Collapse, How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

by Jared Diamond

575 pp.  Penguin Books. .2005.

Review by William Olkowski, Ph.D.

“A blueprint for disaster in any society is when the elite are capable of insulating themselves.”
– Jared Diamond, interviewed in “National Review”

This critically important book raises key issues about how societies choose to fail, or meet challenges.  Many will be shocked, as these cases are particularly relevant to the US today.  Failed leadership is one of the key factors in most collapses analyzed by Diamond.  It’s easier to look back and point out how the leadership may even have seen the collapse coming, but could not avert it.  Some countries or “civilizations” did avoid it.  Tokugawa Japan (1603-1867) did but it was a dictatorship.  Can a democracy avoid it?  Can our democracy avoid it?  Japan (and Germany) even recovered from their disastrous military dominance.  Can we?  Washington said it as a parting statement: avoid foreign entanglements.  We have not listened to one of our great founding fathers.  Hear him again in his farewell address:

(From Wikipedia):

Washington’s public political address warned against foreign influence in domestic affairs and American meddling in European affairs. He warned against bitter partisanship in domestic politics and called for men to move beyond partisanship and serve the common good. He warned against “permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world”,[117] saying the United States must concentrate primarily on American interests. He counseled friendship and commerce with all nations, but warned against involvement in European wars and entering into long-term “entangling” alliances. The address quickly set American values regarding foreign affairs.[118]

More from Wikipedia’s review of Diamonds Book:

Diamond identifies five factors that contribute to collapse: climate change, hostile neighbors, collapse of essential trading partners, environmental problems, and failure to adapt to environmental issues.

He also lists 12 environmental problems facing mankind today. The first eight have historically contributed to the collapse of past societies:

1.   Deforestation and habitat destruction

2.   Soil problems (erosionsalinization, and soil fertility losses)

3.   Water management problems

4.   Overhunting

5.   Overfishing

6.   Effects of introduced species on native species

7.   Overpopulation

8.   Increased per-capita impact of people

Further, he says four new factors may contribute to the weakening and collapse of present and future societies:

1.   Anthropogenic climate change

2.   Buildup of toxins in the environment

3.   Energy shortages

4.   Full human utilization of the Earth’s photosynthetic capacity

Diamond also writes about cultural factors, such as the apparent reluctance of the Greenland Norse to eat fish.

Diamond says Easter Island provides the best historical example of a societal collapse in isolation

The root problem in all but one of Diamond’s factors leading to collapse is overpopulation relative to the practicable (as opposed to the ideal theoretical) carrying capacity of the environment. The one factor not related to overpopulation is the harmful effect of accidentally or intentionally introducing nonnative species to a region.

Diamond also states that “it would be absurd to claim that environmental damage must be a major factor in all collapses: the collapse of the Soviet Union is a modern counter-example, and the destruction of Carthage by Rome in 146 BC is an ancient one. It’s obviously true that military or economic factors alone may suffice” (p. 15).

End insert

There are many in the US that sense the impending disarray caused by our miserable environmental history, notwithstanding the conservation and environmental movement.  Our recent leadership, for example, continues to avoid overpopulation as a relevant issue.  Zero population growth as a goal is nonexistent in current affairs as is the religious indoctrination forbidding abortion on demand and family planning funds for foreign aid.  Overpopulation is a key aspect that is at the base of the problems faced by old, and now our civilization.  There are already too many people in the world and some stupid people are saying its ok, we can support twice as many as now.  We are now at 7 billion with no end in sight unless one puts on rosy ideological glasses.

Wikipedia’s review does the book justice but my take is that we in the US are in a state of decline more akin to the collapse of the Roman Empire.  Jared does not refer to the Roman Empire’s collapse, or the earlier Greek nor Egyptian collapses.  I wonder why as his views could be of consequence.

We have the largest military in the world by far, just like Rome (Western Roman Empire fell in 476) was dominant before its conversion to Christianity.  [Constantine I (sole ruler 324–337) became the first Christian emperor, and in 380 Theodosius I established Christianity as the official religion.

By the 5th century Christian hegemony had rapidly changed the Empire’s identity even as the Western provinces collapsed.[40]Those who practiced the traditional polytheistic religions were persecuted, as were Christians regarded as heretics by the authorities in power. Ex. Wikipedia]

We, like Rome, are in the midst of a religious ferment, but ours could destroy our democracy.  The Roman emperor converted to Christianity and then proceeded to terrorize the pagans just like he terrorized the Christians prior to conversion.  OK, a dictatorship can revolve on a personality, but the same can be said for a democracy when the elites are isolated behind their gated communities and don’t see the homeless and poor without work and without medical care.  And they don’t appreciate that sickness is contagious.  Providing universal health care is in their self-interest, but they don’t see it.

The super wealthy are the equivalent to a dictatorial personality.  They don’t care what happens just as long as they get their due.  There are exceptions, yes, but with domination of money in elections and lobbying by our “personhood” corporations who can’t go to jail or be sentenced to death for their atrocities we are in trouble.  And the religious right even elected a president who proceeded to create a Crusade as if the world was back in biblical times.  Gads!  We will be harvesting his returns for decades to come, if we survive the Christianity planned for the US.  To avoid this we need to be especially vigilant in separating church and state.  And then there are the military domination of politics, terrorism, overpopulation and exploitation of the life support systems.

Diamond should be proud of his work as it may prove to be pivotal in our future if we wake up from the capitalist created consumer society.

External links

Diamond’s page at the UCLA Department of Geography

UCLA Spotlight – Jared Diamond

Edge – Jared Diamond

Lectures and talks

Why societies collapse at TED, 2003

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed at The Earth Institute at Columbia University, April 2007

The Evolution of Religions at the Center for Religion and Civic Culture, University of Southern California

PBS – Guns, Germs and Steel (with full transcripts)


Hammer Conversation with Jared Diamond and John Long, March 16 2010

Interview with Charlie Rose

Interview with New Books in History


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