrease in human population size and/or political/economic/social complexity, over a considerable area for an extended time.

He cautions his audience from confusing "collapse" with “decline,” which is comparatively mild. Past examples of societal collapse that Diamond mentions include Easter Island, the Norse settlement in Greenland, and the Mayan Empire. As such, his study relies on the work of archaeologists, historians, and other scholars. Diamond points out that there are many differences between the modern world and the past societies that he analyzes, but he emphasizes that there are modern-day collapses as well, pointing to Haiti and the Rwandan genocide. By studying these societies and the choices they made, “we might be able to identify which societies are now most at risk, and what measures could best help them.”

Diamond outlines eight categories that past societies have used to damage their environments. They are the following:

  • deforestation and habitat destruction
  • soil problems (such as erosion and salinization)
  • water management problems
  • overhunting
  • overfishing
  • effects of introduced species
  • human population growth
  • increased per-capita impact of people

Diamond points out that it was not uncommon for population growth to force societies to adopt more intensive agricultural practices, ones that drew upon marginal soils unsustainably. Diamond argues that although the world today contains unprecedented levels of complexity, knowledge, and tools, it is still threatened by those eight categories of ecological destruction. Unfortunately, today’s world also must come to grips with four new challenges: human-caused climate change, the buildup of toxic chemicals, energy shortages, and the “full utilization of the Earth’s photosynthetic capacity.” Diamond argues that by the time his audience’s children reach their middle age, the world will be forced to confront these problems.

Diamond explains that there is no case “in which a society’s collapse can be attributed solely to environmental damage: there are always other complicating factors.” He outlines a “five-point framework” of factors that can contribute to collapse. Of them, Diamond suggests that environmental damage, natural climate change, hostile neighbors, and friendly trade partners may or may not contribute to collapse. However, the “society’s responses to its environmental problems” will always play a significant role. These factors can play out individually or in concert. For example, past societies, particularly those with a short life expectancy, were often unable to recognize climate change happening, which affected their ability to respond.

Diamond is careful to position himself between two environmental camps. His ties to the “environmentalists” come from his love of bird watching, his work in the rain forests of New Guinea, and his membership and direction of the American affiliate of the World Wildlife Fund. On the other hand, he has also worked for “big business,” ranging from a summer’s work on a Montana ranch in his youth to more recent professional observations of “large extractive companies.” Diamond maintains that his writing strives to reach a “middle-of-the-road perspective” that acknowledges business realities as well as environmental problems.

This middle-of-the-road perspective is evident in Diamond’s summary of environmental concerns of Montana, which he includes in order to demonstrate how difficult it is for even a First World society to respond to its ecological challenges. Montana is considered by many to be ecologically pristine, and yet it faces many ecological challenges. Its mining history has left it with toxic waste, which is degrading its water supply and compromising its fishing ecosystem. Fishing enthusiasts have introduced pike to some of Montana’s waters, resulting in a drastic decline of trout there. Montana must now regularly respond to forest fires because its forest has so much underbrush. It might be beneficial to log selectively, but it is difficult to gather political will to allow logging since the public does not trust logging companies to log sustainably. A similar...

(The entire section is 1865 words.)