Collapse is a book by Jared Diamond that details the various environmental factors that contributed to the fall of past and present societies. Diamond, a medical researcher and professor of physiology at the UCLA School of Medicine, also authored the book Guns, Germs and Steel, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998. Collapse was published by Viking Press, a company owned by Penguin Books.
In the book, Diamond identifies five factors that contribute to collapse and lists 12 environmental problems facing mankind today. Collapse is divided into four parts; the first gives an explanation of the history of the environment, society, and economy of the state of Montana. It focuses on the lives of several individuals in order to put a human face on the interplay between society and the environment.
Part two is an insight into some pre-historic societies and probable causes that may have contributed to their collapse, as well as some examples of other societies that overcame environmental harms. Diamond outlines five sets of factors that may affect what happens to a society: environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbors, loss of trading partners, and the society's own responses to its environmental problems.
Next, Diamond describes some modern day societies and the troubles that plague them, and how some countries deal with environmental issues. This part includes: the collapse into genocide of Rwanda, caused in part by overpopulation; the failure of Haiti compared with the relative success of its neighbor on Hispaniola; the Dominican Republic; The problems facing a developing nation, China; The problems facing a First World nation, Australia.
Finally, Diamond discusses some practical lessons for all humans living on the earth today. He uses his previous examples to warn and encourage modern societies to change their course of destruction in order to stop a collapse. Specific attention is given to the way Dutch society has addressed its challenges with the "top-down" and most importantly "bottom-up" approaches. Diamond defines his five-point framework of possible contributing factors to the collapse of previous societies (environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbors, friendly trade partners and the society’s response to its environmental problems). For each civilization he writes about, Diamond goes over each of the five-points (for some civilizations, not all apply) and gives some explanation to its collapse. The results of this survey are perhaps why Diamond sees "signs of hope" and arrives at a position of "cautious optimism" for all our futures.
Diamond starts his book with an opening chapter describing the nature, beauty, economy and downfalls of the state of Montana. He chooses Montana because it is an example of lush, abundant land being destroyed by toxic waste, deforestation, climate change and excessive mining. Diamond describes the beauty of Montana in such a way that compels the reader to want to see the luscious landscapes and rivers in person. However, he also details the rapid decline of the environment due to a variety of factors, from the early mining in the 1800’s to the polarization of today. More wealthy newcomers are moving into Montana and building enormous estates, at the same time destroying the beautiful open range.
In part two of the book, Diamond examines the past civilizations of Easter Island, Pitcarin and Henderson Islands, the Maya and others. He gives details of how these civilizations might have once thrived and possible causes of their destruction. These islands were once fully inhabited with a full functioning society that for several reasons destroyed themselves. Diamond writes, “Easter’s isolation makes it the clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by overexploiting its own resources.” He goes on to say that there are parallels between the modern world and Easter Island, indicating that people today should look to Easter Island as an example of what may come. Diamond also describes the Maya civilization including its history of over population, climate change, war, and eventual collapse.
In part three of collapse, Diamond illustrates modern day societies that are undergoing the same gradual destruction as the pre-historic societies outlined. Rwanda is experiencing problems of over population, environmental impact and climate change, but more importantly these are excuses being used for genocide. Diamond describes the stark differences between the populations of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and how each deal differently with the environmental hazards they encounter. China and Australia are also characterized on how each has changed their ways in order to combat the effects of over mining, greenhouse effects, pollution and other environmental issues.
Finally, Diamond offers his opinions on the state of modern day societies and how they tend to deal with emerging environmental problems. Such as anticipating problems before they emerge and how to deal with them as they happen. Diamond then gives some examples of how big businesses have contributed to the destruction of the environment and some suggestions on what they can do to resolve problems made in the past.
The book provides thought provoking examples of the destruction in a society at the hands of its own people. Collapse is a book written to an audience of every member of society that has the potential to contribute to environmental hazards, and has the potential to correct harmful effects. Collapse is written in a manner that makes it easy to read and understand. The description of land area and landscapes are easily pictured in the reader’s mind, also 42 pictures and several maps give more insight into what Diamond wants to bring across.
In a review by The New Yorker magazine, the critic highlighted the way in which Diamond's approach differs from traditional historians by focusing on environmental issues rather than cultural questions.
“Diamond’s distinction between social and biological survival is a critical one, because too often we blur the two, or assume that biological survival is contingent on the strength of our civilization values... The fact is, though, that we can be law-abiding and peace-loving and tolerant and inventive and committed to freedom and true to our own values and still behave in ways that are biologically suicidal.”
National Geographic released a documentary film titled Collapse, based on Diamond's book in 2010.
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