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


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.


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

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.


This is a difficult book to give one rating to. Some parts of it deserve four or five stars, some parts deserve one or two. Generally, Collapse lacks the consistency of Diamond's most well known book, Guns, Germs and Steel. Where Guns, Germs and Steel is nearly intuitive in the simpleness but universal applicability of its principles, Collapse is episodic and fractured. Diamond's basic thesis is that societies in ecologically fragile environments "choose" to succeed or fail based on how willing they are to adopt to their environment, and how conscience they are of environmental change.I was very interested in the sections about the collapse of the Easter Island society, as well as Diamond's extended discussion of the Greenland Norse. There are also some chilling examples of island societies that disappeared entirely. Modern examples of collapses include Rwanda and Haiti.The book started boring me towards the end, when Diamond stops telling the story of particular societies and begins to expound at length about the principles that unite these examples. It quickly becomes clear that there are as many or more principles and factors as there are examples in the book.Overall, I would recommend reading sections of this book, but not the whole thing. If you are someone who cannot stop reading a book once you get into it, you should probably avoid Collapse, as it will trap you.


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.

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.

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.


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.

Erik Graff

Diamond's prior Guns, Germs & Steel addresses the reasons why some peoples in some areas of the world produced civilizations and others didn't. The factors emphasized are material and the subtext is that these factors, not moral or racial inferiority, were decisive. Disaster tells the other side of the story, namely why some cultures and civilizations fail while others succeed. This is done through case studies such as a comparison of Viking Greenland (failure) to the Inuits (success) and Viking Iceland (near failure, current recovery) and Creole Haiti (failure) to the Spanish Dominican Republic (success). There are many other examples, including contemporary Montana, but these are the clearest comparisons. A common thread of the exemplary failure is that of populations outstripping resources. Another is that of cascading effects once saturation occurs. While the outlook is bleak, Diamond is at pains to point to success stories and to discuss the means by which good decisions have been and might be made as regards environmentally sustainable practices.

Ma'lis Wendt

Dense book, but fascinating information on how and why civilizations develop and then collapse with historical and present day examples.


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.


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.

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*


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.

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