(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

History is littered with the ruins of past civilizations, great and small, whose fate stands as a cautionary warning to modern people. Is it possible to analyze scientifically the reasons complex civilizations collapse? Can the insights of science and history be combined to provide warnings about the risks facing technologically advanced cultures that overexploit their environments? Out of such analysis, is there a message for the modern Western culture of gas-guzzling cars, so-called McMansions, “big box” shopping centers, superhighways, suburban sprawl, and gridlocked cities? Can members of complex societies learn from their mistakes and modify their behaviors when threatened by collapse, or are they doomed to continue their unsustainable, environmentally destructive behavior? How aware were past societies of the impact of their behavior?

In Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jared Diamond likens the plan of his book to “a boa constructor that has swallowed two very large sheep”case studies of past and present societies which have either succeeded or failed to resolve their environmental problems. After beginning with a discussion of the environmental problems of Montana, Diamond compares the disappearance of four past societiesthe Easter Islanders, the Mayans, the Anasazi, and the Greenlanderswith the survival of othersthe Icelanders, the New Guinea highlanders, and the Japanesein order to identify the social and environmental factors leading to long-term survival or decline. Diamond next examines four modern societiesRwanda, the Dominican Republic, China, and Australiawhich have, in various degrees, met or failed to meet their environmental challenges. Finally, he concludes with some practical advice on corporate business practices, social values, globalization, and environmental decision making.

Diamond represents a new approach to environmental history which combines social and ecological factors to try to understand the interaction between human societies and their ecological environments. Traditional historical approaches have tended to explain the collapse of human societies primarily in terms of human factorsnotably the “four horsemen” of war, famine, disease, and deathbut Diamond believes that environmental factors are also important and that most societies eventually tend to deplete their natural resource base.

Humans are not very good about anticipating future environmental problems such as deforestation or soil depletion, or modifying their social behavior to avoid these kinds of problems. In the past, such environmental problems have been relatively localized, but now there is evidence of unprecedented problems of global proportions, and few mechanisms for global action to prevent them. The environmental mismanagement of one nation’s resources, such as the Amazonian rainforest, or an ecological commons, such as the world’s oceans, can affect the entire planet.

In his analysis of past and present societies’ environmental collapse, Diamond identifies a framework of five contributing factorsenvironmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbors, friendly trade partners, and, most important, a society’s responses to its environmental problems. Environmental damage can never alone cause social collapse; it is the response to those problems that is critical. Societies can choose to succeed or fail.

Diamond cites eight causes of ecocide (ecological suicide) in traditional societies: deforestation, habitat destruction, soil depletion, poor water management, overhunting, overfishing, introduction of nonnative species, human population growth, and increasing human consumption. To these he adds four modern problems: human-caused climate change, buildup of toxic chemicals in the environment, energy shortages, and human utilization of the earth’s photosynthetic capability. All these problems point to the difficulty in achieving sustainability.

Not a single advanced industrial culture in the world today practices fully sustainable economic and ecological policies. The nonsustainable resource-extraction industries of mining, forestry, and petroleum production are particularly problematic. In such industries, nonsustainable environmental practices are encouraged by corrupt governments, weak regulations, the prevailing corporate business culture, and the desire for short-term profitability. Changes in consumer attitudes can bring about more sustainable business...

(The entire section is 1843 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

America 192, no. 17 (May 16, 2005): 16-17.

Booklist 101, no. 5 (November 1, 2004): 442.

Commentary 119, no. 4 (April, 2005): 85-88.

Library Journal 130, no. 3 (February 15, 2005): 154.

Los Angeles Times, December 17, 2004, p. E1.

National Review 57, no. 6 (April 11, 2005): 43-44.

Nature 433 (January 6, 2005): 15-16.

New Statesman 135 (February 7, 2005): 50-51.

The New York Review of Books 52, no. 6 (April 7, 2005): 4-6.

The New York Times Book Review 154 (January 30, 2005): 10-11.

The New Yorker 80, no. 41 (January 3, 2005): 70-73.

Publishers Weekly 251, no. 46 (November 15, 2004): 48.

Time 165, no. 7 (February 14, 2005): 61.

The Wall Street Journal 245, no. 5 (January 7, 2005): W1-W4.