Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

ISBN: 0143036556
ISBN 13: 9780143036555
By: Jared Diamond

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About this book

From the author of Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive is a visionary study of the mysterious downfall of past civilizations.- What happened to the people who made the forlorn long-abandoned statues of Easter Island?- What happened to the architects of the crumbling Maya pyramids?- Will we go the same way, our skyscrapers one day standing derelict and overgrown like the temples at Angkor Wat?Bringing together new evidence from a startling range of sources and piecing together the myriad influences, from climate to culture, that make societies self-destruct, Jared Diamond's Collapse also shows how - unlike our ancestors - we can benefit from our knowledge of the past and learn to be survivors.

Reader's Thoughts


From now on, every fledgling civilization should be issued with a little pamphlet outlining the dangers of deforestation. On the cover, there'd be a picture of a toppled Easter Island statue, with the caption, "Learn from our mistakes: if you chop down all your trees, your society will expire in an orgy of cannibalism. Also, you might want to go easy on the monoliths."Collapse is a sobering book, but I'm just jaded enough that after about the tenth analysis of pollen readings from core samples, I was like, "Come on, Jared. Get to the part where they eat each other." And that was before he launched into a detailed discussion of Japanese forestry policy in the Tokugawa era. Silviculture was a lot more interesting to me when I thought it had something to do with art therapy for seniors.So, yeah, we're all gonna die, and some of us will probably end up getting eaten. But in the meantime, I've still got a few seasons of Barney Miller to download, so no rush.

Lee Drake

READ THIS! If this book doesn't shake your intellectual and moral fibers, then something is wrong. It details the history of civilization collapse, and analyzes the environment and how its mismanagement translates to social conflict and collapse. This book transformed me from wannabe archaeologist to wannabe politician - because for the first time I saw that the archaeological record has definitive implictions for how we should live our lives and structure our social institutions. Honestly, if there is one book I had to promote to anyone, this is it. Please read it. You owe it to yourself.

Lilo Abernathy

If you care about the world and the survival of the human race, then you must read this book. Period. Buy it now. It will teach you more than you ever thought possible in one book. You will look at the world differently. It will expand your mind.- LiloAuthor of The Light Who ShinesAnd just to be technically correct, this is not a review. It is a recommendation.


I felt compelled to read this, in particular given it's premise (choice is a big deal for the survival of cultures and societies), and I struggled to keep with it. But, ultimately, it was quite rewarding and a worthy read. Helps build the broader argument about how fucked up we are and, at the same time, how blessed we are with such potential.


Fa caldo. L'ho cominciato ed é interessantissimo ma fa caldo. L'abbiocco da afa é garantito. Ci sono libri invernali e libri estivi.Questo ha bisogno di un clima temperato.


So I was in Belize for the holiday and became fascinated with all the Mayan ruins I visited. I had been to Copan in Honduras years ago, but was reminded of the great glory of this civilization, and the controversial collapse that happened to disperse people from these great structures around 900 AD.I love Guns Germs and Steel more than anything, it changed how I look at history and people and society, so I dug into this one, particularly the Mayan part, with great excitement. And it doesn't disappoint.A lot of this book is clearly set up to support the author's argument, that it is the roll of the dice of how delicate the ecology is where societies set up shop, and how the societies treated them that causes collapse. Basically an extension of Guns Germs and Steel. This puts a stark face on how we should and need to consider dealing with the environment cards we're dealt though.Nothing is more tragic than the Easter Island chapter, it is breathtaking the research and evidence that proves why they disappeared, and tragic if you think about it in the context of our earth, from which we really cannot escape, same as the Easter Islanders.If you are an environmentalist or not, there are thought provoking ideas and statistics here that put a concrete face to a cause that has become an emotional and numbing topic. You can tell people what they SHOULD care about, what they SHOULD do, but until you convince yourself it's important, you cannot change yourself or who is around you. This book put that part of me that feels strongly about preserving/managing the environment, and made it logical and scientific again. This is NOT a book trying to convince you to care about the environment, it's a survey of lost civilizations and how they collapsed. The awareness for me was a byproduct, and fascinating in its own right.


Jared Diamond looks at several societies that have collapsed as a result of misusing their natural resources, plus a couple (Tokugawa period Japan is the star example) that miraculously managed to pull back from the brink. At the end, he also talks about some present-day cases where we still don't know what will happen. The one my thoughts keep returning to is medieval Greenland, which Diamond discusses in a long and detailed chapter. Settled in the 11th century by Vikings originally from Norway, the colonists brought with them their whole way of life, which was heavily organized around dairy farming. There is an eerie description of a huge barn with room for 80 head of cattle; the ruins can still be seen today. The colony survived for several hundred years, and was then wiped out to the last man by worsening weather and the decline in the European market for narwhale ivory.But here's the really odd thing. The colonists never ate fish, despite the fact that it formed the staple diet of the indigenous Greenland Eskimos. Diamond says that every single archaeologist who's studied the settlement starts off convinced that there must have been some kind of mistake. How is it possible that these hardy, intelligent people could have failed to adapt their diet in such an obvious way? But the evidence from middens is apparently rock-solid. For whatever reason, they would not make use of this plentiful natural resource, which could easily have saved them; they perished instead.Incomprehensible, isn't it? Needless to say, our own society's reluctance to invest more than a token amount of money in developing cheap solar power is different. The two cases are in no way comparable.____________________________Just back from Australia, where I had several illuminating discussions with various people about solar energy. Australia is almost certainly the country where it would work best. Population density is very low, and there is abundant sunlight. The technology already exists to build cheap solar power stations.So why don't they do it? Apparently, building the power stations in desert areas isn't economically viable unless national resources are diverted to connect them to the national grid. But the powerful coal lobby hates the idea, and has blocked it at every turn. Neither left-wing nor right-wing politicians dare oppose them.You often see individuals doing this kind of thing: even though a given course of action is evidently going to benefit them (leave their abusive partner, stop binge-drinking), they are unable to summon the willpower to quit. It's interesting and remarkable that whole societies exhibit the same behavior.


Guns, Germs and Steel occasionally felt like monday morning quarterbacking, but Collapse is superb. In GG&S, Diamond tried to explain how technologies that evolved in some places did not in others, how some communities thrived due to excess food and more advanced agriculture, while others, perpetually on the verge of starvation, had to devote all of their time to dealing with that and thus didn't have time for building the Parthenon. The argument was not airtight - his notion of what constitutes a reasonable amount of time to spend on gathering food could use a little sharpening, and he didn't approach work as part and parcel of culture, which it most certainly is. GG&S also overlooked a lot of crops available to people he strenuously argued had nothing to eat - for example, Acai in the Amazon Basin (a superfood which constitutes 45% of the diet of some locals) and others elsewhere.In Collapse, Diamond examines how several ancient societies (Easter Island, Mangareva/Pitcairn Lapita, Maya, the Norse colonies in Iceland, Greenland, and Vinland) fell apart due to resource management issues, the environmental challenges faced by a few modern countries (Australia, Japan, China), and the best ways to avoid a tragedy of the commons-type situation that results in a drastically reduced standard of living for everyone. The author is breathtakingly impartial, sometimes to a fault; he laconically remarks, for example, that "George W. Bush remains unconvinced of the reality of global warming."Overall, Diamond seems most worried about erosion, which he sees as a bigger problem than global warming because of the difficulty of replacing arable land, and the multitude of ways it can be destroyed. You can buy all the long-line-caught Chilean sea bass you want, and eat organic lettuce all day, and still have an awful impact on the environment because the soil in which the lettuce grows is a limited resource, as are the fisheries that produce the fish you buy, which also suffer from land degradation.Diamond thinks that a lot of the resources we rely on have been made artificially cheap through subsidies and foolish government management of limited resources. He's right, but there is a conflict between egalitarianism and environmentalism lurking between the pages of this book: I don't think you can charge the right amount for energy or food or other essentials without further immiserating the poor. That's the unmet challenge of the environmental movement, the one this and most books on the subject dodge. Despite that, I'd wholeheartedly recommend Collapse for its details on everyday life in Norse Greenland and Easter Island alone, not just for the nuanced analysis.


Although I only gave this book three stars, I can recommend it a little bit over that. I found it interesting, but not quite as compelling as I might have if I wasn’t already familiar with some parts of the story. I took graduate classes in International Relations, specializing in China as well as international political economy, so I didn’t find any surprises in the abstract background to Collapse.Some very intriguing parts were the stories of collapse of vanished societies, as many have noted in other reviews. But also quite enjoyable were the explanations for why others did not collapse, especially the near-miss of the Tokugawa Shogunate as prosperity almost led them to devastate their forests — it is almost an accident of history that the Japanese home islands aren’t as barren as Easter Island.The chapter on modern Australia was also quite eye-opening. After reading this litany of miseries, all I can say to my Australian friends is “Good luck, mate. You’re gonna need it.” I think everyone living on the edge of the Pacific Ocean needs to spend more time studying the ENSO — El Niño Southern Oscillation. It will certainly have a major impact on California, too.Perhaps my favorite portion of the book were Chapters 14 and 15, in which Diamond explores societal responses to these threats.Chapter 14 is titled “Why Do Some Societies Make Disastrous Decisions?” and begins with a tidy discussion of decision theory and cognitive biases. I suspect a professional Decision Theorist might scoff at the oversimplification and lacunae of his explanation, but Diamond can place it in a riveting real-world context that cements how a careful analysis can help us understand such twisted and paradoxical situations. (In this I am reminded of the fascinating classic Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis .)This chapter allowed him to answer a question he was asked by a student: “When that person cut down the last palm tree on Easter Island, what on earth could they have been thinking?” turns out to have a rather obvious answer: by the time that last palm was cut down, centuries of deforestation had already taken place, and the crucial cultural importance of those trees would have long since disappeared.Chapter 15, “Big Business and the Environment,” is also quite absorbing. Diamond contrasts the very different environmental impact of two oil fields, and continues with the particular problems of hardrock mining, coal mining, logging and fisheries. His inquiry into why some corporations and industries are are more amenable to social pressure casts a minor hopeful note into the symphony of despair.There are a few complaints that need to be aired.First, Diamond could really use a forceful editor with an eye towards clarity. The professor is very prolix, with a pedantic tendency to repeat himself. For example, every time Diamond referred to palynology, he felt compelled to explain it again. In such a large book which undoubtedly took many years to compose, this is understandable — but not in the final draft. That’s why editors are supposed to employed. Perhaps asking him to be succinct is asking too much, but it would be nice to nudge him in that direction.Second, while his “Further Reading” appendix is welcome, it doesn’t excuse the lack of a bibliography, especially since index doesn’t seem to cover that appendix.Finally, the book starts out on a weak note in Montana. His affection for the Bitterroot Valley is understandable, but its problems are nowhere near as engrossing and dramatic as those that follow, and the relevance of a struggling rural community tucked deep inside the world’s wealthiest nation makes it hard to understand its relevance. It would have been best left to personalize and clarify a concluding chapter, perhaps, although the chapter on Australia did a more than adequate job of showing how pressing the threats of collapse can be in a modern first-world society.In the end, while this book was adequately absorbing, it didn’t bring me much closer to my quest. No book I’ve yet found has adequately discussed the question “How likely is it that the entire global civilization will collapse in the coming century, leading to centuries of a new ‘dark age’ of reduced life expectancy, welfare and technology?”­


Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed succeeds in educating the reader about components of previous societies that led to their collapses and how those same components present themselves in today's global society. Lest anyone thinks this creates a negative, somber doomsday of a book, it doesn't. Diamond writes positively and offers much hope. I appreciated his approach to controversial subjects such as abortion used as a method to keep population down. He doesn't resort to the typical guilting or fear tactics that so many environmentalists use to force their opinion on their readers. Diamond uses a straight-forward approach that allows the reader to draw their own conclusions. The book avoids the usual dose of environmental politics which I highly appreciated.My one beef with this book revolves around the writing. Diamond writes this book like he would deliver a lecture. Although, I didn't find it boring because of the amount of high-quality research, new information and the subject matter, the frequent re-capping became annoying after a few chapters. I resorted to skip-reading through the chapter-end summaries about half the way through this lengthy book. I found the ending chapters mostly redundant also, because I had already understood the similarities between our cultures and the ancient or troubled ones. However, in spite of the redundant-tendencies, I would recommend this book because of the wealth of information it contains. I think it has an eye-opening message for us regarding our dependence on each other's natural resources (as nations) and potential consequences of that interdependence.writing = 3 starscontent = 4.5 starsrelevance = 5.0 starsI finished this big book in less than a month! = 5 stars


I did read at least half of this book. The section on Easter Island is one of the most memorable things I've read in the past few years, and I'd recommend it to anyone.This book goes on my guilt shelf because shortly after he got to China, I got too depressed to continue. It's also a bit heavy (literally) for subway reading, and returning to New York from California with it combined with the prospect of learning about China's impact on the environment was just too much for this reader.... So Collapse is sitting on my real-life, non-virtual bookshelf with a JetBlue boaring pass marking my place, frozen in time like the artifact of some extinct civilization.If I were really to make a comprehensive shelf of Books I Feel Like a Lazy Jerk for Not Having Read, Guns, Germs and Steel would also be on it.


Extraordinary in scope. Makes the news far more interesting even than it already was. However, I withhold star 5 because someone should have run the manuscript by me. Many awkward sentences. Too many sentences that aren't, quite. Or that aren't by a long shot. Penguin? Editors? Anyone? Such a noble and otherwise impressive undertaking deserves better care before reaching the public. But yes. A grand and very fine book indeed.

Cheryl in CC NV

I read lots of reviews. Seems like people love it if they agree with his 'premise' (though most don't admit he has one, and for all I know maybe he doesn't), or hate it if they don't. It's also 'interesting' 'readable' 'dry' and 'dense' depending on the reader. I might recommend it to Ralph because it apparently does a lot of that thing he's especially interested in, the 'how do we know what we claim to know' - but I might not because it's so very long.


I considered giving this book 4 instead of 5 stars simply because it can be over-dense in its detail and the style can be rather dry - but then I figured that says more about my stamina and laziness than about the quality of the book, so the book gets 5 and I get a 4 for effort. We're all winners.So despite the headline-grabbing title, the author Jared Diamond - a cross between an Amish garden gnome and avuncular Glastonbury festival supremo if you go by his picture - tries its darndest to avoid sensationalism, and the author opts instead for what is sorely needed in the environmental debate: sober, empirical analysis. But don't let that put you off - once you put your brain into the right gear this book can be completely consuming and fascinating, and the message and lessons it gives are electrifying.Diamond examines in turn a number of societies, ancient and modern, successful or unsuccessful, and forensically examines what were the factors in their collapse or survival before turning to our modern, global society to ask what lessons we can apply from those past cases to the predicament we face today. We learn about the Easter Islanders (about whom one of Diamond's pupils asked: "What was going through the mind of the man who chopped down the last tree on the island?"), the Anasazi, the Maya, the Greenland Norse and Greenland Inuit, modern day Australia and Montana, shogun-ruled Japan and others.He identifies common environmental problems which collapsed societies have tended to share (deforestation and soil erosion as well as resource depletion cropping up again and again), as well as cultural factors such as systems of government and contact with other societies. He cites some incredible studies such as the examination of ancient middens, of crystallised rodents' piss and of pond sediments to show how we can unravel the mysteries of some of these collapses by using the study of, for example, pollen in sediment or animal bones in middens to paint a vivid picture of climates, deforestation and diets at precise times in these societies' stories. It was this quite academic precision that gave me a quiet thrill and which gives this book its calm authority.Diamond ends by looking at our modern global society and assessing its chances of overcoming the sheer number, breadth, scale and interconnectedness of the ecological problems facing us, and although he insists he is an optimist - and argues that our globalised society gives us advantages in finding solutions as well as giving us zero escape routes if we fail - by the time you finish reading, you feel that as a planet we've got a sheer cliff face to climb, and his optimism sounds a little disingenuous. But educating yourself to understand these issues is a necessary step to doing your bit, and this book will certainly arm you with the sobering facts. If only the debate were always conducted in these civilised (in the best sense of the word) terms.

Mark Kushner

Fascinating account of why civilizations died out, with important lessons for our current time. Much better reading than Guns, Germs and Steel, which was good but very repetitive.

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