Monday, August 07, 2006

Collapse: Read this book. Now.

Should you read it?

  My rating

  Explains what caused a variety of past societies to collapse -- and why we can't afford to ignore these historical lessons.


Over the past two months, I listened to the audiobook version of Jared Diamond's Collapse. Unless you have a very long attention span, I don't recommend that you listen to this book. It's a long (and occasionally long-winded) tome. I found that during the hubbub of my daily commute, I was constantly missing important information.

However. I do recommend that you read this book, with your eyes, as soon as you possibly can. It uses our species' history -- which is undeniably fraught with error -- to construct a powerfully compelling argument for the need for environmental sustainability.

My favorite chapter focuses on Easter Island. Its famous stone statues weren't built by aliens, as some have suggested, but by the island's native inhabitants: the Rapa Nui. And how did they accomplish this amazing feat? By using trees for transport. Lots and lots of trees. In an epic competitive quest that spanned centuries, the Rapa Nui chiefs spurred their subjects to carve ever-bigger statues. They were so intent on winning -- on having the biggest stone statue on the island -- that they apparently didn't notice that they were using up all of their trees in the process.

Eventually, they completely deforested their island, and things got really bad. How bad? Their population declined by 90%. Cannibalism became widespread.

At this point in the book, Jared Diamond (pictured at right) poses the question: what were they thinking as they cut down their last tree? Seriously now, how could the priorities of the Rapa Nui been so tragically misaligned? The statues are cool-looking and all -- but certainly they're not worth destroying 90% of your population?

Our contemporary situation bears disturbing similarities. As Barry Lynn aptly explains in End of the Line: The Rise and Coming Fall of the Global Corporation (another book I highly recommend), the current tightly-knit global economy poses significant risks. Like the Rapa Nui, we live on a planet that we can't (currently) escape from. And if we don't change things significantly -- by drastically changing our way of life, or via emerging technology -- we're in for some nasty times indeed.

Other points to note in this book:

  • The residents of Iceland originally wreaked havoc on their environment, but they learned from their mistakes and didn't destroy it completely.
  • The Greenland Norse died off completely because they did not adapt to their environment. They tried in vain to replicate a European lifestyle. If they would have followed the example of their Inuit neighbors to the north (who they regarded with complete disdain), they might have survived.
  • The most environmentally responsible societies tend to be those in which the ruling class is not isolated from the masses. Diamond looks at the Netherlands and New Guinea as two interesting examples of this.
So are we going to make it, as a species? Ultimately, Diamond describes himself as a cautious optimist. There's certainly much to be pessimistic about, but he points to encouraging signs. One of our greatest assets is our vast knowledge of our own history. The failures and the successes are there, and it's up to us to ignore them or pay attention.

The only reason that I didn't give Collapse a 10/10 rating was the fact that it's a bit long. The section on Montana, for instance, tends to drone on a bit. Perhaps I would have had a different reaction, however, if I wouldn't have gone the audiobook route. All in all, it's an outstanding book, and I've been talking it up to my friends. Everybody should read it.

And, given the increasing contemporary awareness of sustainability issues, it's no surprise that Collapse is now in its fifth straight month on BusinessWeek's paperback bestseller list (pdf, opens in new window). I'm definitely encouraged to see so much interest in this book right now.



Breigh said...

Oooooh, adding this to my wishlist. I'm a Canadian living in the Netherlands, I'm very interested to read what he says about the Dutch.

Jonathan said...

He refers to the Dutch as the most environmentally aware country on earth -- apparently they have the highest per capita involvement in environmental organizations.