A Review of Collapse

07:30 Sat 09 Jun 2007
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I loved Guns, Germs, and Steel, which I consider an extremely important book for understanding how the world came to be the way it is. Collapse is more important for understanding where we may be going.

I think that Guns, Germs, and Steel is a much better read. It took me quite a while to get into Collapse, even though it’s full of fascinating material. I’m not sure why that is, although it could be that Guns, Germs, and Steel benefitted greatly from a single narrative thread—history—whereas Collapse jumps around from region to region and period to period.

Diamond identifies several areas that determine what has caused societies to fail in the past: environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbors, the removal of friendly trade partners, and the society’s responses to its environmental problems (Collapse 11).

Environmental damage is extremely difficult to avoid, as societies are rarely inherently self-regulating. That is, a society that figures out how to provide for itself in a given environment will expand in size, creating more pressure for resources, even if the initial success is not based on renewable resources (or sustainable practices). This is perhaps the most important lesson from the book: success breeds failure. Not always, because societies can alter their behavior, or switch to different resources, but is a resource switch is unsuccessful, the crash is particularly harsh because of the increased size of the society. It’s extremely difficult to fall back to a more sustainable smaller-population model when a crunch comes, because the “extra” people will compete for resources, and this competition is often sufficient to destroy the society.

Furthermore, most of the societies he covers reached their peaks shortly before collapse. I consider this extremely important because it means that approaching failure is very difficult to detect, as it’s masked by things being better than they have ever been before.

The classic way in which climate change causes societal collapse is that a society enjoys some period of excellent conditions for resource generation (usually agricultural) and expands as a result, then the climate changes to less favorable conditions, and resource generation falls to some fraction of the previous level. As with environmental/resource degradation, the society’s previous success means that it now has too many people competing for too few resources, and collapse ensures.

Diamond goes through all of the factors for several different societies, both successful (so far) and unsuccessful. His overall conclusion is that it’s quite possible for societies to survive the negative effects of the first four factors if their response is sufficiently flexible and intelligent. Thus the message of the book is optimistic, despite the fact that he sees the following twelve major threats facing the modern world:

* Destruction of natural habitats (with knock-on deleterious effects on resources).
* Overuse of wild foods, most paricularly fish, causing significant depletion of that food source.
* Dwindling biodiversity, with serious ramifications for humans and the environments we depend on.
* Soil erosion, leading to loss of farmland (this is a much larger problem than you might think).
* Increasing cost/difficulty of extracting the fossil fuel energy sources that we are so dependent on.
* Depletion of fresh water sources worldwide.
* Increased human use of the Earth’s photosynthetic capacity—essentially, humans are taking up so much space that we’re not leaving much for plants to use to absorb sunlight.
* Toxic chemical pollution that damage all species, including humans.
* Introduction of “alien species” into ecosystems that haven’t evolved to cope with them, causing massive problems.
* Global warming.
* Human population growth.
* Increasing demand for resource utilization on a per-person basis (obviously, this and the previous point combine in a very bad way). Diamond estimates that if the rest of the planet adopted the resource usage of the First World, that would result in a 12-fold increase in worldwide use of resources—clearly unsustainable (Collapse 495).

It’s clear that these are all extremely significant problems, and Diamond doesn’t underestimate them. I recall some criticisms from those concerned most about peak oil that Diamond wasn’t treating that issue as sufficiently threatening, but I don’t agree. He fits that major problem into a framework considering a range of major problems, and rather than seeing that as naively optmistic, one could characterize it as much more depressing, because if Diamond’s model is correct, somehow “solving” the problem of peak oil would still leave us with a host of other extremely difficult problems…

Nevertheless, overall he is optimistic, and feels that the key finding of his research is that societies are able to fend off collapse with the right strategies, and it’s therefore possible for our society to do the same—but only if we move in that direction, soon.

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