Collapse has many geographical settings, because it looks at several different failed or failing societies and attempts to draw parallels between them. In particular, it focuses on the choices these societies make in their relationship with their natural surroundings. Some of his case studies include the following:
- Montana, a region long opposed to environmental regulations and exploited by mining and timber companies.
- Easter Island, the vanished civilization that left behind hundreds of giant statues.
- Pitcairn and Henderson Islands, the remote Pacific islands made famous by the fact that the mutineers from the H.M.S. Bounty took refuge there (after they had been vacated by their original inhabitants).
- Chaco Canyon, home to the now-vanished Anasazi civilization.
- The Yucatan Peninsula, where the Maya once flourished and suddenly vanished.
- Greenland, where a Norse settlement failed (in contrast with Iceland).
- Modern countries, including Rwanda, China, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti, that serve as contemporary examples of Diamond's thesis.
Each of these examples is used to explain the ways that societies make crucial mistakes that contribute to their failure. Most made (or are at risk of making) crucial errors, caused by short-sightedness and greed, that irreparably damaged their environments to the point that they collapsed.