Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

by Jared Diamond
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1865

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

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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.

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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 dynamic is at play with the mining company. Diamond points out that the public can insist on less hazardous mining practices, but they as consumers will also have to be willing to pay for higher extraction costs for those metals, or else there would be no incentive to invest in less ecologically damaging practices. These challenges in Montana are significant, but Diamond points out that they are relatively mild compared to many other parts of the planet.

Having established the challenges of responding to ecological problems, Diamond begins to detail collapses drawn from the past. He explains how the isolated society on Easter Island collapsed when they cut down their trees, leading to soil erosion and starvation. The Polynesian society on the Pitcairn Islands collapsed when one of three islands failed to respond to environmental challenges, thus abandoning the other two islands that depended on trade. The Norse managed to expand successfully in Iceland, though not without great difficulties. However, when they settled in Greenland, their society did eventually collapse. Diamond explains that the Norse society was reluctant to abandon European customs, such as the prestige associated with cattle, even though the soil and climate were not suited to raising cattle. They also failed to learn from their Inuit neighbors, who had a variety of ingenious methods for surviving in Greenland, including complex whaling techniques.

These collapses are not limited to the past. Diamond explains that the Rwandan genocide can in part be explained as a result of ecological problems. Although many point to the conflict between the Tutsis and the Hutus, Diamond argues that Rwanda was unable to respond to its population increase, which put strain on the Rwandans to feed their population. Diamond also compares Haiti (which is stripped of resources) to the Dominican Republic (which still has forest reserves). Diamond points out that although both countries have suffered under their leaders, the Dominican Republic’s resources were ultimately preserved, often ruthlessly, by former president Joaquín Balaguer.

Diamond also considers China and Australia as modern examples of countries facing ecological problems. With its staggering population and resource needs, China has a unique part to play in the world’s future. Diamond points out that the citizens of the First World use more resources than the citizens of the Third World. Consequently, if the Chinese were to uniformly become a First World country, they would double the world’s consumption of resources. Meanwhile, Australia faces serious challenges related to its water supply. Diamond argues that Australia may soon find that it has to reduce its standard of living in order to accommodate its population. Although a great deal of Diamond’s work is based on past collapses, it is clear that humanity still faces ecological problems today.

As Diamond moves towards his conclusion, he outlines twelve challenges the planet currently faces, starting with four examples of ecological destruction. First, he points out that humanity is destroying natural habitats, particularly through deforestation but also through wetland loss. Wild foods, such as fish, are being harvested unsustainably, though Diamond highlights that fisheries could sustainably support the earth’s current population if they were managed effectively. Next, Diamond calls his audience’s attention to the world’s reduction in genetic diversity, which matters more than many might realize. One of the “literally innumerable examples” includes earthworms, which regenerate soil. Soil is eroding faster than it can be formed, especially on forested land. Diamond notes that Iowa has lost half of its topsoil in the last 150 years. These are all examples of resource destruction and loss.

The world’s energy sources are reaching their ceilings. Diamond argues that the

prevalent view is that known and likely reserves of readily accessible oil and natural gas will last for a few more decades.

He next points out that humanity is running out of water. Diamond goes on to report that there is a ceiling on the earth’s photosynthetic capacity, and he explains that “we are projected to be utilizing most of the world’s terrestrial photosynthetic capacity by the middle of this century,” and at the cost of sunlight used by forests and natural plant communities. All the while, humanity is demanding a greater standard of living while its population continues to grow.

Finally, Diamond turns to toxic chemicals, alien species, and atmospheric gases. Chemicals like mercury and hormones are released into the ecosystem by humans in quantities greater than those ecosystems would or can handle naturally. Other toxins, such as pesticides, have been shown to have harmful effects on natural species such as birds. Diamond points out that these chemicals take a long time to break down in the environment. Humans also transfer species from one ecosystem to another, which often causes a great deal of destruction for local species. Finally, there are gases that affect the atmosphere. Some reduce the ozone layer, and others contribute to climate change.

The last two problems we face are related to population growth. Diamond points out that the world’s population is still growing, which means that “more people require more food, space, water, energy, and other resources.” Although the world’s population growth may eventually plateau, there is no guarantee that the world will be able to support that population. Additionally, as more countries reach First World levels of consumption, the impact of the world’s population will increase. Diamond reports that “on the average, each citizen of the U.S., western Europe, and Japan consumes 32 times more resources such as fossil fuels, and puts out 32 times more wastes, than do inhabitants of the Third World.” However, low-impact people are increasing their impact due to rising standards of living in the Third World and due to immigration to the First World. Diamond points out that this is a cause for concern because

I have not met anyone who seriously argues that the world could support 12 times its current impact, although an increase of that factor would result from all Third World inhabitants adopting First World living standards.

These problems are daunting, and Diamond finally turns to whether or not there is cause for hope, admitting that he is a “cautious optimist.” These problems are not impossible to solve, “like a possible collision with an asteroid.” People generate these problems themselves. There have been examples of societies adjusting their values and practices in order to survive ecological changes. Additionally, Diamond notes the “increasing diffusion of environmental thinking among the public around the world.” Although there are many examples of short-term thinking, Diamond notes that there are “encouraging examples of long-term thinking” in some of today’s corporations, governments, and NGOs. Further, Diamond finds hope in the drastic decline in all First World countries' population growth. He additionally notes that the world's current consumption rates of timber products and seafood would not have to decrease if the world’s forests and fisheries were properly managed. Finally, he points out that television allows people to see and respond to problems happening elsewhere. He says:

That’s an opportunity that no past society enjoyed to such a degree. My hope in writing this book has been that enough people will choose to profit from that opportunity to make a difference.

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