Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail Or Succeed: Revised Edition by Jared DiamondCollapse: How Societies Choose To Fail Or Succeed: Revised Edition by Jared Diamond

Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail Or Succeed: Revised Edition

byJared Diamond

Paperback | January 4, 2011

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In Jared Diamond’s follow-up to the Pulitzer-Prize winning Guns, Germs and Steel, the author explores how climate change, the population explosion and political discord create the conditions for the collapse of civilization

Environmental damage, climate change, globalization, rapid population growth, and unwise political choices were all factors in the demise of societies around the world, but some found solutions and persisted. As in Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond traces the fundamental pattern of catastrophe, and weaves an all-encompassing global thesis through a series of fascinating historical-cultural narratives. Collapse moves from the Polynesian cultures on Easter Island to the flourishing American civilizations of the Anasazi and the Maya and finally to the doomed Viking colony on Greenland. Similar problems face us today and have already brought disaster to Rwanda and Haiti, even as China and Australia are trying to cope in innovative ways. Despite our own society’s apparently inexhaustible wealth and unrivaled political power, ominous warning signs have begun to emerge even in ecologically robust areas like Montana.

Brilliant, illuminating, and immensely absorbing, Collapse is destined to take its place as one of the essential books of our time, raising the urgent question: How can our world best avoid committing ecological suicide?

Jared Diamond is a professor of geography at the University of California, Los Angeles. He began his scientific career in physiology and expanded into evolutionary biology and biogeography. Among his many awards are the National Medal of Science, the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, Japan’s Cosmos Prize, a MacArthur Fou...
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Title:Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail Or Succeed: Revised EditionFormat:PaperbackProduct dimensions:608 pages, 8.38 X 5.48 X 1.33 inShipping dimensions:608 pages, 8.38 X 5.48 X 1.33 inPublished:January 4, 2011Publisher:Penguin Publishing GroupLanguage:English

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From the Author

In Jared Diamond’s follow-up to the Pulitzer-Prize winning Guns, Germs and Steel, the author explores how climate change, the population explosion and political discord create the conditions for the collapse of civilization. Diamond is also the author of Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in CrisisEnvironmental damage, climate change, globalization, rapid population growth, and unwise political choices were all factors in the demise of societies around the world, but some found solutions and persisted. As in Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond traces the fundamental pattern of catastrophe, and weaves an all-encompassing global thesis through a series of fascinating historical-cultural narratives. Collapse moves from the Polynesian cultures on Easter Island to the flourishing American civilizations of the Anasazi and the Maya and finally to the doomed Viking colony on Greenland. Similar problems face us today and have already brought disaster to Rwanda and Haiti, even as China and Australia are trying to cope in innovative ways. Despite our own society’s apparently inexhaustible wealth and unrivaled political power, ominous warning signs have begun to emerge even in ecologically robust areas like Montana.Brilliant, illuminating, and immensely absorbing, Collapse is destined to take its place as one of the essential books of our time, raising the urgent question: How can our world best avoid committing ecological suicide?

Read from the Book

PROLOGUEA Tale of Two FarmsA few summers ago I visited two dairy farms, Huls Farm and Gardar Farm, which despite being located thousands of miles apart were still remarkably similar in their strengths and vulnerabilities. Both were by far the largest, most prosperous, most technologically advanced farms in their respective districts. In particular, each was centered around a magnificent state-of-the-art barn for sheltering and milking cows. Those structures, both neatly divided into opposite-facing rows of cow stalls, dwarfed all other barns in the district. Both farms let their cows graze outdoors in lush pastures during the summer, produced their own hay to harvest in the late summer for feeding the cows through the winter, and increased their production of summer fodder and winter hay by irrigating their fields. The two farms were similar in area (a few square miles) and in barn size, Huls barn holding somewhat more cows than Gardar barn (200 vs. 165 cows, respectively). The owners of both farms were viewed as leaders of their respective societies. Both owners were deeply religious. Both farms were located in gorgeous natural settings that attract tourists from afar, with backdrops of high snow-capped mountains drained by streams teaming with fish, and sloping down to a famous river (below Huls Farm) or 3ord (below Gardar Farm).Those were the shared strengths of the two farms. As for their shared vulnerabilities, both lay in districts economically marginal for dairying, because their high northern latitudes meant a short summer growing season in which to produce pasture grass and hay. Because the climate was thus suboptimal even in good years, compared to dairy farms at lower latitudes, both farms were susceptible to being harmed by climate change, with drought or cold being the main concerns in the districts of Huls Farm or Gardar Farm respectively. Both districts lay far from population centers to which they could market their products, so that transportation costs and hazards placed them at a competitive disadvantage compared to more centrally located districts. The economies of both farms were hostage to forces beyond their owners’ control, such as the changing affluence and tastes of their customers and neighbors. On a larger scale, the economies of the countries in which both farms lay rose and fell with the waxing and waning of threats from distant enemy societies.The biggest difference between Huls Farm and Gardar Farm is in their current status. Huls Farm, a family enterprise owned by five siblings and their spouses in the Bitterroot Valley of the western U.S. state of Montana, is currently prospering, while Ravalli County in which Huls Farm lies boasts one of the highest population growth rates of any American county. Tim, Trudy, and Dan Huls, who are among Huls Farm’s owners, personally took me on a tour of their high-tech new barn, and patiently explained to me the attractions and vicissitudes of dairy farming in Montana. It is inconceivable that the United States in general, and Huls Farm in particular, will collapse in the foreseeable future. But Gardar Farm, the former manor farm of the Norse bishop of southwestern Greenland, was abandoned over 500 years ago. Greenland Norse society collapsed completely: its thousands of inhabitants starved to death, were killed in civil unrest or in war against an enemy, or emigrated, until nobody remained alive. While the strongly built stone walls of Gardar barn and nearby Gardar Cathedral are still standing, so that I was able to count the individual cow stalls, there is no owner to tell me today of Gardar’s former attractions and vicissitudes. Yet when Gardar Farm and Norse Greenland were at their peak, their decline seemed as inconceivable as does the decline of Huls Farm and the U.S. today.Let me make clear: in drawing these parallels between Huls and Gardar Farms, I am not claiming that Huls Farm and American society are doomed to decline. At present, the truth is quite the opposite: Huls Farm is in the process of expanding, its advanced new technology is being studied for adoption by neighboring farms, and the United States is now the most powerful country in the world. Nor am I claiming that farms or societies in general are prone to collapse: while some have indeed collapsed like Gardar, others have survived uninterruptedly for thousands of years. Instead, my trips to Huls and Gardar Farms, thousands of miles apart but visited during the same summer, vividly brought home to me the conclusion that even the richest, technologically most advanced societies today face growing environmental and economic problems that should not be underestimated. Many of our problems are broadly similar to those that undermined Gardar Farm and Norse Greenland, and that many other past societies also struggled to solve. Some of those past societies failed (like the Greenland Norse), and others succeeded (like the Japanese and Tikopians). The past offers us a rich database from which we can learn, in order that we may keep on succeeding.Norse Greenland is just one of many past societies that collapsed or vanished, leaving behind monumental ruins such as those that Shelley imagined in his poem “Ozymandias.” By collapse, I mean a drastic decrease in human population size and/or political/economic/social complexity, over a considerable area, for an extended time. The phenomenon of collapses is thus an extreme form of several milder types of decline, and it becomes arbitrary to decide how drastic the decline of a society must be before it qualifies to be labeled as a collapse. Some of those milder types of decline include the normal minor rises and falls of fortune, and minor political/economic/social restructurings, of any individual society; one society’s conquest by a close neighbor, or its decline linked to the neighbor’s rise, without change in the total population size or complexity of the whole region; and the replacement or overthrow of one governing elite by another. By those standards, most people would consider the following past societies to have been famous victims of full- fledged collapses rather than of just minor declines: the Anasazi and Cahokia within the boundaries of the modern U.S., the Maya cities in Central America, Moche and Tiwanaku societies in South America, Mycenean Greece and Minoan Crete in Europe, Great Zimbabwe in Africa, Angkor Wat and the Harappan Indus Valley cities in Asia, and Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean (map, pp. 4–5).The monumental ruins left behind by those past societies hold a romantic fascination for all of us. We marvel at them when as children we first learn of them through pictures. When we grow up, many of us plan vacations in order to experience them at firsthand as tourists. We feel drawn to their often spectacular and haunting beauty, and also to the mysteries that they pose. The scales of the ruins testify to the former wealth and power of their builders—they boast “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” in Shelley’s words. Yet the builders vanished, abandoning the great structures that they had created at such effort. How could a society that was once so mighty end up collapsing? What were the fates of its individual citizens?—did they move away, and (if so) why, or did they die there in some unpleasant way? Lurking behind this romantic mystery is the nagging thought: might such a fate eventually befall our own wealthy society? Will tourists someday stare mystified at the rusting hulks of New York’s skyscrapers, much as we stare today at the jungle-overgrown ruins of Maya cities?It has long been suspected that many of those mysterious abandonments were at least partly triggered by ecological problems: people inadvertently destroying the environmental resources on which their societies depended. This suspicion of unintended ecological suicide—ecocide—has been confirmed by discoveries made in recent decades by archaeologists, climatologists, historians, paleontologists, and palynologists (pollen scientists). The processes through which past societies have undermined themselves by damaging their environments fall into eight categories, whose relative importance differs from case to case: deforestation and habitat destruction, soil problems (erosion, salinization, and soil fertility losses), water management problems, overhunting, overfishing, effects of introduced species on native species, human population growth, and increased per-capita impact of people.Those past collapses tended to follow somewhat similar courses constituting variations on a theme. Population growth forced people to adopt intensified means of agricultural production (such as irrigation, double-cropping, or terracing), and to expand farming from the prime lands first chosen onto more marginal land, in order to feed the growing number of hungry mouths. Unsustainable practices led to environmental damage of one or more of the eight types just listed, resulting in agriculturally marginal lands having to be abandoned again. Consequences for society included food shortages, starvation, wars among too many people fighting for too few resources, and overthrows of governing elites by disillusioned masses. Eventually, population decreased through starvation, war, or disease, and society lost some of the political, economic, and cultural complexity that it had developed at its peak. Writers find it tempting to draw analogies between those trajectories of human societies and the trajectories of individual human lives—to talk of a society’s birth, growth, peak, senescence, and death—and to assume that the long period of senescence that most of us traverse between our peak years and our deaths also applies to societies. But that metaphor proves erroneous for many past societies (and for the modern Soviet Union): they declined rapidly after reaching peak numbers and power, and those rapid declines must have come as a surprise and shock to their citizens. In the worst cases of complete collapse, everybody in the society emigrated or died. Obviously, though, this grim trajectory is not one that all past societies followed unvaryingly to completion: different societies collapsed to different degrees and in somewhat different ways, while many societies didn’t collapse at all.The risk of such collapses today is now a matter of increasing concern; indeed, collapses have already materialized for Somalia, Rwanda, and some other Third World countries. Many people fear that ecocide has now come to overshadow nuclear war and emerging diseases as a threat to global civilization. The environmental problems facing us today include the same eight that undermined past societies, plus four new ones: human-caused climate change, buildup of toxic chemicals in the environment, energy shortages, and full human utilization of the Earth’s photosynthetic capacity. Most of these 12 threats, it is claimed, will become globally critical within the next few decades: either we solve the problems by then, or the problems will undermine not just Somalia but also First World societies. Much more likely than a doomsday scenario involving human extinction or an apocalyptic collapse of industrial civilization would be “just” a future of significantly lower living standards, chronically higher risks, and the undermining of what we now consider some of our key values. Such a collapse could assume various forms, such as the worldwide spread of diseases or else of wars, triggered ultimately by scarcity of environmental resources. If this reasoning is correct, then our efforts today will determine the state of the world in which the current generation of children and young adults lives out their middle and late years. But the seriousness of these current environmental problems is vigorously debated. Are the risks greatly exaggerated, or conversely are they underestimated? Does it stand to reason that today’s human population of almost seven billion, with our potent modern technology, is causing our environment to crumble globally at a much more rapid rate than a mere few million people with stone and wooden tools already made it crumble locally in the past? Will modern technology solve our problems, or is it creating new problems faster than it solves old ones? When we deplete one resource (e.g., wood, oil, or ocean fish), can we count on being able to substitute some new resource (e.g., plastics, wind and solar energy, or farmed fish)?Isn’t the rate of human population growth declining, such that we’re already on course for the world’s population to level off at some manageable number of people?All of these questions illustrate why those famous collapses of past civilizations have taken on more meaning than just that of a romantic mystery. Perhaps there are some practical lessons that we could learn from all those past collapses. We know that some past societies collapsed while others didn’t: what made certain societies especially vulnerable? What, exactly, were the processes by which past societies committed ecocide? Why did some past societies fail to see the messes that they were getting into, and that (one would think in retrospect) must have been obvious? Which were the solutions that succeeded in the past? If we could answer these questions, we might be able to identify which societies are now most at risk, and what measures could best help them, without waiting for more Somalia-like collapses.But there are also differences between the modern world and its problems, and those past societies and their problems. We shouldn’t be so naïve as to think that study of the past will yield simple solutions, directly transferable to our societies today. We differ from past societies in some respects that put us at lower risk than them; some of those respects often mentioned include our powerful technology (i.e., its beneficial effects), globalization, modern medicine, and greater knowledge of past societies and of distant modern societies. We also differ from past societies in some respects that put us at greater risk than them: mentioned in that connection are, again, our potent technology (i.e., its unintended destructive effects), globalization (such that now a collapse even in remote Somalia affects the U.S. and Europe), the dependence of millions (and, soon, billions) of us on modern medicine for our survival, and our much larger human population. Perhaps we can still learn from the past, but only if we think carefully about its lessons.Efforts to understand past collapses have had to confront one major controversy and four complications. The controversy involves resistance to the idea that past peoples (some of them known to be ancestral to peoples currently alive and vocal) did things that contributed to their own decline. We are much more conscious of environmental damage now than we were a mere few decades ago. Even signs in hotel rooms now invoke love of the environment to make us feel guilty if we demand fresh towels or let the water run. To damage the environment today is considered morally culpable.Not surprisingly, Native Hawaiians and Maoris don’t like paleontologists telling them that their ancestors exterminated half of the bird species that had evolved on Hawaii and New Zealand, nor do Native Americans like archaeologists telling them that the Anasazi deforested parts of the southwestern U.S. The supposed discoveries by paleontologists and archaeologists sound to some listeners like just one more racist pretext advanced by whites for dispossessing indigenous peoples. It’s as if scientists were saying, “Your ancestors were bad stewards of their lands, so they deserved to be dispossessed.” Some American and Australian whites, resentful of government payments and land retribution to Native Americans and Aboriginal Australians, do indeed seize on the discoveries to advance that argument today. Not only indigenous peoples, but also some anthropologists and archaeologists who study them and identify with them, view the recent supposed discoveries as racist lies.Some of the indigenous peoples and the anthropologists identifying with them go to the opposite extreme. They insist that past indigenous peoples were (and modern ones still are) gentle and ecologically wise stewards of their environments, intimately knew and respected Nature, innocently lived in a virtual Garden of Eden, and could never have done all those bad things. As a New Guinea hunter once told me, “If one day I succeed in shooting a big pigeon in one direction from our village, I wait a week before hunting pigeons again, and then I go out in the opposite direction from the village.” Only those evil modern First World inhabitants are ignorant of Nature, don’t respect the environment, and destroy it.In fact, both extreme sides in this controversy—the racists and the believers in a past Eden—are committing the error of viewing past indigenous peoples as fundamentally different from (whether inferior to or superior to) modern First World peoples. Managing environmental resources sustainably has always been difficult, ever since Homo sapiens developed modern inventiveness, efficiency, and hunting skills by around 50,000 years ago.Beginning with the first human colonization of the Australian continent around 46,000 years ago, and the subsequent prompt extinction of most of Australia’s former giant marsupials and other large animals, every human colonization of a land mass formerly lacking humans—whether of Australia, North America, South America, Madagascar, the Mediterranean islands, or Hawaii and New Zealand and dozens of other Pacific islands—has been followed by a wave of extinction of large animals that had evolved without fear of humans and were easy to kill, or else succumbed to human-associated habitat changes, introduced pest species, and diseases. Any people can fall into the trap of overexploiting environmental resources, because of ubiquitous problems that we shall consider later in this book: that the resources initially seem inexhaustibly abundant; that signs of their incipient depletion become masked by normal fluctuations in resource levels between years or decades; that it’s difficult to get people to agree on exercising restraint in harvesting a shared resource (the so-called tragedy of the commons, to be discussed in later chapters); and that the complexity of ecosystems often makes the consequences of some human-caused perturbation virtually impossible to predict even for a professional ecologist. Environmental problems that are hard to manage today were surely even harder to manage in the past. Especially for past non-literate peoples who couldn’t read case studies of societal collapses, ecological damage constituted a tragic, unforeseen, unintended consequence of their best efforts, rather than morally culpable blind or conscious selfishness. The societies that ended up collapsing were (like the Maya) among the most creative and (for a time) advanced and successful of their times, rather than stupid and primitive.Past peoples were neither ignorant bad managers who deserved to be exterminated or dispossessed, nor all-knowing conscientious environmentalists who solved problems that we can’t solve today. They were people like us, facing problems broadly similar to those that we now face. They were prone either to succeed or to fail, depending on circumstances similar to those making us prone to succeed or to fail today. Yes, there are differences between the situation we face today and that faced by past peoples, but there are still enough similarities for us to be able to learn from the past.Above all, it seems to me wrongheaded and dangerous to invoke historical assumptions about environmental practices of native peoples in order to justify treating them fairly. In many or most cases, historians and archaeologists have been uncovering overwhelming evidence that this assumption (about Eden-like environmentalism) is wrong. By invoking this assumption to justify fair treatment of native peoples, we imply that it would be OK to mistreat them if that assumption could be refuted. In fact, the case against mistreating them isn’t based on any historical assumption about their environmental practices: it’s based on a moral principle, namely, that it is morally wrong for one people to dispossess, subjugate, or exterminate another people.That’s the controversy about past ecological collapses. As for the complications, of course it’s not true that all societies are doomed to collapse because of environmental damage: in the past some societies did while others didn’t; the real question is why only some societies proved fragile, and what distinguished those that collapsed from those that didn’t. Some societies that I shall discuss, such as the Icelanders and Tikopians, succeeded in solving extremely difficult environmental problems, have thereby been able to persist for a long time, and are still going strong today. For example, when Norwegian colonists of Iceland first encountered an environment superficially similar to that of Norway but in reality very different, they inadvertently destroyed much of Iceland’s topsoil and most of its forests. Iceland for a long time was Europe’s poorest and most ecologically ravaged country. However, Icelanders eventually learned from experience, adopted rigorous measures of environmental protection, and now enjoy one of the highest per-capita national average incomes in the world. Tikopia Islanders inhabit a tiny island so far from any neighbors that they were forced to become self-sufficient in almost everything, but they micromanaged their resources and regulated their population size so carefully that their island is still productive after 3,000 years of human occupation. Thus, this book is not an uninterrupted series of depressing stories of failure, but also includes success stories inspiring imitation and optimism.In addition, I don’t know of any case in which a society’s collapse can be attributed solely to environmental damage: there are always other contributing factors. When I began to plan this book, I didn’t appreciate those complications, and I naïvely thought that the book would just be about environmental damage. Eventually, I arrived at a five-point framework of possible contributing factors that I now consider in trying to understand any putative environmental collapse. Four of those sets of factors—environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbors, and friendly trade partners—may or may not prove significant for a particular soci- ety. The fifth set of factors—the society’s responses to its environmental problems—always proves significant. Let’s consider these five sets of factors one by one, in a sequence not implying any primacy of cause but just convenience of presentation.A first set of factors involves damage that people inadvertently inflict on their environment, as already discussed. The extent and reversibility of that damage depend partly on properties of people (e.g., how many trees they cut down per acre per year), and partly on properties of the environment (e.g., properties determining how many seedlings germinate per acre, and how rapidly saplings grow, per year). Those environmental properties are referred to either as fragility (susceptibility to damage) or as resilience (potential for recovery from damage), and one can talk separately of the fragility or resilience of an area’s forests, its soils, its fish populations, and so on. Hence the reasons why only certain societies suffered environmental collapses might in principle involve either exceptional imprudence of their people, exceptional fragility of some aspects of their environment, or both.A next consideration in my five-point framework is climate change, a term that today we tend to associate with global warming caused by humans. In fact, climate may become hotter or colder, wetter or drier, or more or less variable between months or between years, because of changes in natural forces that drive climate and that have nothing to do with humans. Examples of such forces include changes in the heat put out by the sun, volcanic eruptions that inject dust into the atmosphere, changes in the orientation of the Earth’s axis with respect to its orbit, and changes in the distribution of land and ocean over the face of the Earth. Frequently discuss

Bookclub Guide

INTRODUCTIONCollapseIn the American Southwest, an ancient city of intricate masonry rises from the floor of an utterly desolate canyon. A roofless but intact Norse church perched over a fjord in Greenland attests to a Christian colony that flourished for hundreds of years—but not a single survivor remains. In Australia, sheep and rabbits compete for sparse vegetation in vast prairies that were thick with native grasses two centuries ago. Haiti and Rwanda, both desperately overcrowded and environmentally degraded, have repeatedly exploded in appalling violence.What do these seemingly random scenarios, remote from each other in space and time, have in common? In Collapse, Pulitzer Prize–winning author and UCLA professor Jared Diamond supplies the key. Like his previous book, the international bestseller Guns, Germs, and Steel, Collapse is a monumental study of the interaction between history, culture, climate, and the environment—but from the other side. Where Guns, Germs, and Steel examined how and why Western civilizations came to dominate the world, Collapse probes the mysteries of why cultures decline suddenly and catastrophically—often immediately after reaching their peak. In Collapse, Diamond broadens his perspective and his reach as he links the crash of past civilizations—including the Anasazi of the American Southwest, the Maya of Central America, the Norse colonists of Greenland, and the Polynesian creators of Easter Island’s famed monumental statues—with what is happening today in troubled nations around the world.Diamond opens with a chapter about the spectacular Bitterroot Valley in western Montana, a choice that he acknowledges may initially seem puzzling. What could the Bitterroot with its ranches and trout streams and inspiring mountain vistas share with the desolation of the Anasazi ruins in Chaco Canyon or the bare eroding hillsides of Haiti? As the narrative unfolds, the parallels become unmistakable and increasingly alarming. Diamond identifies five sets of factors that precipitate societal collapse: environmental damage like deforestation, pollution, soil depletion, or erosion; climate change; hostile neighbors; the withdrawal of support from friendly neighbors; and the ways in which a society responds to its problems, be they environmental, political, or social.These five key factors played out in different ways in each of the historical societies Diamond studies. For example, deforestation and a prolonged drought combined to ignite the Anasazi collapse, while the Maya cities fell on account of overpopulation, environmental degradation, a sharp increase in warfare, and poor leadership. All five factors worked together to undermine and finally destroy the Norse colonies that had flourished on Greenland for nearly five centuries. When Diamond turns from past to present, it becomes clear that the conditions for collapse are now coming to a head in the nations of major world powers like China and Australia as well as in political flash points like Iraq and Indonesia. In the context of Diamond’s sweeping synthesis, the opening chapter on Montana’s Bitterroot takes on a stark new meaning. The conclusion is inescapable that collapse can and will happen again, even in a seemingly blessed nation like ours, unless we recognize the warning signs and choose to act responsibly.How can we avoid destroying our world—and our own species? It is a tribute to Jared Diamond’s brilliance and intellectual honesty that he poses this question not in fear but with courage, lucidity, and cautious hope. ABOUT JARED DIAMONDJared Diamond is a professor of geography at the University of California, Los Angeles. He began his scientific career in physiology and expanded into evolutionary biology and biogeography. He has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society. Among Dr. Diamond’s many awards are the National Medal of Science, the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, Japan’s Cosmos Prize, a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, and the Lewis Thomas Prize honoring the Scientist as Poet, presented by the Rockefeller University. He has published more than two hundred articles in Discover, Natural History, Nature, and Geo magazines. His previous book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. A CONVERSATION WITH JARED DIAMONDQ. What inspired you to write this book? Was there a single “germ” or eureka! moment? Did you conceive of Collapse and Guns, Germs, and Steel as companion volumes from the start—or did the idea for Collapse surface only after Guns was finished?A. Ever since I was in my 20s and read Thor Heyerdahl’s books about Easter Island, I became intrigued by the collapse of great societies—as are millions of other people. That interest has stayed with me over the last forty years, stimulated by visits to Maya ruins and Anasazi sites and by reading about other collapsed societies. I did not conceive of Guns, Germs, and Steeland Collapse as companion volumes from the start, but I had already written some magazine articles about collapses in the 1980s, and the idea for Collapse was percolating below the surface. After finishing Guns, Germs, and Steel, as soon as I came to think about what would be the subject of my next book, the answer became obvious: Collapse!Q. Both Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse are huge bestsellers—and yet both are fairly demanding books. Have you been surprised by their success? How do you account for it?A. Was I surprised by their success?! All authors, including me, have fantasies of achieving great success. However, by the time that I published Collapse, I had already published three previous books for the public to douse my fantasies with the cold water of reality. Hence I really was surprised that Collapse jumped to near the top of the New York Times bestseller list within a few days of its release. The explanation is partly that many people who had already read my previous book Guns, Germs, and Steel were looking out for my next book, but the other reason is that the subject of Collapse really grabs people. Most Americans today are troubled about our future and that of the world, and are concerned that we might be (or already are) heading downhill.Q. If you suddenly found yourself with the power and the means to change one thing in the world today, what would it be? Which country or region would you choose to focus on?A. If I had the power and means to change only one thing of the world today, that one thing would be my being limited to change only one thing in the world today: my one change would be to give myself the power to make many changes. That’s because, as I discuss in the last chapter of Collapse, we face a dozen different major problems, all of which we must succeed in solving, and any one of which alone could do us in even if we solved the other eleven.Q. The scope and the breadth of Collapse is immense, encompassing history, geography, politics, economics, environmental history, biography, even baseball. Did you have any models that inspired you—other books you admire that synthesize strands from so many different disciplines?A. In effect, Guns, Germs, and Steel was my model. That is not because I was consciously trying to imitate Guns, Germs, and Steel. Instead, that previous book also wrestled with a wide range of problems, and the experience that I gained throughGuns, Germs, and Steel in addressing them is what I drew on while writing Collapse.Q.Together Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse complete an arc, a vast circle describing the rise and fall of world civilizations. What’s next? What’s left? Do you plan to strike out in an entirely new direction?A. Yes, there is something next, another big book about another big question of human history and human societies. I hope to complete that new book in about another five years. But, as Conan Doyle let Sherlock Holmes explain to Dr. Watson in alluding to the mystery of the giant rat of Sumatra, “The world is not yet ready for this story.”Q. Some critics have compared Collapse with Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb, pointing out that Ehrlich’s predictions have not come true. How would you answer the criticism that you are being too dire? How politically motivated do you think your critics are? Do you think some critics are indulging in the sort of willed blindness or wishful thinking that contributed to the collapse of prior civilizations?A. Many of Paul Ehrlich’s predictions have come true, but his critics cite only some that did not come true. All of us know that we live our personal lives in an uncertain world, where we have to make the best predictions that we can, in full knowledge that some of our best guesses will prove wrong. It is impossible to live without continually making best guesses about the future. Any critic who cites only a wrong prediction by Paul Ehrlich and not his correct predictions, or who fails to cite the incorrect predictions of Ehrlich’s critics, is employing bad reasoning.Q. Have any of the criticisms of the book caused you to rethink aspects of your argument?A. Details, yes; main thrusts of my argument, no.Q. You write of the Norse in Greenland, “to them . . . it was out of the question to invest less in churches, to imitate or intermarry with the Inuit, and thereby to face an eternity in Hell just in order to survive another winter on Earth” (p. 247). Yet even today, religion guides the lives and choices of many Americans. There are many who prefer, metaphorically if not literally, to starve rather than face an eternity in Hell. Is this likely to become as serious a problem for us as it was for the Norse in Greenland? Do you think there is a fundamental clash between religious values and material survival running through Western civilizations?A. This already is a serious problem for us. But that’s not to say that religion is a negative force and an obstacle to be survived. Religion, like other powerful human motivations and values, can be a force for either the good or the bad.Q. In your discussion of Haiti and the Dominican Republic you dismiss the usefulness of “environmental determinism” as an explanation of why these countries have diverged so sharply. What exactly is environmental determinism and who espouses it? How does your outlook depart from this school of thought?A. Environmental determinism in the strict sense is not a view that any sensible person espouses today. Instead, historians who discuss environmental influences on history at all are often caricatured by critics as “environmental determinists,” supposedly meaning someone who believes that the environment strictly determines human history and that human choices count for nothing. This caricature is counterproductive. Of course the influence of the environment on human history is neither negligible nor all-encompassing.Q.You make a distinction between top-down and bottom-up approaches to environmental problems and discuss how both have worked, sometimes alone, sometimes together, in past cultures. What about our own society? Do you think our progress in environmental issues, to the extent we have made any, is essentially bottom up, top down, or a combination of the two?A. It’s obvious that our progress in resolving environmental issues has been a mixture of bottom-up and top-down. Things that each of us do as individuals (recycling, saving water, buying a more fuel-efficient car), plus efforts of local groups of people such as the Teller Wildlife Refuge in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley that I discuss in Chapter 1, are examples of bottom-up progress. The improvement in air quality in the United States in the last thirty years because of federal government standards and policies is an example of top-down progress.Q.You write about your fondness and sense of connection to Australia, New Guinea, and Montana. Did you visit all of the regions discussed in the book? How many years did you spend traveling and researching? Of all the places you visited in the course of your research, which moved you the most? Which frightened you the most?A. I visited most of the regions: all except the Pitcairn Islands, Rwanda, and China. I worked on this book for six years and worked especially intensely on it for the last two and a half years. All of the places that I visited moved me, and all of them frightened me. DISCUSSION QUESTIONSThere is a lot of talk these days about how environmentalists have damaged their credibility by crying wolf—for example, issuing dire warnings about exploding population and the effects of global warming that have not been borne out. Do you think Diamond is vulnerable to the charge of crying wolf in Collapse? If not, why not? How does his argument and approach differ from alarmist environmentalists? “I am writing this book from a middle-of-the-road perspective,” writes Diamond in the introduction, “with experience of both environmental problems and of business realities” (p. 17). The middle of the road is often a tough place to be—since it opens one to attacks from either side. How successful is Diamond in staking out this position? How does he balance (or fail to balance) environmental concerns with business realities? “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there,” is the famous opening line of L. P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between. Collapse is based on the implicit assumption that the past is not really that foreign after all—that the mistakes and blindness and bad luck that led to past collapses can and will happen again, that a lot of the problems of the world today result from the fact that we don’t do things differently. Do you agree with Diamond’s position that the past and present are closely connected, or do you think there is an essential quality that definitively sets us apart from previous civilizations? Diamond describes Tikopia as a kind of island paradise where natives saved their environment through eco-friendly gardening and devised a kind of rudimentary democratic system of government. Yet Tikopians also practiced infanticide and abortion to limit population growth. What does this say about our ability to judge the morality of past societies? Can one (must one?) differentiate between macro- and micro-morality? What view of human nature do you think underlies Collapse? Where do you think Diamond would stand on the nature vs. nurture debate—i.e., the role of genetics versus culture in determining human behaviors and responses? How important are leaders in determining the ecological success or failure of a civilization? To what extent did bad leadership contribute to or cause the collapses Diamond talks about? What about in our own culture—do you think progress will come from enlightened leadership or rather from grassroots activism? Some critics feel that Guns, Germs, and Steel is more successful than Collapse because it is more tightly organized. Others praise Collapse because the issues it wrestles with hit so close to home. If you have read both books, how would you compare them in terms of structure, central thesis, and relevance to the world today? Which did you enjoy reading more and why? If the United States does collapse, how do you think it will happen? Which of Diamond’s five factors would play a role in the demise of American civilization as we know it? Do you think our collapse will occur suddenly, like the crash of Easter Island or Maya civilization, or is it more likely that we’ll experience a gradual but stable decline, as Great Britain did after World War II? Which example of civilizational collapse described in the book do you find most compelling and why? Which best fits Diamond’s thesis? Diamond notes that “no other site that I have visited made such a ghostly impression on me as Rano Raraku, the quarry on Easter Island” (p. 79). Which image or passage in the book made the most powerful impression on you? Diamond writes that our world “cannot sustain China and other Third World countries and current First World countries all operating at First World levels” (p. 376). Yet how can we ethically deny Third World countries the comforts and advantages that we in the First World enjoy? In your opinion, what should our leaders do to lessen or resolve looming conflicts over resources between First and Third World countries? Diamond reveals that while writing the book he found himself lurching between hope and despair. What emotions did Collapse inspire in you? Did you come away depressed, cautiously hopeful, or did you have an entirely different reaction?

Editorial Reviews

"Mr. Diamond...is a lucid writer with an ability to make arcane scientific concepts readiily accesible to the lay reader, and his case studies of failed cultures are never less than compelling." —The New York Times"...Collapse is a magisterial effort packed with insight and written with clarity and enthusiasm." —Businessweek"Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse represent one of the most significant projects embarked upon by any intellectual of our generation. They are magnificent books: extraordinary in erudition and originality, compelling in their ability to relate the digitized pandemonium of the present to the hushed agrarian sunrises of the far past. I read both thinking what literature might be like if every author knew so much, wrote so clearly and formed arguments with such care." —Gregg Easterbrook, The New York Times Book Review