Jared Diamond on avoiding “Collapse”

Jared Diamond’s latest book is superb. Collapse tells the story of civilizations that collapsed as a result of environmental destruction (Easter Island, the Maya), and societies that avoided a similar fate with prudent decision making (Japan).
The book surpasses earlier books covering similar cautionary material, including
A Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations
Here’s why the book is so good.
In addition to stories about civilizations that collapsed as a result of environmental degradation (Easter Island, the Maya), Diamond also tells the story of societies that managed to avoid environmental distruction through prudent and farsighted decision-making (the Japanese Tokugawa shogus decided to stop logging and reforest; Tikopia, the Pacific island that decided to stop raising pigs because the pigs were destructive to the island’s fragile vegetation, though pigs were prestigous in Polynesian culture. Diamond provides examples of societies (including Japan) that made decisions to protect their environment by top-down command, and societies that made similar decisions through bottom-up processes (like the New Guinea Highlands).
Diamond does comparative analysis, assessing various environmental and geopolitical factors, showing, for example, how Easter Island’s ecosystem was more fragile than other Polynesian colonies, and how Greenland’s environment was less appropriate for Scandinavian customs than other Norse colonies. He shows how environmental initial conditions interacted with cultural practices and decisions to facilitate decline. The comparative approach lends credibility to the analysis of contemporary cultures (Australia, China) threatened by environmental degradation.
The treatment of the environmental records of big businesses is another area where Diamond’s balance give’s the book credibility and usefulness. For example, Diamond compares the record of Chevron, which maintained a meticulous record of environmental responsibily in its Indonesian oil drilling, with the reprehensible record of Pertamina, also drilling for oil in Indonesia. He compares the grudging acquiescense of Arco at cleaning up polluted mines in Montana, with the evil record of Pegasus Gold, which left its Montana mines leaking cyanide, took $5 million in bonuses for the board of directors, and declared bankruptcy to avoid cleanup responsibility
Diamond also provides valuable perspective on the best places for citizen activism to have leverage. For example, the drive for sustainable wood harvesting has been led by big consumer-facing companies, including Home Depot and Kinkos, which are huge buyers of wood products, and are highly sensitive to public opinion. The logging companies that supply them don’t care about habitat or individual consumers — but they do care about the bulk purchases of Home Depot.
Diamond avoids the hyperbole of doom used by some environmentalists as a rhetorical strategy. And he shows how some societies managed to make good decisions, in time to successfully reverse decline. Therefore his assessment of the risk faced by our interconnected global civilization, and the responsibility faced by leaders and citizens, is more persuasive, and more chilling.
It’s early January, but this may be the best book to read all year.

3 thoughts on “Jared Diamond on avoiding “Collapse””

  1. I’m really psyched to see that you are reviewing this! I read Guns Germs and Steel and also the review of Collapse in the New Yorker. I like the way Diamond makes connections. I approve of his non-judgemental (is that the word I want?) tone in describing big bad trends in human history.

  2. I really like his _Guns, Germs, and Steel although it may be oversimplified.
    The NYT review of _Collapse was awful. Easterbrook doesn’t even seem to read the books he is reviewing or other books he references just uses them to make his point.
    I am a member of a couple book groups where we don’t all read the same book but bring paperbacks we liked to exchange and infect other people with. I like to hear or read someone saying “This is why this is good.”
    Gary Denton
    #1 on Google for liberal news digest

  3. Yes, that Easterbrook review was particularly awful. Crooked Timber and Brad DeLong did good jobs of taking it apart.
    In an age of Amazon and web search, book reviews that do a “plot summary” of a book, and then give a thumbs-up/thumbs-down are not that useful.
    It is much more useful to have more analysis and reflection: why the reviewer liked or disliked the book, the book’s strenghts and weaknesses, comparisons and references to related books.

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