In the beginning of Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Jared Diamond quotes Shelley's poem Ozymandias, a fitting start to this work. It has been said that the United States is the most powerful society in history. But power and even dominance – as Shelley's fictional example posits and Diamond's factual examples prove – are no guarantee of endurance. Societies have risen, sometimes dominated, and fallen, while others, making wiser choices, exist to this day, and this, as the subtitle indicates, is Diamond's argument – that success or failure is a choice.
Diamond examines a number of ancient and modern societies using a five-point framework of factors, referred to in his summary of the book: “Societal collapses involving an environmental component, and in some cases also contributions of climate change, hostile neighbors, and trade partners, plus questions of societal responses.” (pg 15)
Some examples that stayed with me:
- In A.D. 984 Scandinavians arrived in Greenland, 1,500 miles from Norway. They built churches, wielded iron tools, farmed, followed the latest European clothing fashions, and then, after 500 years, they vanished. During those 500 years, they shared Greenland with the Inuit (Eskimo). “The Vikings disappeared, but the Inuit survived, proving that human survival in Greenland was not impossible and the Vikings' disappearance not inevitable.” (pg 212) There is evidence of contact between the two cultures, leaving Diamond to rightly conclude that the Vikings chose not to adopt Inuit ways, ways which probably would have enabled them to survive.
- Today Easter Island is known for the distinctive large statues called moai, whose creation and transportation, hundreds of years ago, were incredible feats, and evidence of a large, complex, and wealthy society, a society which no longer existed when the first European visited in 1722. Between the time of human settlement, around A.D. 900, and this visit, the island went from being forested, with species that grew to 50 feet or more, to being almost totally bare, and the population declined from a high of about 15,000 to about 3,000. Deforestation was a main cause of this decline. It forced a change in the islanders' diet -- several bird species went extinct, and without trees to make canoes, deep-water fishing was no longer possible. Diamond blames the deforestation primarily on the islanders, who, among other reasons, cut the trees for fuel and to clear land for crops.
Diamond is a professor of geography at UCLA, and winner of the Pulitzer Price for his book Guns, Germs, and Steel. His research for this book was exhaustive, and it helps to have a love of history to make it through the 500+ pages. But that's not to say it's dry and academic. Diamond has a pleasant writing style, and it rarely seems like there is too much information. Rather, he gives topics the attention they deserve.
In addition to the aforementioned failures, he also documents successes. On the Pacific island of Tikopia, pigs were a status symbol, but they rooted up gardens and competed with humans for food. Around 1600, the Tikopians made what must have been a difficult decision and killed all the pigs on the island. Their society is still strong after 3,000 years. Similarly, Japan, in the 1600s, found that their demand for timber was such that their forests were disappearing. The shogun instituted strict limits on logging, and today about 70% of Japan is forested.
One lesson, of course is that threats must be recognized and action taken, and that action will likely involve, as the Tikopians can attest, sacrifice. An unpopular concept, yes – it's been said that the only thing that Americans fear is inconvenience. This trait, paired with the opposition to the overwhelming scientific consensus regarding climate change, does not bode well for us. Power and dominance mean little if we lack the will to act.