Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond

Despite its gloomy title, Collapse is a manual for how humans can live successfully on Planet Earth. Jared Diamond examines in detail a number of ancient and modern civilizations to find out why they failed while other societies succeeded. In every collapse, whether of the North American Anasazi, the medieval Norse of Greenland or modern-day Rwanda, the depletion of natural resources played a major role. However, Diamond also showcases societies such as modern-day Japan, the highlanders of New Guinea, and the Pacific islanders of Tikopia who have managed their resources successfully.

One early sign of trouble is large-scale deforestation, leading to erosion and drought, because there are no longer tree roots to hold moisture in the soil. Once these situations come to a crisis point, it may be too late to turn back. Perhaps there were people on remote Easter Island who wondered, “What’s going to happen to us when we cut down the last tree?” However, in that ancient society there was such intense competition between the local chiefs that nobody seemed able to alter the course of events. The largest trees were cut down and used for platforms to carve and move the hundreds of gigantic statues which still remain. Predation by rats and overpopulation also contributed to the deforestation and eventual collapse of that society.

We tend to believe we can get our trees from “somewhere else.” The ancient Easter Islanders may have thought the same; those living on one side of the island may have thought there were more trees on other parts of the island. Planet Earth is a bigger island than Easter, but the same realities exist. Our use of natural resources can be sustained only if we allow them time and the right conditions to regenerate.

Diamond demonstrates through many examples that societies can make a conscious choice between living sustainably or undermining their resources till they are all gone. He points out that the leadership for sustainability can come from the bottom up—as grassroots efforts—or from the top down—as mandated by a government—and gives examples of both kinds that have succeeded. The alternative is to ignore the problems and continue the misuse of our resources until the last of them is gone.

Which will we choose?

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