Thursday, July 20, 2006

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond

When asked whether he is an optimist or a pessimist, Jared Diamond, author of Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, says that he is a "cautious optimist." He thinks that the people of the earth can choose to make the changes to their lives that will prevent a failure of our civilization as we know it. He says we already have the necessary technologies to adapt to our overuse of resources. While a voluntary choice to live with a lower standard of living may look very unacceptable to many, the alternatives are horrid.

He is optimistic because some civilizations did make necessary changes in the past, even jettisoning out-of-date societal values when needed. Also, we have modern communications and academics now, so we can understand our options better than any civilization in the past. What we need is resolve. We have to learn to be more concerned for community rather than individual opportunity. We have to become more global and less national.

Despite his cautious optimism, eighty percent of his book tells about societies that failed and the reasons for those collapses. Climate change, ecological disaster, over population, loss of trade partners, and attacks from enemies contributed, but failure to change was always central to the collaspes. Examples include the societies of Easter Island, the Maya, the Norse in Greenland, the Soviet Union, and Rwanda. Diamond also focuses on current fragile systems, such as those of Montana, Australia, and China.

Collapse should be an excellent book for discussions. A library that I know held such a discussion, but only three readers came. The size of the book and the seriousness of the subject may have culled some readers, but the readers and librarians who were there had a very good discussion.

I listened to Collapse on 22 compact discs, which were read by Michael Prichard. Prichard is an excellent reader, i. e. he never sounds like he is reading. In my mind, Diamond was speaking directly to me.

Like Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel, Collapse is a very readable and important book that every public library should have.

Diamond, Jared. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Viking, 2005. ISBN 0670033375

22 compact discs. Santa Ana, California: Books on Tape, 2005. ISBN 1415917272


Dan Trabue said...

Sounds like a tough but important read. Like Diamond, I remain cautiously optimistic, but do so in spite of the evidence sometimes.

Anonymous said...

Diamonds book offers anecdotal evidence at best - there are just as many examples of flourishing societies that occupied either the same or adjacent territory as those that failed. Instead I would recommend you look at Victor Davis Hanson's volume "Why the West Has Won: Carnage and Culture from Salamis to Vietnam". The basic idea presented is that the West's faith in democracy and personal liberty have resulted in superior military capability and thus cultural dominance.