Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Collapse Book Review

Over the last month I read Collapse by Jared Diamond. The author’s resume alone is enough to impress me: he speaks a dozen languages (English, Latin, French, German, Greek, Spanish, Russian, Finnish, Fore, New Melanesian, Indonesian, and Italian), wrote the Pulitzer-Prize winning book Guns, Germs, and Steel, and teaches physiology and geography at UCLA.

Collapse discusses different civilization’s ecological impacts on their environments and the overall consequences of a people’s attitude toward the environment.

He writes first of societies that did not respect or understand their surroundings, and as a consequence became extinct. Perhaps the most interesting story Diamond tells is that of the people of Easter Island. Easter Island is a small Pacific island several thousand miles off the coast of Chile. It is one of the most isolated islands on earth. Many hundred years ago (about 900 AD), the island was populated by seafaring islanders. Initially, the islanders probably had a good living, and may have even thrived because of the many natural resources provided by the island. As time passed, the islanders began to construct moai and ahu, which are the large stone faces and platforms that we associate today with Easter Island. Although we do not know that precise reason for constructing the enormous statues (many say that they are largely religious in nature), archeologists have established a trend of increased size over time. This trend, Diamond asserts, suggests that factions competed to erect the largest moai and ahu.

Of course, construction on such a large scale took its toll on the island’s resources. Trees, which were necessary for transporting and erecting the moai, were extremely valuable to the islanders for construction purposes. But they also prevented the soil from eroding into the ocean and decreased leaching of necessary elements. A chain reaction was initiated, and soon the people had inflicted such damage on their surroundings, that the island has no longer habitable. Animals decreased in population and diversity. Plants and marine life followed suit, leaving the islanders with a fraction of the resources they once enjoyed. Hundreds of years later, European ships happened on the tiny island and found a desolate place, with a population much smaller than had inhabited the island hundreds of years earlier.

Diamond portrays Easter Island as a learning opportunity. He points out that earth is similar to Easter Island, very isolated and all resources necessary for supporting life come from the planet. He argues that we must not act as the islanders or we will share a similar fate.

The second, more positive, section of the book tells about societies that understood their environments, and thrived as a result. Diamond offers the story of another island, Japan. The Tokugawa Shoguns of Japan recognized that the population could very easily decimate the forests of Japan, and they took action to prevent deforestation. By creating a “tree census”, they were able to determine which forests were in danger of being destroyed. The government worked with local towns and leaders to ensure that they understood from where they could harvest wood and how much could be used. Their system was successful, and Japan continues to enjoy their forests.

I think the author was clever to use two examples, both island nations that harvested trees, to show that we can use the earth’s resources without destroying our environment. We simply need observe the problems we are causing, and correct them to avoid inflicting more damage. The book is an excellent read and includes many fascinating stories to support Diamond’s viewpoints.

In Collapse, Diamond addresses the viewpoint that technology will solve all of our environmental problems. Some people are of the opinion that whether or not we decide to ignore environmental issues, technology will eventually solve them for us. Diamond answers simply that new technology often creates more problems than it solves. Relying on technology to solve all of our problems is not a viable solution. Further, he argues that the purpose of technology is to increase our ability to do things, quantitatively not qualitatively. So if technology is going to be part of the solution, we need to adjust our outlook on the environment now, so when the technology is available we understand how to use it to help solve our problems.

Most people that I discuss environmental issues with feel that technology will play a large role in solving problems. But we already have so much technology that we do not take advantage of, so how will more technology help? By simply recycling we become a part of the solution, but not everyone chooses to recycle. We need to stop focusing on the marvelous technology we hope for, and address the problems in the present.

I certainly hope, along with Jared Diamond, that we can do so before another Collapse!

(I read the entire book)


  1. Great book choice, I have always been interested in the causes of the fall of civilizations. You did a great job in your review, and you also made some good suggestions. Thanks for the review!

  2. isnt that interesting how they competed to be the greatest or create the greatest. in doing so they lost sight of what was most precious and valuable to them. getting caught up in the worldly things can destroy nations as we see here and over and over in the scriptures. dont love worldly things!.....too much

  3. People tend to take extreme approachs to environmentalism when it comes to technology. On one end you have the food synthesizers of the Trekkie inclined (who cares what we do we have technology approach), and on the other you have the "hippies" that say down with technology let's all live amongst the wildlife. I believe that the only viable option for our society is to take the middle ground, where we realize that technology is part of our lives, adn that it can help, but it won't do all the work for us.

  4. I have heard a lot about this book and would really like to read it after this semester is over...and I have some free time! I think Jared Diamond makes some very astute observations, that the earth is very much like an island and we need to take care of the resources that are present here. once they are gone, we will soon follow. Thank you for the blog post, now I really want to read the book.