Book Review, “Collapse” by Jared Diamond

Just finished reading “Collapse” by Jared Diamond (I mentioned this book in my 12/24 post). I will admit to being a card-carrying liberal (but also a card-carrying member of the NRA!), however also note while I have a technical graduate degree, my undergraduate degree is in business, and I believe in capitalism. To my mind, Jared’s book is a very thoughtful and scholarly tome on the life and times of societies, and ties economic success to environmental awarness.

Diamond begins his book with a comparison of a historical farm in Norse Greenland and a farm in present-day Montana, talking about the challenges that each face(d), setting the stage for understanding larger societal collapses due to failure to adapt to changing conditions and recognition of resource limitations. He lays out the plan for his thesis, including a discussion of his positions on economics and the environment, trying to proactively defuse perceptions of bias. After the introduction, Diamond turns to a lengthy discussion of modern Montana, including a treatment of issues with mining, forestry, soil & water conversation, native & non-native species, as well as discussion of views toward regulatory frameworks.

Next, Diamond looks at past societies — Easter Island (once covered in dense forest) is particularly poignant. He often returns to a simple question at many places in the book, viewed from many angles — what did the Easter Islander who cut the last tree think about it? Then he considers Pacific islands, comparing differently resourced islands and the way their natives either did or did not adapt. No study of collapse is complete without discussion of the Anasazi and other southwestern US peoples. The level of detail in anthropological knowledge here, from both accessibility and the preservation of wood and packrat middens, provides particularly clear insights. He considers the Maya, a complex case with tantalizing incomplete records and information. The Norse and their expansion from Scandanavia to Iceland, Greenland, and the fringes of North America provide interesting studies in the way that cultural norms can play to the success or failure of a society; Diamond devotes 100 pages to these discussions.

Diamond then turns to modern societies with discussion of Rwanda, Hispaniola (the dichotomy illustrated by Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and the perhaps “accidental” conservation that has made such a big difference), China, and Australia. I was particularly interested in the coverage of China and Australia, but for different reasons. China is such a huge force in today’s world in population, resources, and the growth of consumption. China is building one coal-fired power plant each week! Understanding the Chinese connection to world economic and environmental stability is critical. Australia fascinated me, as I was surprised to learn of the extent of resource depletion and the marginality of many of its agricultural endeavors. On a personally first-world selfish consumer level, I hope that the wonderful Shiraz of the Barossa Valley, for example, continues to be available at accessible prices ;-).

After he discusses the past and present, Diamond attempts to explain why some societies seem to make disasterous decisions, including the “tradgedy of the commons” (this is the view that of a common resource, I better make sure I get all I can get because if I don’t, you will get mine and yours). He then works to tie economic success to environmental awareness, and in my mind, does a good job. Diamond is clearly not a man who simply says “business = bad” but recognizes the symbiotic relationship that exists there, particularly in sustainable resource exploitation. He lists our serious problems, but then optimistically closes with reasons for hope that we will “get it” and effectively address the problems that face us.

I heartily recommend this for your reading pleasure.

Here’s an Amazon link to the book

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