Courtesy Reuters

The Choice

In This Review

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

By Jared Diamond
Viking, 2004
575 pp. $29.95
Purchase

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. (

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