Sunday, 18 September 2011

Book Review: Collapse (Jared Diamond)

Title: Collapse: How societies choose to fail or survive
Author: Jared Diamond
Other notable books: The 3rd Chimpanzee; Guns, Germs and steel: the fates of human societies
Videos: Ted -

Diamond is a disputed author, most notably for his alleged environmental determinism* perspective conveyed in GG&S in which he argues that the gaps in power and technology between human societies do not reflect cultural or racial differences, but rather originate in environmental differences powerfully amplified by various positive feedback loops. *The theory that the physical environment (especially climate) controls human character and behaviour and consequently human cultures and societies.

In his one of his most recent offerings he looks back through history and ponders how mighty societies such as the Incas and other lost worlds/civilizations fell, and if there are any practical lessons that modern societies can learn e.g. why did some past societies collapse and others did not? He argues that we cannot afford to look at these past societies with an air of romantic detachment and fascination (a sense of hubris almost), but that we must accept that we (and other superpower societies for that matter) are just a likely to fail if action is not taken... - the assumption of Eden like environmentalism is wrong - "If we could these questions, we might be able to identify which societies are now most at risk, and what measures could help them, without waiting for more Somalia-like collapses" (page 8).

The risk of such collapses today is now a matter of increasing concern; he argues that collapse is already starting to materialise in countries like Somalia, Rwanda and other Third World countries: Ecocide could come to overshadow nuclear war especially as the environmental problems facing us today (plus 4 new ones : global warming, toxic chemicals, energy shortages & utilization of earth's photosynthetic capacity) are the same that faced past societies. Yet Diamond admits that through his study he has learnt about the importance of the 'other factors' that led to a societies collapse, other than the environment (abating his critiques who accuse him of env. determinism?) and he comes up with his 5 point framework of possible contributing factors: 1. environmental damage, 2. climate change, 3. hostile neighbours, 4. friendly trade partners and 5. the society's responses to its' environmental problems (arguably the most significant).

Diamond's background, both in academia and business, serves him well and enables him to have a holistic overview (a geographer's perspective one could say!) when assessing his work. He believes that Science is something much broader than the body of knowledge acquired in a lab (the classic or even critical rationalist approach) it is "the acquisition of reliable knowledge about the world" (page 17). 

His book flows like a 'boa constricta that has swallowed two very large sheep' (the sheep are his longer chapters) and he finishes with Part 4 on Practical lessons - The World as a Polder: What does it all mean to use today?

As he states: "For the first time in history, we face the risk of global decline. But we are also the first to enjoy the opportunity o learning quickly from developments in societies anywhere else in the world today, and from what has unfolded in societies at any time in the past."

If this interest you, please read it and then leave your own comment/review. Thanks.JSB.