On Collapse

Rereading Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed has been on my “to do” list for some time. I first read it about when the second edition was published. I’m a fan of Diamond’s work. I especially appreciate the detailed evidence and analysis he adds to popular writing. While I am not reading it again, I am listening to it on my afternoon walks.

For those unfamiliar with the book, Diamond tells the stories about societies (modern though ancient, then back again) the explain the book’s subtitle. In my paraphrases, he find five factors that seem to be positive associated with the failure of societies:

  • Environmental degradation– Humans live in their environment and they must extract a living from its plants, animals, minerals, air, and water. Some societies extract that living in a sustainable manner (they are used at a slower rate than they can be renewed), but other don’t which leads to environmental degradation which contributes to failure.
  • Environmental change- The Earth’s history is marked by variations in the climate which affects the weather we experience and that changes the rates of resources we have and the rate they are renewed. Long-term drought or changes in temperature that affect plant species and growth in a region can contribute to a society’s failure failing.
  • Increased conflict with neighbors- The conflict can consume resources better used for sustaining life and it can also lead to loss of resources (both human and natural).
  • Loss of trading partners or friendly others- When a society has positive relationships with others, then can obtain items they need by trading what others need (which is beneficial to both). This also leads to increased chances that they will help you get through hard times.
  • Conservatism- Diamond defines this as the inability (or unwillingness) to adopt innovations or to do things differently. When the circumstances in which a society change, those that do not change are more likely to fail.

I am not sure we are faring very well according to Diamond’s criteria.

the cover of Collpse