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
- 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...
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