Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Review: Collapse, Jared Diamond (2005)

This book has been available for a number of years. I first heard about it while travelling in the Sydney CBD: it must have been on the car radio in 2006, an interview with the author perhaps. A few years later I decided to change careers and become a journalist and I have concentrated on a small number of subjects including the environment. So it was natural for me to buy and read this book. Many people have done the same thing. But I was surprised at how impressed I was once I started.

Briefly, Diamond sets out to expose the reasons behind a series of societal collapses that have occurred at various times in history beginning with the Easter Island society. They cut down all the trees and their culture imploded. He then moves on to the Norse settlement of Greenland which collapsed for similar reasons. No trees equals loss of topsoil which leads to crop failure and starvation. There are other cases including the Maya and the Anasazi, a culture that prospered in the south-eastern United States a thousand years ago. They all collapsed for the same reason: no trees equals starvation.

So far so good. The best parts of the book enable you to look in detail at how these untoward events occurred. Surprising, too, is the number of insights Diamond gives into how our own society is faring on planet Earth. We, too, are chopping down trees at a great rate. Are we doomed to societal collapse, too? That remains to be seen. There is no doubt, however, that generalised changes in society's thinking since the 1980s especially in the area of environmentalism have begun to throw out promising tendencies. It remains our challenge to promote them so that we may cope with the significant challenges that lie ahead in the current century.

What seems likely is that Diamond's book will continue to attract attention from commentators of the left who will use it as a warning against complacency and greed. Short-sightedness in the face of looming catastrophe was a characteristic of former civilisations that ultimately failed and so we should be wary of falling into a similar trap. Rather than merely taking into account the economic advantages of a proposal - be it a government policy or a new enterprise - it seems that we need to also take into account its impact on biodiversity. That's why Diamond's book seems to endorse such initiatives as The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity, a UN initiative, which is currently attempting to bring into public focus biodiversity as a valuable resource. Without it we might just follow the societies Diamond chronicles and stop functioning. Chaos is the only likely result.

1 comment:

Laurent Franckx said...

I think the book is better in its history of past societies than in its analysis of contemporary problems - see http://dismalscientistsbookreviews.blogspot.com/2010/11/review-of-jared-diamonds-collapse.html