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


I read this book over six weeks from February through March 2006. It took a lot of effort but was excellent. It is filled with excellent observations on different societies and why they failed or excelled. Much of his observations were new to me but were well documented and reasonable. In addition, to information on various societies was an introduction to various field methods of study that were amazing. So, he shows what is the current research into archeology (and all its arcane specialties) but how they provide information on former civilizations. Easter Island – Why did the society collapse and why did they build those statues. Easter Island is somewhat unique. It is a temperate zone island as opposed to tropical for most Polynesian settle areas. Second, it was much farther away from other Polynesian islands. Diamond’s hypothesis on Easter Island’s demise is deforestation. He sites two interesting studies – pollen studies from soil samples and second checking charcoal ashes from garbage heaps. They both show a decline in large palm trees. Even more interesting is the loss of a species of Giant Palm and then the loses of other types of palm. The tree lose also meant they lost transportation as the Giant Palms were used to make the ocean going canoes. Also, the moia sites show increased activity as the resources were being depleted and then signs of warfare and the societies collapse.Easter island more than other locations was more fragile because it was dry, temperate, and isolated. Anasazi - This area of the southwest has been repeated settled and then collapse. Basically, this is very marginal area to live (it’s a desert). It gets wetter for 50-100 years and new people settle the area, deplete the resources (soil), population increases, and then it gets dry and everyone kills each other or moves on. Diamond’s point is that it is multiple factors that cause their collapse and not to focus on the last war or migration but the underlying environmental issues causing the crises. Chaco Canyon was probably the most advanced site. Again, the main cause of collapse was deforestation. Here, the biologist studied the crystallized urine pellets of packrats to see how the fauna had changed – Amazing. Packrats have been living in the area for 40K years. They found that this area used to be moderately forested with Pinyon pines. An example of impending collapse – remains of headless mice in the human preserved dry feces suggesting people were catching and eating mice whole. Also, the latest construction (based on tree ring studies) is defensive walls and gates. Finally, limited portable objects (pottery, knives) are left at the site, so the majority probably migrated.Maya – Here is again an area where few modern people live, yet there were hundreds of thousands of people in an advanced Society at one point. Mayan were limited by several factors (from Guns, Germs, and Steel) – poor crops only corn, not wheat or barley and few domestic animals. The suspect cause of collapse here is soil fertility. This area has poor soils and Mayan’s had limited crop options. They first farmed the valleys and then the hills. Once they removed the trees from the hills, the hill sides eroded, leaving even less farmable land. Evidence is based on the decline of nutrition based on reviewing the skeletons by age. Second, by pollen studies that show loss of native trees and replacement by crop pollen. After a city collapse, increases in native tree pollen. The other factor was long term climate change in rain fall. From 5500 bc to 500B.C is relatively wet. Then it cycles every 100 or so years. This was determined by studying the isotopes of Oxygen in the lake bed sediment. In dry years, there is more evaporation and a different ratio of Isotopes (lighter isotopes evaporate faster). Vikings – There were several Viking colonies of variable success. The most remote and quickest to fail was vineland (Canada). Basically, the native Americans were able to push the Vikings out. Since this was the farthest away, there was no way to send a large force of technologically superior Vikings (Vikings had iron). Greenland was the next farthest and Diamond spends two chapters on them. They lasted for about 400 years before Collapsing. He argues for multiple factors – first, loss of contact with the homeland and trade. In the late 1400s, Norway had a new king and internal issues that reduced shipping from 4 ships a year to one every decade. The other cause of reduced shipping was the crusades open up Africa Ivory trade which decrease need for Greenlands major export crop of Walrus Ivory. Archeologists found less and less iron in construction and iron tools. Knives are sharpened to the nub. Further, Greenland has no large trees for shipbuilding. All ships had to come from Europe. Second, climate change made it colder. This is marginal area for farming, so decreased growing season is critical. Third, was not adapting from home country ideals. They kept cows as a status item which required tremendous pasture and hay production. Goats would be better in this marginal land. Fourth, soil loss. Cattle and hay production reduce the fertility of the soil. The final stroke was the expansion of the Inuit into Greenland. Inuit were able to harvest whales and other fauna not used by the Norse. Inuit were probably able to overrun the few remain survivors as the survivors had no advantages in Iron.In Iceland, the norse survived. They were closer to Norway to be able to be resupplied. However, it is not sustainable. Iceland has had complete forest removal and is not bare as the moon in many areas.


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.

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.


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.


A great, readable book about past and present societies, their decisions regarding societal and environmental challenges that led to their collapse or survival. On the side, I found the book very informative about the history of the societies. I particularly enjoy those about the Greenland's Norse(Viking). This book inspire me to expand my reading to those about archaeology and history. One important lesson: ability and willingness to change core values (religious or secular) proved to be essential for survival. Emigrating to live in a faraway country myself and seeing common problems of integration among the immigrants in Europe, I can relate to some of the past societies' experience in which they kept clinging to the past habits and identity. That may create difficulties to both migrant and host population or as in the case of Greenland's Viking, lead to their collapse.


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.

Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership

One of Cambridge Sustainability's Top 50 Books for Sustainability, as voted for by our alumni network of over 3,000 senior leaders from around the world. To find out more, click here.Collapse examines various societies throughout history that have collapsed (Easter Island, Pitcairn, the Maya, Anasazi, the Vikings/Norse in Greenland) and compares these to societies that faced similar conditions and yet succeeded (Japan, New Guinea Highlands, the Vikings/Norse in Iceland). Diamond identifies five factors that define collapse or success.Looking specifically at environmental impacts, Diamond identifies various forms of historical 'ecocide', including deforestation and habitat destruction, soil problems (erosion, salinisation and loss of soil fertility), water management problems, overhunting, overfishing, the effects of introduced species on native species, human population growth and increased per capita impact of people. There is evidence of all these dangers in modern society.

Helga Mohammed el-Salami

The esteemed Jared Diamond, author of one of the most insightful and profound books of the previous decade: Guns Germs and Steel, tried to break the wave of his success on Collapse, a book about the failure of societies due to a laundry-list of (mostly environmental) issues. It’s too soon to render a verdict on the bearded Professor (unlike Paul Ehrlich and Rachel Carson) since he wisely chose topics which cannot be gauged within a human lifetime but the book itself was a real steaming pile of environmental compost. I can’t resist quoting Fred L. Smith Jr. of the Competitive Enterprise Institute: "[a] jumble of jigsaw puzzle pieces laid out on the table - no structure, no serious organization." Indeed, I was so pissed after reading this book that I wanted to rip out all 592 pages and use every single one to give the author paper cuts between his toes. Then set him out barefoot on the New Guinea lowlands about which he can’t seem to shut the flock up. But this is a book review and I digress because I’m getting all worked up again so I’m going to end this paragraph prematurely: *SPURT*

Meghan Fidler

While I generally support any work which attempts to teach the American public history, especially if said history is meant to highlight potential environmental lessons for contemporary times, Diamond's prose was odd to me. "Collapse" includes innumerable incredibly long and unconnected tangents alongside odd introductions to subjects (i.e. "someone in the past ate something shocking, like other people people or crystallized rat piss"), though some of this can be excused as an attempt to keep the readers attention. However, the length of the manuscript (where was the editor?) and the unfocused fact-dumping led me to wonder if this best seller was actually read by the majority of people who bought it.

Bookmarks Magazine

Are we doomed, or can the next generation save us from ecological suicide? UCLA geography professor Diamond's provocative, interdisciplinary picture of social decline paints a bleak vision of our future. He writes well, has done impressive research, and tells fascinating stories. Yet, his thesis failed to convince many critics. He connects his stories with common themes, but often draws tenuous links between past and present, especially given today's use of technology and global markets to help solve environmental problems. Many critics also found fault with Diamond's case studies. Some primitive societies like Easter Island, for example, left few clues to their demise. Other examples, like his population-based analysis of Rwanda's genocide, raised questions about the relative role of ecological factors in societies' collapses. Finally, despite Diamond's cautious optimism about our ability to "choose" our destinies, a strain of environmental determinism runs throughout the book. You're doomed if you do__and perhaps doomed if you don't. This is an excerpt from a review published in Bookmarks magazine.

Kenghis Khan

The Pulitzer-prize winning "Guns, Germs and Steel" by this dude forever changed the way I look at history. And believe me, I am a history buff of sorts so this means a lot. Unfortunately, "Collapse" fails to measure up to that classic.The real problem with Collapse isn't the research that goes into the thesis, or even the soundness of the thesis itself (though there are some qualms I have about how politically unstable Mongolia is or basing his analysis of cod fisheries on a single popular accunt). The central contention, that population explosion, interdependency, unsustainable harvest, adverse cultural values, and about 8 other factors contributed to a society's collapse, is innocuous enough, though admittedly somewhat vague. Rather, the problem is that Diamond is so intent upon clearly and explicitly detailing every freaking argument to paint a convincing picture of the ancient/medieval societies or the current polluting industries that he often loses sight of his larger arguments. For instance, his discussion of Viking Greenland v. Iceland is insightful but whether it warrants nearly 100 pages in a 500 page book I doubt. The same could be said of his discussion of modern Australia; China, in contrast, gets really short shrift. He goes at pain to explicate the archaeological evidence by which we understand the Anasazi collapse, but here too he gets a little repetitive and locquacious. For instance, the logic behind dendrochronolgy and salinization were explained more than once to elucidate yet another nuance. Indeed, here Diamond the scientist persistently gets in the way of Diamond the popular writer. Were it not for his stellar writing skills this would have been even more of a chore to read.Apart from the lack of effective editing, Collapse suffers from Diamond's penchant to almost bend over backward to point out that he is not engaged in a crude form of "Environmental determinism" whereby the significance of cultural and political events are misleadingly downplayed. He certainly didn't do this in Guns Germs and Steel but many people, including the NY Times, accuse him of it. Nevertheless Diamond was sufficiently sensitive to this interpretation (as well as eager to show that we can prevent environmental catastrophe) that he repeats this ad nauseum and, IMHO, belabors this point to being beyond repetitive. The cumulative effect of all these shortcomings is that the book ends up presenting really rather very little that is new, argues persistently against straw man hypotheses, and is informative but almost in a trivial sense. At 520 odd dense pages this is a lot to ask of a reader, and it is a pity that this simply does not measure up to Diamond's earlier works.


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.


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.


(this book is bigger than I thought...)I'm finally done! I know, nine weeks later...For a specific rating, I would say the content is 4.5, readability is 3. This book is definitely worth reading, even if you don't plan on putting in the effort to thoroughly read each section. The section on ancient cultures if interesting, but his level of detail is not necessary to understanding the main points of his book. For example, I found myself slightly skimming the paragraphs describing precisely how scientists measured tree rings or pollen molecules to arrive at the specific conclusions that Diamond uses as evidence. (While important to the overall thesis, this is the section that I believe can be skimmed the most.)The section on modern societies was excellent. He does a great job of discussing the major environmental pressures on our planet by highlighting four societies: Rwanda, Dominican Republic/Haiti, China, and Australia. If pressed for time, I suggest reading Part 4, Practical Lessons (it's helpful to have the background of the rest of the book for this section, but the ecologically savvy among us can certainly get by without losing too much comprehension). I rated the content at 4.5 because there's one rubs me wrong. In his chapter on big business vs. the environment, he talks about two oil companies in New Guinea: a subsidiary of Chevron, and a more local operation. He raves about the environmental responsibility Chevron displays in this area, saying that they learned from the Exxon Valdez disaster and know the importance of creating minimal impact and sustainability. He fails to mention, though, that ChevronTexaco abandoned their operations in Ecuador in 1992, leaving an ecological nightmare for the locals? Sure, this subsidiary had nothing to do with Ecuador, as their association is only through several mergers that have taken place in recent years, but I think I'm just bothered by the way he portrays the Chevron Corporation as being entirely responsible for their operations (which may be true in New Guinea) without pointing out that the whole corporation is not perfect. That, of course, makes me wonder what other information may or may not have been included in his analyses. Am I reading into this detail? Probably. I just want the grey areas to be pointed out!The point remains that his central thesis has merit regarding the environmental situation we find ourselves in currently, and I think it's an important essay to prompt intelligent discussion on the problems and solutions we face. Originally published in 2005, it's interesting to see how the situation has changed since the book (like gas prices?), but it's definitely new enough to be quite relevant to our society today.

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.

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