Book Review | Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

This book, all in all, still rings true a decade after it was published, which is a haunting fact. Collapse is an environmental book, though you wouldn’t know it from the title. Diamond surveys several past and modern societies, including Easter Island, Norse Greenland, Papua New Guinea, Japan, China, and Montana. In each, he examines how their proximate causes of collapse were all, ultimately, environmental degradation for one reason or another.

Now, as someone who is remarkably up-to-date on all things environmental, much of this book made me go “Duh!” However, for people not so up-to-date on environmental statistics or causes of environmental destruction, this book would make a lovely introduction to the subject. It also makes a persuasive case that environmental problems are, in fact, real for any global warming deniers out there. So, if you don’t believe in global warming, or if you do but have never really understood or cared to learn why these things are happening, Diamond will explain these things to you in a compelling narrative.

For those of us well-read in the problems of our modern environment, this book, redundant as it may be, is still quite fascinating. The broad spectrum of former and present societies that Diamond explores is what makes this book more than just an introduction to the causes of our current environmental issues. For us, though this is clearly an environmental book, it is also a history lesson. Have you ever wanted a crash course in the history of Easter Island? Tikopia? The Viking expansion to Greenland? Have you ever yearned to learn about the Rwandan genocide, Papua New Guinea, or Southwest Montana? Well, look no further. Jared Diamond paints a clear picture of the relationship between history and environmentalism. The way he explains the collapses of each of the societies is very political and anthropocentric, but all the while the link to that political and cultural history is rooted in the facts of environmental destruction. So, even for those of us who would say “Duh!” when he explains why deforestation will negatively affect both the environment and out economy, the crash courses in the histories of small and disparate societies still keep is engaging and fresh.

Some of his arguments are rather flimsy (such as his argument that the Rwandan genocide was directly caused by overpopulation and famine), but most of his arguments are solid and stand alone. So, ultimately, I would recommend this book to anyone interested in learning about the relationship between history and the environment.

However well researched and well written this book may be, and however optimistically Diamond tried to portray is book, this book should haunt all who read it today. The fact is that his arguments about modern society are still 100% accurate. Not one thing has changed in our cultural opinion or attitude towards our environmental problems. Not one thing has changed in policy that is strong enough to actually halt the environmental forces bearing down on us. Ultimately, the First World is not willing to give up it’s conveniences and high standard of living for the good of the future of humanity. And ultimately, the Third World is not willing to give up aspiring to the same standard of living as the First World. This book rings as true in 2015 as it did in 2005, and that is a scary thought.