Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive

Diamond alludes early on in this book to an image of our own collapse – skyscrapers peeking through the canopies of forest cover like the ‘lost’ Maya temples. Our sorry monuments to conspicuous consumption will topple like the magnificent Easter Island statues unless we learn to live within our means.

He goes on to pile other false analogies, one upon another in an effort to demonstrate that we are overstretching natural resources and will inevitably pay the ultimate price. Population explosion, resource depletion, increased susceptibility to climate change; protracted warfare and eventual civil breakdown are all inevitable unless we refrain from testing the limits. The author is at pains to remind us throughout that his is a reasonable thesis and not at all loaded with the assumptions you might expect from his sort: an environmentalist.

But this is nevertheless the work of a modified Malthus – the patron-saint of all that is green – in which population outstrips food supply where certain conditions are met. And, for all Diamond’s allusions to evidence and the authority of his scientific training, he can’t help but insist that these conditions are always threatening to unfold. He attempts to show – and it has to be said, almost reasonably – how a combination of trading relationships, hostile neighbours, climate change, the push/pull of human activity vis-à-vis our fragile host, and ultimately how it responds to crises – determine a society’s chances of ‘surviving’.

His reading of the data, though, is often contradictory and says as much about his own prejudices and the twisted rationales of our peculiarly disenchanted times than the case studies he is supposedly concerned with. For instance, we are told that the Easter Islanders met their swift end due primarily to their isolation from even their closest South Polynesian neighbours. On the other hand, joining hands across the ocean has its drawbacks too. The Vikings in their infamous plunder of overseas territories were wound up into a destructive frenzy that was only brought to a halt by their defeat at Stamford Bridge and their less than welcome encounters with Native Americans on the other side of the North Atlantic.

As if this wasn’t enough, they had already taken just a few decades to render Iceland uninhabitable; before doing much the same to Greenland. Admittedly, Diamond says this had as much to do with their stubborn refusal to do as the Inuits – with whom they shared the latter island – do. They shunned parkas, kayaks and harpoons and refused to eat fish because, our author speculates, their founding father Erik the Red wasn’t keen. Well, that’s multiculturalism for you. For all their misadventure though, the Nordic Greenlanders were well organised, ensuring the transport of seals from the fjords, caribou from the uplands, and livestock across the settlements to ease hardship where it occurred. But this only made things worse in Diamond’s schema as the emerging power politics reached a crescendo, tribes fought over the scraps and deforestation devastated the settlements (trees, or rather their absence, features strongly throughout Collapse).

On the bright side, the Honi and Zuni Indians of the American Southwest steered a middle course in adopting what the author admiringly refers to as the ‘Pueblo solution’. Their descendants ‘survive’ to this day thanks to their local, low impact, self-sustaining ways and, no doubt, a deeply ingrained resignation to subsistence living encouraged by people like Diamond. They were fortunate enough neither to reside on a hopelessly remote island nor to have had ideas above their station conducive to the establishment of a more complex social formation. Put simply: we can’t live with or without each other.

It is striking how a book about once great civilisations can end up endorsing the notion that their end is what counts because it teaches us a certain humility. An alternative reading might flag up the ingenuity and persistence of those who established early human settlements, sometimes in horrendously inhospitable regions, and celebrate what is arguably testament to the achievements of our common humanity.

But Diamond is writing a book very much in keeping with the restricted imagination of our times, forgetting that few of us – thanks to the development of science, technology and the much derided accumulation of wealth – are subject to the ravages of nature anymore. He describes societies at more or less primitive stages in the development of civilisation as we know it today – which, incidentally, though flawed, and criminally uneven, is a notable improvement on all that preceded it.

The problem does not lie, as Diamond would have it, with the success or failure of past societies to adapt to their environments, but with the cultural straitjacket of our own particular conservatism. And this is the only analogy that passes him by:

Icelanders became conditioned by their long history of experience to conclude that, whatever change they tried to make, it was much more likely to make things worse than better…

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