Friday, February 01, 2013

Book 13: Collapse

I read and enjoyed Jared Diamond's more well known book Guns, Germs and Steel a few years ago, though I thought he repeated himself a bit much on a few occasions.  I've been meaning to read Collapse for a while now, and I'm so glad I picked it up - if anything, it was even better than Guns, Germs and Steel, and while reading it could occasionally be depressing and bleak, I am very glad I read this, and really think it could end up as one of my favorites for the year. 
As the title implies, in this book, Diamond chooses to look at why certain societies have failed where others have succeeded and what sets them apart.  He comes up with a list of five factors that play a crucial role in the failure or success of societies, and these are environmental damage which includes things such as deforestation, soil erosion, etc, all of which are man made issues; climate change, such as droughts, floods, or dropping or rising temperatures; hostile neighbors; reduction in relationships with beneficial trade partners; and finally,  the culture's reaction to its problems.  All of these factors can contribute to why a society might fail, though only one of these factors could be enough to cause the collapse.  For example, he cites Carthage as a society that collapsed due to hostile neighbors (the Romans), but then discusses how an ill-timed drought could be the tipping point for a society that has already caused a large amount of environmental damage and is working with limited resources to begin with.
While Diamond spends a majority of his time discussing failed cultures, he opens the book with a long chapter about Montana, using Montana as an example of environmental issues that face many different areas.  While he discusses Montana, much of it seems bad, but he says that in many ways, Montana is better off than others.  Having given the issues societies face a personal face, he then discusses several societies that have collapsed, and where we don't have that personal connection, using archaeological evidence to determine the fates of these now defunct civilizations (also, while in some cases, collapse meant everyone died, in many it just means that particular society collapsed, some people survived but without the large system that had previously existed such as the Mayas, or they were absorbed into nearby communities, such as the present day Hopis being partially descended from surviving Anasazi).  He chooses several different examples, all of which illustrate different points of his argument - for example, Easter Island was very isolated so they would not have been affected by diminishing trade relationships with trade partners or hostile neighbors (except for each other on the island).  Henderson Island and Pitcairn Island, on the other hand, were very small communities that relied heavily on trade with a third island, Mangareva.  When Mangareva's society collapsed, Henderson and Pitcairn soon followed, unable to support themselves on their small islands without the resources from the larger island.  In the case of the Anasazi and the Mayans, climate changes played a role.  While both groups had survived droughts before, by the time the droughts that led to their final collapse occurred, populations had grown and other resources had been diminished so that something that would have once been difficult suddenly became impossible to overcome - especially since neither one of these groups appear to have written accounts of weather (surviving Mayan writings focus on the leaders, not the weather), and therefore had no historical records to refer to (obviously, it is unknown what may have been in their oral histories).
He spends the largest majority of time on the collapse on Norse Greenland because not only is there more of a record (and given their European Christian background, it is easier to determine cultural influences that played a role in their decision-making process), but it provides an example of a society that was affected by all five of the factors.  Additionally, there are places to compare it to since Norse Greenland is one of six colonies from Viking Norway, the others of which survived, because their environment was less fragile, and they were less remote.  Still, Iceland could easily have faced a similar collapse, but it realized how it was destroying its environment, and changed its ways.  It was one of the poorest communities for a long time, but it hung on.  Norse Greenland, on the other hand, was the most remote, and as time progressed, Europe lost interest partially because one of the trade goods that Greenland provided (walrus tusks) was no longer needed or in demand.  This meant that this society, which already had a shortage of lumber and metal, was on its own.  While the Norse were able to succeed for over four hundred years, eventually their European life style and farming methods could not be sustained.  Inuit societies (which may have also been an example of hostile neighbors) have survived on Greenland though often facing starvation, so it wasn't impossible to live on the island, but the Norse lifestyle wasn't sustainable without some changes or adjustments they were either unwilling to make or simply couldn't determine.
After discussing some societies that have dealt well with their resources, and survived for long periods of time, including a small island that practiced population control for much of its existence (of course, as soon as Christians spread their message, the island no longer used its methods of keeping the population down, which included abortion and contraception, grew by 50% and faced a famine - after emergency evacuation, the island has a set limit on population allowed on the island), Diamond shifted to the current day, and looked at four examples of societies that are facing some rather severe environmental issues.  He chose Rwanda, the Dominican Republic and Haiti (as two countries sharing one island, they worked rather well to compare but also show how different nations influence each other especially in this time of globalization), China and Australia, a country with an incredibly fragile environment.  Many of the issues facing these countries, and the world at large, are rather bleak and somewhat frightening: much of the world has issues with deforestation which leads to soil erosion which means even less can grow there; forests and fisheries aren't well managed and treated as one time resources, being completely logged or fished rather than seen as something that could be renewable if only used at a proper rate; countless species have been driven to extinction due to loss of habitat, over-hunting, or human imported pests.  While some countries have very low population growth, others do not, and even the ones that don't are all trying to achieve first world living standards.  For example, China's population is growing at minimum rates, but given its people's desire to achieve first world standards, its impact on the world is still growing.  It basically seems like humans have come close to using up everything they can, and if things continue, everything could go very badly.  Many effects aren't even being felt yet, or will still be felt for years even if appropriate repercussions are taken now.  Some first world countries are preserving their resources but basically destroying other countries' resources in the process (Japan imports its wood from Australia).
Still, Diamond ends his book with what he describes as cautious hope: while many things seem bleak, lots of countries are realizing the costs and taking action (top-down), and many citizens as well are coming together and creating bottom up initiatives.  While consumers may not be able to directly affect some industries, they can affect the companies that buy from these industries, such as putting pressure on Tiffany's to buy from gold mining companies that have better environmental policies.  They can also vote for the politicians with the better record and policies.  It is much cheaper for companies to implement procedures that protect the environment than to clean it up later, as Diamond also demonstrated with the example of a very well run Chevron oil site.  Reading this book really has helped put the environmental damage into perspective and the necessity for action.  While Diamond is hopeful, I myself am concerned, especially watching the politics in current day America, where even the idea of birth control seems to cause controversy in some areas, and any type of regulation is considered anti-business.  This book is incredibly well-written, interesting, and relevant.  I would highly recommend it to just about anyone, especially if they don't mind the occasional denser nonfiction book.

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