Collapse – How Societies Choose to fail or Survive

Jared Diamond (2005)
An amazing book, which may well have finally cured me of my aversion to non-fiction. I am told it has since been made into a TV programme (or series) but not one which I caught.
In brief, this is, as the title suggests, a study of how societies collapse. There are several very detailed case studies, including the Mayan civilisation in Mexico, Easter Island, the Norse settlement in Greenland, and American Indian civilisations. There are contrasted with similar civilisations that have persisted (although the reference to Iceland’s prosperity in comparison with Greenland is a bit of a sick joke post-bankruptcy in 2008/9) despite very challenging environments. The chapter on Easter Island (2) is a particularly interesting part of the book – it is argued compellingly that this extraordinarily mature and complex civilisation committed ecocide. Most of the collapsed civilisations studied here existed in marginal, challenging environments, and the sources of their collapse can be traced back to environmental destruction of one kind or another, whether it be deforestation, salinization of the soil, or soil erosion.
I wrote positively about Diamond’s earlier work, Guns, Germs and Steel in a previous entry. This book could easily have been alternatively sub-titled “Trees, Soil, and Water” given the central role these ingredients play in the survival or otherwise of civilisations. But Diamond’s choice of sub-title here, and especially that verb “choose” is both controversial and illuminating, and I keep coming back to that choice. His central thesis is clear – the survival of societies is not simply a matter of a natural rise and fall over time, but a result of the decisions and choices societies make. That’s not to say those decisions are easy or obvious, but nonetheless with the benefit of hindsight we can see how some societies prosper in almost impossible circumstances – he cites the example of the island of Tikopia in the Pacific which is less than two square miles in area, but on which people have survived for around 3,000 years – while others disappear more or less suddenly.
This is a hugely controversial topic or battleground, and of course Diamond’s cultural and academic perspectives come into play. His analysis of the massacres in Rwanda, attributing them in part to over-population, will be distressing to some, but he arrays a formidable amount of evidence to support his position.

Diamond is usually scrupulous in acknowledging when he is entering a field of potential or actual controversy – he recognises the existing debate, without hesitating to offer his own judgment or perspective. Which makes it all the more surprising that when discussing the use of infanticide as a method of population control, he does so in a quite chillingly dispassionate way, without giving the slightest nod to the possibility that there may be readers who do not accept that this was ever used in the way suggested. I have no doubt he has evidence to support his contention – presumably archaeological – but this is not cited or referenced.  

Diamond is handling some big themes here, so inevitably his work has attracted a fair amount of controversy. He anticipates some of this in his original text (so far as I can tell – the edition I read was a 2011 reprint, and there has been some revision and updating of the text). Firstly, the suggestion that native inhabitants of the Easter Islands and elsewhere could have wilfully destroyed their environment, leaving it uninhabitable, is seen by some as at best counter-intuitive, and worst simply racist. He stands accused of underplaying the role of slave traders and European illnesses in depopulating the island, where, it is claimed, indigenous peoples survived and prospered long after the largest trees were harvested. The counter thesis is that statue carving and erecting did not end with the felling of the largest trees, and the stone masons’ tools lie abandoned in the quarry not because people just walked away to participate in the collapse of the culture, but because they were attacked by slave traders.

Another controversy has centred on the puzzling question as to whether the Norse Greenlanders ate fish or not. The evidence of the animal bones in Viking rubbish studied by archaeologists suggested not, but other evidence of Viking bones themselves (and I admit I am not sure how analysing the chemical composition of people’s bones can tell you with much confidence how much fish they ate) claims that fish played an increasingly important part in people’s diets. This particular debate seems a bit of a non-issue to me and symptomatic of critics wanting to take chunks out of Diamond and taking any opportunity to do so – hence another “missing the point” article elsewhere claming that Australia’s agriculture is doing very well thank you very much. 

Diamond’s central thesis is actually very simple and in many ways unarguable. Over the course of human history some societies have prospered and survived, and others have collapsed. The survivors have certain characteristics that we can learn from, as do those which collapsed. The main learning point is that we should look after our environment, either by central Government taking the initiative (e.g. on forestry management), international co-operation (e.g. on climate change) or by “bottom-up” change initiated by local people and the choices they make e.g. lowering consumption, recycling. All of these actions will be fairly pointless if we don’t do something about population. I think we all know that population is increasing exponentially across the planet, and what we do about that is a subject that wouldn’t fit into Diamond’s analysis – he touches upon the issue but not in anything like the depth it requires. This is the Green political analysis, and it is well put, but I don’t see it as the whole answer, (of course).

Some minor complaints. At times this is a poorly edited, dull and self indulgent book, despite all the fireworks elsewhere. The opening chapter on Montana is a false start – Montana is in one of the most prosperous countries in the world, and this chapter reads as if Diamond is writing a postcard from his holiday home rather than opening an analysis of societal collapse.

Another grumble is on the absence of photographs/plates, which have been removed from this edition, presumably to save money (although £10.99 isn’t cheap for a paperback!) The references to the plates in the text have not been edited out. I found this disproportionately frustrating – each time the author reference to a plate he must have had reason to do so – the image or photograph would have illustrated a point that he doesn’t need to further elaborate. Basically it was just cheap of the publishers.
At the end of what was a bit of a marathon I feel very virtuous, having made it to the end, and what is more I want to know more – I have already followed up with various articles and Wikipedia entries – which is always a good sign.