How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

By: Jared Diamond.

  Vicking; 575 pp. $29.95

* * * * * * * *

W hy did great civilizations of the past collapse, and how likely is it that ours will, too? University of California at Los Angeles geography professor and Pulitzer Prize winner Jared Diamond begins his 575-page response to this query by quoting Percy Bysshe Shelley’s haunting poem on the faded glories of an Egyptian pharaoh , Ozymandias:

                    ... on the [shattered] pedestal these words appear:

                    My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on

                    my works, ye Mighty; and despair!’

                    Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

                    Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

                    The lone and level sands stretch far away.

It’s an apt epigraph for Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, an erudite work that taps the insights of ecology; archaeology; biology; physiology, economic history, and other disciplines . Like his 1997 Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, which addressed why European nations ended up wealthy and dominant, the latest book tackles big and vital questions. Here, Jared Diamond suggests that a new Dark Age is a real possibility considering today’s global environmental degradation and population growth. Still, he argues that Armageddon isn’t inevitable—that societies can “choose” their destinies, as his subtitle puts it. Even so, some readers may find his account overly deterministic and prone to accentuate the negative.

Diamond offers a fascinating excursion into the latest scholarship on some of the great mysteries of history: Easter Island. The Anasazi, an ancient people of the U.S. Southwest. The Maya of Central America. These once-thriving societies disappeared, leaving behind tantalizing monuments of vast achievements that continue to excite our imagination. Diamond also fast-forwards to today. Among the topics he addresses are genocide in Rwanda, the disintegration of Haiti, the environmental squalor of fast-growing China, and the deteriorating ecology of overmined, overlogged Montana.

Diamond also offers a five-point framework describing the dynamics of collapse (and revival). Included are inadvertent environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbors, the decline of trade with other groups, and the political culture that determines a society’s response to a crisis.

Throughout, he brings many ancient societies to life, from those that expired, such as the Norse of Greenland, to those that skirted disaster, like the highland people of New Guinea.

Take the experience of Easter Island, famed for its gigantic stone statues. Easter is isolated, 2,300 miles from the coast of Chile to the east and 1,300 miles from Polynesia’s Pitcairn Island to the west. Archaeologists think the statues’ proliferation reflects a rivalry among the island’s clans and chiefs. Ever more wood and rope were needed to move the effigies, but a growing population, coupled with the drive for bigger and bigger statues, wiped out the trees. And given the island’s extremely fragile ecology, they didn’t grow back. A deforested island suffered from soil erosion and a lack of food and raw materials. Starvation, a population crash, cannibalism, and social collapse followed. The author understands why many scholars see “parallels between Easter Island and the whole modern world,” but he hopes the metaphor is imperfect.

Turning to the present, Diamond reports 12 unsustainable ecological trends, from the ruin of natural habitats to atmospheric change. He is most troubled by rapid population growth and the ecological damage caused by the developing world’s rush to enjoy First World living standards. One forecast is startling: “the world’s environmental problems will get resolved, in one way or another, within the life-times of the children and the young adults alive today,” he writes. “The only real question is whether they will become resolved in pleasant ways of our own choice, or in unpleasant ways not of our choice, such as warfare, genocide, starvation, disease epidemics, and collapses of society.”

This passage reinforces the sense that Diamond foresees disaster. Yet he calls himself a cautious optimist. Why? Among other things, he shows that some businesses—such as Chevron Corp. in the Kikori River watershed of Papua New Guinea—can be both environmentally conscious and profitable. And he describes some nations such as Japan and Iceland that are restoring environmental balance. But as the book goes on, his hopefulness seems to wane. He is far too dismissive of the ability of markets and technological innovation to solve problems. And he mostly dwells on the negatives of growth in the developing world.

That said, Collapse is a magisterial effort packed with insight and written with clarity and enthusiasm. It’s also the deal of the year— the equivalent of a year’s college course by an engaging, brilliant professor, all for the price of a book.

                                                                                            —By Christopher Farrell


BusinessWeek Magazine

McGraw-Hill Companies

December 20 , 2004 (pg. 26)

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