Review: Collapse

I’ve complained about my difficulties finding a book on climate change that isn’t overly hyped or completely dismissive of the problems.  I think that Jared Diamond, of Guns, Germs, and Steel fame, has written the book that clarifies the situation for me.  His Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed is as much a warning of the environmental pressures on society as The Weather Makers, without the hype and magical thinking that turned me off.  Collapse is a compelling call to change the way we live on the planet in order to sustain our species that doesn’t require any sudden changes to the climate.  Diamond clearly points out that we’ve got enough troubles even without tickling “Gaia.”

His strategy is simple and powerful.  He frames the issues with a chapter on the changes in society and the environment in the US state of Montana, as it has moved from being a somewhat marginal but mostly profitable ranching and mining area to one of tourism, polarized classes, and damaged environment.  Little of this transformation is from ethereal causes; people have overused the land, failed to clean up the mines, and been priced out of the ranching and agricultural markets by globalized labor and cheap transportation.  The situation is urgent but not unaddressable, and more importantly the multiple fundamental causes are crystal clear. This comprehensible, pressing problem is solidly rooted in the reader’s mind as Diamond goes on to discuss societies that have failed such tests in the past and looks at how other areas of the world face similar problems now.

From Montana Diamond takes us to a variety of societies faced with environmental and economic crises, most of which failed these tests.  Several Pacific island cultures are explored, some Southwest Native American societies, and finally the Scandinavian colony in Greenland. Even if one were to miss (or disbelieve) the connection between these societies and the current situation, the studies are fascinating in terms of how archeologists puzzle out the past from a few clues and a lot of clever and meticulous reasoning.  These societies’ patterns and decisions are also interesting in their own right.

As diverting as those studies are, the most important thing I took away from them is how solid our understanding of them is and how important the effects of societies on their environment are.  The time spent in deep understanding is key here.  The reader comes away from the cases convinced that real human beings making decisions they believed in failed to cope with the pressures that their way of life put on their homelands.  There’s no magic in any of these studies; no inexplicable meteors or sudden warming trends blot out these societies.  The pressures are largely of their own making, though climate changes do play roles.  If one believes that global warming is the world’s biggest environmental problem, or that wishing it away or disbelieving it is sufficient to guarantee human societies survive another millennium, I recommend reading this book.

Once the trip through the past is complete, Diamond looks over a few success stories from the past – and it’s something of a relief to know there have been some – as well as looking at the signs of environmental pressure that one can see in current societies.  China, Rwanda, Haiti, and Australia all get their moments under the microscope for better and worse.  This makes the parallels between the challenges of the past and those of the present clearer.  It also gives Diamond a chance to point out differences and let the reader know another slew of interesting facts about these places.

Finally, he looks at what larger lessons can be drawn from all this investigation, notably what underlying causes contribute to bad decision making on a societal level and what the possibilities are for the future.

The single best thing about this book is Diamond’s relentless determination to describe the problems we face and the potential solutions in the full glory of their complexity.  All the outcomes he discusses – successes, failures, and ongoing attempts – stem from multiple influences.  He never tries to claim that a single bad policy or decision doomed a group or that a single change in the environment or sudden event caused the problems.  Nor does he let readers believe that single axis solutions will address these complex situations.

Despite all this admission of complexity, the situation is not presented as overwhelming either.  There are multiple pressures on the societies and the environments, but they are all tractable with careful thought.  His point is that these real, multifaceted problems need to be looked at in their complexity and addressed thoughtfully and resolutely, or we will become a world in decline.

I found the book refreshing and inspiring, as well as being interesting and informative.  It is, without a doubt, the clearest, most reasonable assessment of the environmental problems that modern society faces.

A must.

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