In This Review

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed
By Jared Diamond
575 pp, Viking, 2004
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Huls Farm and Gardar Farm seem to be models of successful agricultural enterprise. Both have lush settings, good grass, and imposing barns that house 200 head of cattle, and they are owned by respected community leaders. They also face significant difficulties: their high-latitude locations make for short growing seasons, and a changing climate signals greater problems to come.

The two farms form the center of an anecdote that comes at the beginning of Jared Diamond's Collapse, and the story's O. Henry ending, stealthily arrived at, encapsulates the book's message. Huls, Diamond reveals, is a still-expanding fifth-generation farm in Montana's Bitterroot Valley; Gardar, despite its apparent prosperity, was abandoned 500 years ago when Greenland's Norse society collapsed amid starvation and civic unrest.

One might draw from this parallel a pessimistic conclusion about Montana's environmental future, but Diamond is no pessimist. The fall of Greenland's Norse society was not inevitable: its inhabitants could have saved themselves but, trapped by tradition and blinded by prejudice, declined to take the necessary steps. The collapse of Gardar Farm thus serves not as a warning of imminent apocalypse but as evidence that if modern society can learn from the failures of its predecessors, it can avoid their fate.

MONUMENTAL ERRORS

Many readers who approach Collapse will have been led there by Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond's last book, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historical account of how and why Europeans and their descendants gathered the lion's share of the world's resources. The new book should not disappoint them; indeed, for those interested in our collective future, Collapse should be required reading. Like Guns, Germs, and Steel, it is a stunningly erudite tour of societies past and present. Diamond focuses on how their conditions and their decisions led (or might lead) to either sustainability or disastrous overexploitation--in the hope that such history will serve as a guide to contemporary decision-making. And despite the abundance of bad news, Diamond's overall message is one of cautious optimism.

Collapse is really three books in one. (This phrase itself is a Diamondism, since the author frequently guides the reader through a challenging text by making lists: environmental problems 1 through 12, a five-point framework of major factors contributing to collapse, the five kinds of failure in group decision-making.) The book's first part, which should be read carefully, consists of a prologue that sets out a plan for the book, followed by a description of contemporary Montana, a splendid warm-up for the rest of the account. Indeed, the Rocky Mountain West, where the Wise Use movement so often collides with passionate conservationists, provides an ideal setting for an introduction to contemporary environmental issues. Here readers see much more of the author than they saw in Guns. Diamond uses his deep personal familiarity with the environment and the individuals who inhabit it to add depth and color to his scholarly analysis. His Montana friends (many of whom I know and like) range from third-generation ranchers to well-off urbanites drawn there by a love of fly-fishing--convincing and authentic voices in the reasoned but troubled debate about the land and how it serves them.

Book two begins with Easter Island, where Diamond's idea for the project was probably born. The island's famous moai monoliths have inspired fascination and speculation among generations of travelers and scholars. How were these massive structures transported from the hillside quarry where they were made to massive seaside platforms many miles away? And what is the connection between that history and Easter Island's barren, treeless landscape of today? Diamond answers by way of a true-life detective story, one in which the heroes are anthropologists, paleontologists, and palynologists (who study the structure and dispersal of pollen). By analyzing the bones of extinct birds and mammals, the charcoal remains of old fires, and pollen sequences (the layers of pollen deposited in lake bottoms), they have determined the basic outlines of Easter Island's history, recounted by Diamond in masterly fashion.

The first inhabitants of the remote, windy place arrived from other islands around 900. The population, divided into a dozen chiefdoms and supported by intensive agriculture, soon rose to 15,000 or more. The moai were built to honor the opposing chieftans, and as clan rivalries intensified the statues became larger and more magnificent. Pollen samples from the lower layers of the few bodies of water on Easter show that when the settlers first arrived, abundant large palms, related to the Chilean wine palm, dominated the forest and there was an extensive understory of smaller trees. The islanders chopped down these palms, fashioning them into canoes to hunt porpoises (the bones of which have been found in the remains of kitchen refuse piles) or into rollers to transport the giant moai. Some economists have argued that the Polynesians' past experience with faster-regenerating palm forests on other islands left them unprepared for the slow recovery of the giant Easter Island palms. But the competitive zeal of the chieftains for statuary self-promotion is also part of the explanation. Whatever their motive, the result was the most disastrous logging operation ever undertaken.

By about 1500, the extensive subtropical forest that had greeted the Polynesians on their arrival was virtually gone. They had driven the native fauna to extinction, and a massive colony of nesting seabirds, originally comprising 26 species, had been reduced to a single colony of Sooty Terns. (Seabird bones are also prominent among early kitchen remains, but they eventually disappear from the record, along with all evidence of the island's six native land birds.) The agricultural system, based on rock gardens and chicken husbandry, stopped being able to support the existing population, and the inhabitants soon turned to internecine warfare and cannibalism. Europeans arrived in the eighteenth century to complete the tragedy.

The collapse of Easter Island was only one--an outlier, to be sure--of a set of related but independent settlements in Polynesia. Early colonies on Pitcairn and Henderson Islands lasted longer but eventually failed because of the loss of an important trading partner, the island of Mangareva, in the wake of European colonization. Some of the other Polynesian settlements, however, fared better. Tiny Tikopia, for example, has sustained 1,200 people on less than two square miles for a dozen centuries. Why did they survive when Easter Island failed?

Diamond's answer takes us on a tour with many stops: the Anasazi in the American Southwest; Mayan civilizations in Mesoamerica; Tokugawa Japan; the Greenland Viking settlements; Rwanda; and Haiti. This comparative breadth is necessary, because no single pattern can explain success or failure. In some cases climate change is critical, as it was in the demise of the Anasazi at Chaco Canyon. But the weight of the evidence, Diamond shows, makes clear that human choices are almost always the most important part of the story.

CHRONICLE OF A DISASTER FORETOLD

The role of choice is especially clear in the case of the two Greenland Norse settlements. Their founders--the Vikings, known for their history as voyagers, conquerors, and farmers--were among the most effective colonists of their time, having already settled and subdued such inhospitable places as Iceland. In Greenland, they developed thriving agricultural enterprises, models of sensible farming, in fjords and valleys where flowers bloomed and a good crop of hay could be raised.

Greenland's climate, however, grew harsher as the Little Ice Age advanced. The poorest farms failed, and their owners and tenants sought refuge in bigger and more successful farms. As conditions continued to deteriorate, the Norse did what people often do to preserve their society when nature deals them a bad hand: they banded together and tried to get along. But they refused to learn from their neighbors, the Inuits, who had developed styles of hunting and methods of survival far more suited to the harsh climate. Instead of adopting the Inuits' successful techniques for fishing and hunting ringed seals, the Norse dismissed them as skraelings (wretches). In the uppermost layers of the archaeological reconstruction--corresponding to the last days of the settlement--there are dog bones scarred by knife marks, and the number of cattle hoofs corresponds almost exactly to the capacity of the barns. Near the end, apparently, the Norse ate their cattle down to the hoofs and then, in desperation, moved on to their dogs.

Even as they starved to death, the Greenland Norse chose to stick with what they knew. The Easter Islanders made a different, but similarly disastrous choice: to treat a rich resource of tropical forest as though it were inexhaustible. At some point, it must have been evident that the forest and seabirds were disappearing. What did the hunters and loggers think? What was the person who cut down the last tree thinking as he did it? Jobs before trees?

The analysis of past collapses leads naturally to an exploration of contemporary society and its future, the third part of the book. A colleague of mine used to give a lecture called "Is the World an Easter Island?"--a question Diamond plainly would like us to consider. But he rejects the idea of building an argument about our planetary fate on an outlier case. To be sure, his list of the challenges confronting contemporary society--ranging from habitat destruction, loss of biological diversity, and soil loss to energy and population growth--is disheartening. And Diamond treats each carefully, even responding to some of the common objections raised by those who believe that "environmentalists" are overstating their case. But for nearly every one of those challenges, there are examples in his survey in which human wisdom has triumphed over circumstance, just as there are cases in which collapse was caused by social choices that could have been made differently.

Thus, Diamond emerges with a cautiously optimistic take on the prospect of human survival. The Norse were bound by a set of cultural patterns and religious prejudices that ruled out an accommodation that could have changed their fate. The Easter Islanders apparently could not grasp that their accelerating ceremony-driven harvesting would eventually overtake the regeneration rate of their most precious resource. Fortunately, we are not bound in either of those ways.

As I write, recovery from an environmental crisis in South and Southeast Asia is underway. The earthquake and resulting tsunami remind us that catastrophe, whether natural or human-aided, will always be with us. And the cause of and response to such devastation are often intertwined. Overpopulation and advanced technology deserve a place on Diamond's list of environmental problems, but they also can be mobilized for relief. Globalization and growing interconnectedness mean that we can better work together to organize and deliver help to afflicted peoples and environments. The lessons that Diamond so persuasively draws from past collapses thus not only awaken us to some mistakes we can avoid, they also remind us of the ways in which we are better equipped than our predecessors to avoid them.

  • Donald Kennedy is Editor in Chief of Science and Bing Professor of Environmental Science and President Emeritus at Stanford University.
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