Jared Diamondís Guns, Germs and Steel offered perhaps the most comprehensive and accessible explanation of why and how societies have defeated each other. With Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, he explores a more constant, and more relevant, issue: how, and why, societies defeat themselves.
Diamond frames the central theme of Collapse-- how resource use, economic and foreign policy, and cultural values affect societal survival-- in the engaging, almost narrative style that made his earlier book so popular. He begins with case studies of failed and vanished societies. The failed societies studied include the usual suspects: Easter Island, the Maya, the lost Anasazi. But his most poignant and detailed histories focus on less examined cultures: the twin island societies of Pitcairn and Henderson, and the long-lived Norse colony of Greenland. These social experiments have received little of the popular attention granted to the American prehistoric societies or Easter Islandís mysteries. But Diamond shows that these may be precisely the cultures whose history most mirrors our own. There is also a tantalizingly brief description of environmental factors in Romeís collapse, a story that would likely justify its own book. And there is a voyeuristic thrill in studying these past disasters. Diamondís writing gives the tale of Easter Island the chilling momentum of a disaster movie; his tales of the doomed Norse colonies have the sad grace of classical tragedy. It is tempting, and comforting, to stay immersed in examination of these long vanished civilizations. Dark as these stories are, they are also distant, tales from long ago and far away.
But Diamond strips away that comfort by exposing modern cultures to the same archeological scrutiny. Rwanda, Haiti, and China havenít achieved the complete collapse evidenced by the ruins of the Maya and Anasazi, but the pattern of those lost societies gives these unfolding stories the edge of nightmare. Those who depend on their first-world status for immunity from the issues of environmental desperation that plague these modern societies will find the detailed examination of Australia especially unnerving. By putting essential but often dry details of resource use and economic policy into a compelling narrative, Diamond gives the modern world situation a rare and disturbing sense of perspective.
But Collapse is the story of how societies succeed or fail, and Diamond balances his grim parade of social extinction with some of historyís most surprising successes. Most of these success stories are a bright surprise. Some, like Japan, are obvious but easily overlooked. Others, like the Dominican Republic, defy expectations. And Diamondís tales of the New Guinea highlands offer hope that the simplest solutions may yet solve the deepest problems of history.
Diamondís theories arenít perfect or all-encompassing. His occasional glib dismissals of competing archeological theories serve mostly to make his own statements sound less secure. His discussion of future solutions to the issues raised in the book are perhaps unrealistic, too skeptical of technology or too trusting in human initiative. Itíll be hard to say, until the future comes to pass.
But then thatís the point of Collapse: the future hasnít come to pass, multiple outcomes are always possible. It all depends on the choices made, by societies and the individuals inside them. The horror stories of failures past make Collapse riveting reading; the chance to change the ending of our own tale makes it essential.