Aug 23 2008


Published by at 3:56 pm under Books

Non fiction by Jared Diamond

This is a book many people should read and, fortunately, it is mostly enjoyable reading. Enjoyable should be qualified since the title’s negative implications are mostly not pleasant to think about. It is a very well written analysis of the causes of the collapse of civilizations and what that has to say about our current situation. The emphasis is on “current” and “Our” as it should be. “Our” could be taken to refer to the U.S., and more importantly it could be all of humanity. So maybe enjoyable is the wrong word.

Diamond selects five factors that he then uses to analyze a collection of collapsed historic civilizations (Easter Island, Mayan, etc.) and current situations (Rwanda, Australia, etc.). The analyses seem to be well researched and well grounded. There is a long list of further reading for those so inclined. The five factors are the general categories of environment, climate change (small fluctuations), external enemies, trading relationships, and cultural responses, but for the examples chosen, external enemies and trading partners are given less emphasis. The primary focus is on the impact of environment on civilizations and vice versa. Starting with and often returning to the basic truth that people need food and agriculture produces it. Easy to over look that in our society.

The descriptions of defunct civilizations read like mysteries and are more ‘fun’ for that reason. As the situations being analyzed get closer to our place and time they become more stressful. Somewhat illuminating to me was the case Diamond made for population pressures as one underlying cause or exacerbating pressures behind the recent genocide in Rwanda. If not a cause, it at least made its intensity worse. Rwanda was and remains even after the genocide a very densely populated country and significant savagery and deaths occurred in entirely Hutu areas. Population pressure on limited land provided a potential personal incentive to those being urged to kill for political or racial reasons.

Overall, this is a book that should be read (to repeat). It is a well reasoned, convincing case for more responsible planning and action by all participants: individuals, corporations, and governments. The book’s subtitle is “How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed”. The ability to choose and affect outcomes is the source of optimism. Success is possible.

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