Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

One of the more thought-provoking – and chilling – questions Jared Diamond raises in his book, “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed” (2005, Penguin Books), is how Easter Islanders could have knowingly decimated the forests their society and survival depended on:

“What,” he poses, “did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say as he was doing it?”

“We unconsciously imagine a sudden change; one year, the island still covered with a forest of tall palm trees being used to produce wine, fruit, and timber to transport and erect statues; the next year, just a single tree left, which an islander proceeds to fell in an act of incredibly self-damaging stupidity.”

More likely, though, Diamond continues, the deforestation occurred gradually, over the course of several generations, so no one noticed the dramatic change in the landscape.

“Only the oldest islanders, thinking back to their childhoods decades earlier, could have recognized a difference,” he writes. “Their children could no more have comprehended their parents’ tales of a tall forest than my 17-year-old son today can comprehend my wife’s and my tales of what Los Angeles used to be like 40 years ago âÂ?¦ At the time that the last fruit-bearing adult palm tree was cut, the species had long ago ceased to be of any economic significance.”

Diamond, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author (“Guns, Germs, and Steel”) and professor of geography at the University of California, Los Angeles, makes a comprehensive case by examining in exhaustive, yet compelling, detail the fates of societies as diverse as the ancient Maya, the medieval Greenland Norse, 1990s Rwanda and present-day Montana. Ultimately, he weaves together the lessons of all his cultures to address the 12 major challenges now facing our global society, among them over-fishing, erosion of farmland, over-reliance on fossil fuels, world population growth and its increasing impact on the environment.

“Our world society is presently on a non-sustainable course, and any of our 12 problems of non-sustainability that we have just summarized would suffice to limit our lifestyle within the next several decades. They are like time bombs with fuses of less than 50 years,” he writes.

While the assessment sounds near-hopeless, Diamond doesn’t succumb to pessimism. Our problems are solvable, he says, and environmental awareness is expanding at all levels, among citizens, businesses, even politicians and governments.

“My remaining cause for hope is another consequence of the globalized modern world’s interconnectedness,” he concludes. “Our television documentaries and books show us in graphic detail why the Easter Islanders, Classic Maya, and other past societies collapsed. Thus, we have the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of distant peoples and past peoples. That’s an opportunity that no past society enjoyed to such a degree. My hope in writing this book has been that enough people will choose to profit from that opportunity to make a difference.”

Based on the detailed and persuasive case Diamond makes in “Collapse,” it’s a hope that’s well justified.

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