I’ve just read Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond. The book discusses why some complex ancient societies (like the Anasazi and the Maya) fell apart, while other similar societies (like the Japanese) survived, and how we can apply these lessons to the fate of our own society. A society’s fate rests on five main factors, argues Dr. Diamond: environmental degradation, climate change, hostile neighbors, helpful neighbors (or lack thereof), and the society’s chosen response to its problems. Thus, although traditional historians might focus entirely on military, political, or economic factors, Dr. Diamond stresses that ecological factors are usually an important ultimate cause of societal collapse. The pre-existing environment plays a major role; for example, Easter Island just happens to be a difficult place to build a sustainable society, for several geographical reasons. The book does not preach environmental determinism, though, because people’s choices make a big difference, too. For example, the Norse Vikings who settled in Greenland made choices that prevented their society from being sustainable, while the Inuit society on that same island continues to thrive. In retrospect, the Greenland Norse look so stupid for not adopting aspects of the Inuit lifestyle that they must have observed and which clearly worked better in that land (e.g. using kayaks and harpoons to hunt whales and ringed seals, instead of trying to raise cattle on the fragile landscape, and using blubber instead of wood as fire fuel). But I can think of several similar examples in the modern world of stubborn refusal to alter a clearly unsustainable lifestyle.
I suspect that the book’s emphasis on choice is a response to criticism that Dr. Diamond presumably received for his most well-known book, Guns Germs, and Steel. GG&S comes across as more fatalistic. For example, the large mammals of America and Australia were unaccustomed to humans, therefore they quickly succumbed to overhunting when humans arrived, and therefore the native peoples of those continents weren’t able to domesticate large beasts of burden like the Eurasians did, which hindered civilization-building. I suspect some people took GG&S to mean that human free will isn’t important, and Dr. Diamond tries to correct that view in Collapse.
I can’t help but compare Dr. Diamond’s views to those of Daniel Quinn. In his books like Ishmael and Beyond Civilization, Quinn argues that environmental problems are entirely cultural. In particular, there has only been one truly unsustainable culture, which arose in the Middle East with the dawn of agriculture, and which spread around the world to influence every society we would now consider to be “civilized.” Societal “collapses” like that of the Maya were not tragedies, argues Quinn. Rather, the people just decided to abandon their pyramid-building and return to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, a decision which seems unthinkable to us, since our culture teaches that complex civilization is the only way to live. While GG&S struck me as an opposition to Quinn’s arguments, Collapse seems more like a compromised view between the two extremes. The Greenland case illustrates this well: Quinn would probably agree with the depiction of the civilized Norse constructing their own demise with their totalitarian agriculture, while refusing to admit that the hunter-gatherer Inuit were actually living better lives. Of course, Quinn’s views as I’ve described them here are an oversimplification: some “native” peoples have been bad environmental stewards even without any influence from civilized culture originating in the Middle East.
Collapse ends by emphasizing the extreme devastation we are wreaking on our environment today, and by calling us to address these problems in our lifetimes, lest there be serious consequences. For the first time ever, we live in a society where we can learn from past societal failures all over the world. We cannot keep living the way we are living now. We certainly cannot bring all 6.5 billion humans into the First World lifestyle we are living now. We need to make major changes now, or the world will make major changes for us that will be much less pleasant.