Review: Collapse – How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

collapse cover.jpgIt seems I found another masterpiece of a book, one that should be mandatory reading for everyone. Collapse: how societies choose to fail or succeed is a book about just that; covering in depth both past and current societies and how they failed, succeeded or are doing in dealing with their problems. A lot of emphasis is placed on environmental causes for societal problems and possible collapse, but it’d be wrong to say it’s an environmental-alarmist book: there’s a very balanced approach covering many other reasons to societal collapse also.

Apologies in advance, but there is no way to make this review short while still touching on some of the points I want to. Let’s first start with the negatives. Collapse is by no means light reading. While Diamond does an excellent job in presenting all things in an understandable fashion, the topic is a rather complex one and causes some parts of some of the case studies to feel somewhat boring or “heavy”. Also, while it may seem that some of the older case studies (like that of the Easter Island) are not useful, I’d recommend reading through everything as the lessons learned will be returned to later in the book.

Then with the positives – Diamond’s writing style is excellent he is obviously very knowledgeable about the subject. What’s more, there’s also some amount of (rather dry) humor embedded to make reading it not only interesting but at times fun. Collapse on the whole also manages to balance the positives and the negatives; while obviously paying much more attention to the problems we face, the positive developments are not neglected either where present. There is also ample of background material listed should one be interested in any one particular topic in more detail. Finally, most common counter-arguments to the observations are dealt with in a very enlightening manner.

Collapse starts with portraying the status of present-day Montana and some of the (mainly environmental) problems that have to be dealt with there. It then digs into several past societies – Easter Island, Pitcairn & Henderson Islands, the Anasazi, Maya, Vikings and Greenland Norse. The attention then turns to modern societies, of which coverage is given to the Rwanda genocide, Dominican Republic & Haiti, China and Australia before finishing with practical lessons to be drawn from the examples.

Reading about how whole societies have collapsed, often to the point of entirely dying out, is fascinating. Initially it’s easy to find excuses why these stories are not relevant to us living now, but the more one thinks about it the darker the picture becomes; we’re definately not immune to even the worst kinds of collapses of civilization. In many respects, we’re much more vulnerably than in the past.

Without trying to write a summary of the entire work, I want to raise just a few points that I found particularly interesting.

Interlinked resources

Thanks to globalization we can no longer dismiss an event taking place on the other side of the planet as somehow inconsequential to us – no country in the world could maintain current civilization in an entirely self-sufficient fashion; without imports, many could not even feed their citizens. If something bad happens somewhere, it’s of global importance immediately. Just imagine what would happen if shipping of only one resource – oil – was stopped. Immediate global chaos, that’s what.

And it’s not just about the goods either; movement of people can have and is having significant impacts on many countries. One hears of problems caused by illegal immigrants almost daily and environmental refugees is something that we’ll see in increasing numbers. This happens in small and large scale. Take the Rodney King riots as a small-scale example of the bigger problem:

…when the acquittal of policemen on trial for brutally beating a poor person provoked thousands of outraged people from poor neighborhoods to spread out to loot businesses and rich neighborhoods. The greatly outnumbered police could do nothing more than put up pieces of yellow plastic warning tape across roads entering rich neighborhoods, in a futile gesture aimed at keeping the looters out. We are increasingly seeing a similar phenomenon on a global scale today, as illegal immigrants from poor countries pour into the overcrowded lifeboats represented by rich countries, and as our border controls prove no more able to stop that influx than were the Gardar’s chiefs and Los Angeles’s yellow tape.

Rwanda not just about Hutus and Tutsis

The handling of the Rwanda genocide was particularly interesting to me. Having recently seen the movie Hotel Rwanda, I was quite interested in the background to the genocide. The tragedy is mostly considered as having purely ethnic background reasons, but that turns out was not the only or even the biggest reason. Instead, environmental problems and overpopulation played a huge role also. How can we say it wasn’t just ethnic violence? Consider this: in northwestern Rwanda, virtually the entire population was Hutu. Still, even there, at least 5% of the population was killed in the genocide. It wasn’t Hutu killing Tutsi or vice versa – it was Hutu killing Hutu. So there has got to be other factors at work, too.

To explain this, Collapse looks into ecological problems and overpopulation. For one, Rwanda had an average of of 760 people per square mile, higher than in the UK and almost as dense as Holland. But UK and Holland have highly efficient and mechanized agriculture while Rwandans use laborious handheld hoes, picks and machetes – thus the vast majority of the population had to support themselves by growing their own food. To skip some details, in the early 1990s there simply wasn’t enough food to feed the population and with all the land already divided and used, young people could not set up farms of their own. With lots of young people with nowhere to go and the percentage of population living on under 1,600 calories per day rising from 9% in 1982 to 40% in 1990, serious tensions were inevitable.

Skipping the details, we all know (or should know) the tragic end result. Overpopulation problems are called Malthusian crisis after an English economist and demographer Thomas Malthus, who in 1798 published a book where he argued that human population growth would tend to outrun the growth of food production. That’s because, according to Malthus, population growth proceeds exponentially while food production increases only arithmetically. To put some more real emotion into a cold term like Malthusian crisis, a Tutsi survivor, living only because he happened to be away from home when his wife and four children were murdered said:

The people whose children had to walk barefoot to school killed the people who could buy shoes for theirs.

Values & survival

When discussing values and how even some core values can become a danger to our survival, Jared makes an excellent point worth thinking about:

It is painfully difficult to decide whether to abandon some of one’s core values when they seem to be becoming incompatible with survival. At what point do we as individuals prefer to die than to compromise and live?

One often sees people saying that they “could not live without” something, be it their cellphone or television or car or whatever. Even polls are made with the question formulation “what could you not live without?”. But if push came to shove, what would you be willing to really give up in order to survive? The gas-guzzling SUV, could you give it up? Cars entirely? Your house? What about trips abroad? How about your favorite foods, which could be transported to you from the other side of the planet? And this is not a hypothetical question either – it has already happened to millions of people around the world. In the past, the Greenland Norse perished ultimately because they refused to change their values, customs and culture.

Oil companies as the lesser evil?

Many people, myself included, like to think of oil companies as being a huge danger to the environment. Collapse changed my view about them quite a bit, by offering a view to two different oil companies. The first is close to what I had imagined oil fields to be like; the Salawati field of an Indonesian company Pertamina. Huge, 100 meters wide access roads (too wide for most animals to cross) destroyed the rainforest, oil spills were plentiful and natural gas was burned off instead of salvaged. Without getting into details, it was ugly.

But more pleasant and surprising was the story of Chevron’s Kutubu oil field in Papua New Guinea. It turns out they manage their environment excellently, to the point of the area being in essence a natural park. Strict environmental guidelines are in place and more importantly, they are enforced vigoriously. Chevron had engaged the WWF to prepare a large-scale integrated conservation and development project for the watershed area and it had proved to be a big success. I would never have guessed there are such stories in the oil industry.

The mining industry, on the other hand, has vastly more problematic impacts to the environment and deny their environmental problems much more than the oil business – not a good sign. A good example is that according to many mining companies, cleanup of a mine with acid drainage would require treating the runoff water for 2-12 years after the mine closure. In reality, the water will need to be captured and treated for as long as the water remains polluted – often forever.

With mining industry, we also see a glimpse into the differences between Clinton and Bush administration. In the year 2000, the outgoing Clinton administration proposed mining regulations that achieved two important goals – requiring mining companies to provide real financial assurance of cleanup costs and adequately defining reclamation and closure. In October 2001, a proposal by the incoming Bush administration eliminated almost all of the proposals.


It became painfully clear that one of the biggest problems is that there is not enough will (political and otherwise) to deal with longer-term problems; just as the commercial world lives from one quarter to another, governments also have very short focus – lasting up until the next elections at the maximum. The lack of political will to solve long-term future problems is nearly non-existant in most countries. The reason, of course, is that many corrective actions would cost something now. Yet at the same time “everyone” knows that prevention is a million times easier, cheaper and better than a cure – especially when some problems, once bad enough, cannot be cured. Collectively, the decision-makers are still in denial, but time is running out. Yet, Collapse manages to avoid being just about doom and gloom – as the author himself states, he is cautiously optimistic about the future of the world, but that doesn’t mean you or I could shut our eyes and go on with our lives as if nothing is wrong.

As a conclusion, I would like to consider Collapse as mandatory reading material for everyone like I mentioned earlier. It’s a real eye-opener on just how unsustainable a course the world really is on and how imminent and serious some of the problems already are. In the process, I also learned a lot on different soil types, the incredibly damaging effects of deforestation, how tragedy of the commons takes place, of structure of societies, management of fisheries and other natural resources & their collapses, collective decision-making and a lot of other things – your mileage may vary, of course, but I’d be willing to bet there are a few things to learn from this book for most people.

One of the most important things to take home from this remarkable piece of work is to realize the amount of work that needs to be done to save the planet and how nobody can really think of it as a SEP – Somebody Else’s Problem. Not even those whose lives are currently seemingly unaffected.

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One Response to Review: Collapse – How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

  1. Ansku says:

    Thank you for an interesting review.

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