Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive

As in an expertly designed documentary, such as the BBC would likely produce, a narrator, in possession of all imaginable information, meets archaeologists at different locations. He walks with them through apparently degraded and/ or pristine landscapes while discussing their meticulous work, such as radiocarbon dating, pollen analysis, and the results obtainable from investigating packrat middens. The conversation of the narrator with the specialists is at times purely speculative, drawing, for instance, wide ranging parallels between the Anasazi and modern human societies. But for the most part, the story seems founded on serious evidence. It also has a clear message, and the relation between historical case studies and the present, even the future, is simple, linear. This is in essence the rhetorical strategy employed in the well-written and at times compelling book Collapse. Diamond succeeds in turning history almost into a mystery novel, without, however, ever sacrificing its credibility as serious scholarship-based analysis.

The book starts in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley in the present, then goes on a historical journey around the world to explore several cases in which, according to the definition used in the book, societies collapsed. These are discussed in terms of a framework of five simple assumptions: Societies fail to survive if they damage their environment (more likely in fragile environments, even more likely if new settlers fail to understand the fragility of the new, apparently pristine land), if they are adversely affected by climate change, if they have hostile neighbors, or if their support by friendly neighbors (trade partners) declines. These factors are found in different combinations in the examples. The fifth factor, failure of a society to respond to its environmental problems, is decisive to all failures. There are several types of failure: Failure to anticipate or to perceive a problem, failure to attempt to solve it, and failure to succeed in problem-solving. An elegant explanatory toolkit used skillfully thereafter. From Montana, the journey takes us to Easter Island, and the Polynesian islands of Pitcairn and Henderson. Further travel leads to the Anasazi of Chaco Canyon and its environs, the Mesoamerican Maya, and the Viking expansion at large and in particular the Greenland Norse. These historical case studies are discussed also to show that single-factor explanations are seldom true. Apart from the last case, all rely more on archaeological than on historical evidence. Interpretations depend on the source base, as can be seen comparing Easter Island, whose inhabitants are depicted as having erected more and more statues because things got worse, with Norse Greenland, whose failure is not explained as being due to investing more and more in churches because of worsening conditions, but rather to the inhabitants’ desire to be more European than the Europeans, and therefore diverting necessary resources to the wrong causes.

The third part is devoted to modern societies, Rwanda, Hispaniola’s Haiti, and the Dominican Republic as contrasts, and China and Australia, with Tokugawa Japan, the New Guinea Highlands, and the small island of Tikopia serving as positive comparisons. All but the detailed Greenland example are set on the Pacific side of the world, a quite plausible decision from a Californian perspective. Europeans will wonder why the decline and fall of the Roman Empire deserved no mention. The last hundred pages are given to overall conclusions and a guide for action.

The independence of culture (in the broadest sense) from adaptive constraints is only discussed as a problem of ill-adapted religious beliefs. While there is serious attempt to grasp the complexity of globalized society and the international spread of pollution and degradation, media play a very limited explanatory role in the book, and both the World Trade Organization and the World Bank are mentioned uncritically. Neither are the limitations of markets discussed, nor is the question of capital accumulation in a monetary economy based on largely fictitious financial capital problematized. Society is made of individuals, small groups of decision makers, and concerned citizens. Rulers’ lust for power—the current U.S. president included—is blamed, but manufactured consent possible through centralized media gets no mention. Just like Robert McC. Netting (quoted in the book) had it a dozen years ago, Diamond’s world leaves room for individual and group choice, quite obviously neglecting power structures.

This book was written by a WWF board member with serious and respectable concerns in the hope of being influential. Most of its messages are laudable. The considerable effort to declare that the book does not advocate environmental determinism is a fight against a straw man; the book is based on cultural adaptionism, but without a reasonably complex model of the interaction between nature and culture in modern society. This is reflected in the arguments: The commons’ dilemma can be overcome by privatizing a resource and giving owners a long-term perspective. Wise-use advocates will be glad to find this message. Big businesses are not all bad (very true); without them, the environment cannot be saved (true under current conditions, but these are part of the problem), the installation of pro-active problem solving strategies is possible either bottom-up in small communities or top-down in large ones (doubtful).

While the archaeology-based part is compelling, the last third of the book is much less so, for its reification of the big business-dominated nation state world as the only one possible. Just a dash of critique would have made this compelling narrative more valuable.

The bibliography (offered as further reading section) is relatively short, and not connected to the text other than by chapter, which makes the book inconvenient as basis for further studies. The maps and images are well made and well chosen. The book makes excellent reading for a general audience, and certainly can be used in undergraduate courses, albeit with necessary caution. The main thrust of the argument, that modern society should use the historical knowledge base to do better, remains unconvincing if based on Diamond’s narratives. That a natural scientist can write successfully about humans is not new, and Diamond has done it in his previous books. This book is successful in its narrative strategy, but less so in its arguments on how the present and future can be shaped using historical knowledge.

Verena Winiwarter, PhD, teaches environmental history at Vienna University and other Austrian universities. Since October 2003 she has been an APART fellow of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, doing research on the history of soil knowledge systems. From 2001–2005 she served as president of the European Society for Environmental History.