Reading Notes for Jared Diamond’s Collapse
The book attempts to answer the question, “What caused some of the great civilizations of the past to collapse into ruin, and what can we learn from their fates?” This is an intoxicating promise, one that if achieved, may allow us to solve the largest problem facing today’s civilization: the global environmental sustainability problem. It is a direction of exploration that few have attempted. Most merely describe the symptoms of the problem, lament about its severity, and implore the reader to help solve it. Some are more prescriptive and describe a potential solution, which is rarely adopted. Only a few take the much more difficult road of asking a “Why?” question, as Diamond has done here. Let’s see how he did.
The Prologue – A Tale of Two Farms
Diamond lays out how he will approach answering the guiding question. He begins with a riveting comparison of two civilizations, 500 years apart in time, and thousands of miles apart in space, but eerily similar in their susceptibility to impending collapse. On page 3 Diamond does what few authors do: he defines his objective. The general objective was the guiding question. He now hones that by defining collapse as: “A drastic decrease in human population size and/or political/economic/social complexity, over a considerable area, for an extended time.” So that the book may start right off on being evidence based, on page 11 he presents five broad factors for understanding why collapse occurred in the past. Four of the factors may or may not be significant in a particular case. But the fifth factor, a society’s response to its environmental problems, always proved decisive. In other words, solving the environmental sustainability problem was the key problem. That it was so in the past is strong proof that it is so today. On page 18 Diamond states that “This book employs the comparative method to understand societal collapses to which environmental problem contribute.” Very nice. What he is about to do is seldom seen in popular environmental literature: a rigorous analysis of the facts. For this reason I’d have to give the book a perfect ten on its potential to make a major contribution to its guiding question. Perhaps after you’ve read it, you will agree. But is the comparative method enough to answer the question? Those who have worked on environmental issues have good reason to wonder. This is because comparative data only describes cultures and their problem factors at the very high level. Comparative data does not begin to go deep inside a culture and show what the dominant social forces and feedback loops involved were. For that, you have to much deeper. Will Diamond do that? The prologue finishes by summarizing what the parts and chapters will try to cover. For me the last part, part four, is the payoff. This attempts to “extract practical lessons for us today.” Chapter 14 asks, “How could a society fail to have seen the dangers that seem so
clear to us in retrospect?” Now there’s a question I’d like to see answered. Chapter 15 addresses “the role of modern business” in the solution. Great! Another very productive area, because my own work hypothesizes that the modern corporation is the dominant agent in the world today. Finally, the last chapter, number 16, summarizes things and addresses the factor of globalization. A good prologue should state the full core argument of the book, including its key conclusions. This one doesn’t quite do it. It poses very much the right question, but does not present the answer. The closest it comes is on page 23, where it says “… group decision making can be undone by a whole series of factors, beginning with failure to anticipate or perceive a problem, and proceeding through conflicts of interest that leave some members of the group to pursue goals good for themselves but bad for the rest of the group.” But these answers do not go very far. They leave one thirsting for the deeper...
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