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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1843

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 practices, however, if consumers demand that the products they purchase be produced sustainably.

The power of Diamond’s arguments in Collapse stems from his thorough case studies and exhaustive details. In his prologue, “A Tale of Two Farms,” he compares the practices of two dairy farmsone past and one presentin Norse Greenland and in modern Montana. Both are state-of-the-art, well-managed farms situated in ecologically and economically marginal areas for dairy farming. Each has a short summer growing season, is subject to climate change, is far from its market, and is subject to forces beyond its control. In the Garder colony of Greenland, the bishop’s farm collapsed along with the rest of the colony five hundred years ago when the climate changed and the Greenlanders could not adapt to the new conditions. The Huls dairy farm in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana faces shrinking profit margins, suburban encroachment, and public environmental concerns that will force its owners to modernize or develop their farmland.

Diamond’s thesis is that world society is currently on a nonsustainable course, with a series of environmental time bombs with fifty-year fuses which will explode during the next generation’s lifetime. A nonsustainable course means that people are spending down environmental capitalforests, fisheries, soil, water, energy, and other resources. Despite the warnings of scientists, many governments persist in destructive policies, and businesses choose to maximize their profits by damaging the environment and hurting people. Diamond refutes the environmental skeptics by pointing out that a list of the fourteen most serious political trouble spots in the worldAfghanistan, Bangladesh, Burundi, Haiti, Indonesia, Iraq, Madagascar, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, Rwanda, the Solomon Islands, and Somaliais also a list of the most environmentally stressed nations in the world. People in these failed statesenvironmentally stressed, overpopulated, and unstabletend to emigrate or turn to terrorism or violence.

Can a transition from the current unsustainable corporate-consumer culture to a more sustainable global culture be made without massive social dislocations and unrest? Can people anticipate future global problems and agree upon international solutions, or will short-term self-interest prevail? The examples of Rwanda and Haiti demonstrate that humans act desperately and irrationally when societies fail. Law and order disintegrate, economies collapse, and remaining resources are depleted as people fight over whatever is left. Anyone who thinks carefully about the world’s present economic system must realize that a local and regional economy would be more sustainable from a transportation, energy, and resource perspective than the present transnational system.

Global economy is fueled by cheap, nonrenewable petroleum energy, but the age of cheap energy may be coming to an end. A statistical measure, the Hubbert curve, predicted that U.S. domestic oil production would peak about 1970, and now worldwide oil production is soon to peak. The future will bring increased worldwide demand for diminishing reserves. Global trade imbalances, especially in the United States, make economic adjustments difficult. The popular ideology of infinite economic growth and Americans’ sense of entitlement make voluntary consumer restraints difficult. There are additional problems of global fresh water and food shortages, increasing competition for raw materials, and the threat of impending global pandemics. Democracies show little willingness or ability to make difficult long-term planning decisions, especially with a lack of credible political leadership on environmental issues such as global climate change, which are still not sufficiently understood. Unscrupulous leaders may try to distract their populations from looming environmental crises with war or religious conflict.

After his exhaustively researched and detailed analyses of comparative social collapse, Diamond’s central question is: Why do some societies make such disastrous decisions? Building on Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies (1988), Diamond lists additional factors such as human lack of understanding or appreciation of ecological dynamics; inability to perceive gradual, long-term environmental degradation; rationally selfish short-term choices; destructive religious or social values; crowd psychology; and ignorance or denial. To the above list could be added the deliberate propaganda and corporate misinformation in American society that have left individuals so woefully misinformed about environmental issues.

Some societies avoid environmental collapse, either through enlightened political leadership or through determined grass-roots self-regulation. An example of the former is former president Joaquin Balaguer’s environmental leadership of the Dominican Republic; an example of the latter is the stewardship of the New Guinea Highlanders. The magnitude of present environmental problems calls for unprecedented global cooperation and management of environmental “commons” such as the oceans and the atmosphere, but neither the means nor the will seems to be there yet, judging from the history of recent environmental treaties, especially the Kyoto Protocol. Are the preservation of clean air and the stability of the earth’s climate more important than the individual’s right to own a sport utility vehicle? How do societies make value decisions and distinguish between luxuries and necessities? Is it possible to find the social will to regulate nonessential uses of essential, finite natural resources? The key to survival seems to be to recognize which core social values to retain and which to discard.

Diamond offers a comparative analysis of the recent environmental records of five major extractive industriesoil, coal, hardrock mining, timber, and marine fisheriesand accounts for their varied records in terms of public pressure and differences in corporate culture. While some sectors of the oil industry have made major environmental progress, such as the Chevron oil fields in the Kutubu area of New Guinea, others such as the state-owned Pertamina oil company in Indonesia or Exxon Mobil have done less well, in part because of differences in management attitudes.

The hardrock mining industry has had an almost uniformly poor record, including resistance or noncompliance with environmental regulations and massive cleanup problems with abandoned copper or gold minesmine tailings are dumped into rivers, and leach dams fail. Instead of taking responsibility for their actions, mining companies declare bankruptcy and walk away from the problems they have caused, leaving taxpayers with the cleanup burden. Considering the costs of environmental cleanup, Diamond questions whether hardrock mining can ever be considered profitable. The timber and marine fisheries industries have taken small steps toward sustainability, but much more needs to be done.

Some reviewers have objected that Diamond primarily discusses the decline of small and inconsequential societies, although he does discuss the role of periodic droughts and overpopulation in the collapse of Mayan culture. The purpose of the book, however, is to try to understand the interrelated cultural and environmental causes of social collapse and to learn from other cultures’ mistakes. The magnitude of the present-day environmental problems is much greater than that of past cultures, whose fall had, at most, a regional impact. Modern societies are faced with the task of global sustainability.

Industrial cultures have weakened their ties to the natural world in order to take advantage of the economic efficiencies of industrial production, specialization, and mass markets. In the process, they have created consumer habits and expectations which will be difficult to change. Prevailing economic models assume unlimited growth in a finite world. Current levels of developed world consumption are unsustainable, but it will be difficult to persuade citizens to limit their consumption voluntarily and to conserve natural resources for the future. Collapse asks whether it is humankind’s inevitable fate to overconsume its resource base, or whether people will be able to learn to live sustainably.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 71

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