A tale of two very similar farms, 500 years apart in time, in Montana and in Greenland respectively, sets the scene for Jared Diamond’s romp round the known world with an ecological bee in his bonnet. One farm prospered, and the other collapsed. Here ends the first reading, and sure enough, another few dozen parables of human folly follow immediately after. The book reads like a sequel to Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize winning title of 1997: Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies even though the focus this time is more firmly on the societies that failed.
The same cherry-picking formula is used, and the same breezy tone makes Collapse a fairly easy read, despite its heavy theme and expansive range. The book’s central thesis is that it is geography, more than history, that ultimately causes the demise of individual human communities and societies. This is perhaps not surprising from a professor of geology and physiology at the University of California in Los Angeles. The frozen wastes of Greenland and the striking stone heads of Easter Island are presented as grim reminders of past civilisations.
Diamond cites multiple factors such as environmental change, climate change, hostile neighbours, loss of trading partners and a poor response to emerging environmental problems as the causes of decline and ultimately the collapse of these societies. He is at his best when he talks about smaller, more isolated and pre-industrial groups, putting us all in mind of an earlier time when people generally lived in villages rather than cities.
The book shifts, however, and applies the same kind of analysis to large city-based civilizations like the ancient Maya of South America and more mixed modern economies such as China and Australia. In these cases, as they say, the plot thickens and when Diamond gets his crystal ball out, he predicts that China, “the lurching giant” will have to apply its typical top-down draconian pressures to environmental issues in the same way that it enforced a strict curb on the birth rate.
Diamond’s innocuous description of China’s brutal one child ruling as “family planning policies … bold and effectively carried out” underplays the culture shift that would need to occur if ever a western democracy were to try a similar tactic in aid of environmental reforms. One can’t help thinking that Diamond has not yet got his head round the concept of globalization and the astonishing capacity that modern democracies have for technological solutions to the old crises of supply and demand of raw resources.
His rather glib conclusion “Globalization makes it impossible for modern societies to collapse in isolation… for the first time we face the risk of a global decline” simply expands the primitive pattern to a bigger scale. This book is a wake up call. Some of its claims are exaggerated, as when the situation of modern Australia is compared to “an exponentially accelerating horse race” which for Diamond means “accelerating in the manner of a nuclear chain reaction. ” The metaphors may be hopelessly mixed, but the point he is making is clear and critically important.
After a leisurely wander through most of human civilisation as we know it, Diamond draws sobering conclusions about the cost of mistakes that we should, theoretically at least, be able to predict and deal with before they become fatal and final errors. While we may not be able to agree with all of his conclusions, we certainly are in debt to Jared Diamond for providing us with, yet again, a gripping sequence of well-drawn episodes and plenty of food for thought.