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Environmental damage, climate change, globalization, rapid population growth, and unwise political choices were all factors in the demise of societies around the world, but some found solutions and persisted. As in Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond traces the fundamental pattern of catastrophe, and weaves an all-encompassing global thesis through a series of fascinating historical-cultural narratives. Collapse moves from the Polynesian cultures on Easter Island to the flourishing American civilizations of the Anasazi and the Maya and finally to the doomed Viking colony on Greenland. Similar problems face us today and have already brought disaster to Rwanda and Haiti, even as China and Australia are trying to cope in innovative ways. Despite our own society’s apparently inexhaustible wealth and unrivaled political power, ominous warning signs have begun to emerge even in ecologically robust areas like Montana.
Brilliant, illuminating, and immensely absorbing, Collapse is destined to take its place as one of the essential books of our time, raising the urgent question: How can our world best avoid committing ecological suicide?
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By Vicky on 02-06-18
So Many Ways to Die Like a Viking
Jared Diamond uses a telescopic lens to assimilate a big picture view of the globe. It is this ability to synthesize that makes reading his books an enjoyable experience… a learning experience. But, more than a textbook look at ecological factors, Diamond touches base with what individual places mean to the world around them. He not only describes individual loss in a region, but the impact of that collapse on the world around. He describes such archeological study methods as the study of middens, tree rings, and ice cores. He discusses the problem of ‘creeping normalcy,’ ‘landscape amnesia,’ and ‘tragedy of the commons.’
The Mayan Civilization and the Viking Colonies take up some of the largest sections of treatment. Diamond looks at how these societies failed to respond to ecological problems. The answers he gives to the Maya problem are some of the best researched and most clear reasons I’ve seen to date. I read the book from the Kindle version with whisper-sync, narrated by Michael Prichard. I read it as a part of my Journey Around the World in 80 books while in Guatamala (The Maya Civ,) and am excited about moving ahead to the Honduras.
He compares the sustainability of the volcanic Iceland soil to the fragile Greenland soil, and points to the way in which the Norse Vikings failed to adapt to living conditions that were vastly different from European Norway. Two of the surprising factors of the Viking problems I noticed were that the Greenland Norse apparently did not eat fish. They insisted on trying to raise their beloved beef, though their starving & stunted cows refused to eat seaweed, and had to be force hand-fed. That is certainly maladaptive, and unlike the Vikings in the other colonies. Seriously, when in Rome, do as the Romans. When living on an island, eat fish. Second, Iceland today is one of Europe’s richest places due to exports, where it was the poorest then. But, my bet for the Greenland Vikings disappearance is that their Inuit neighbors grew tired of their less than neighborly habit of checking to see how heavily they bled when pierced with a knife. They referred to the Inuit natives as Skraelings, or “Wretches.”
Individually, the book lays bare the experience of a number of societies; past and present, and looks for underlying contributing factors to their demise. Besides the Maya and the Vikings; Diamond analyses the disappearance at Easter Island, Pitcairn and Henderson Islands, the Anasazi Natives of Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, among others. He sheds light on the sustainability of other nearby societies, like New Guinea (and Japan) where people have maintained resources for more than a millennia with only similar ecological conditions because of the choices they made.
Modern societies such as the Hutu and Tutsi of Rwanda were also covered. Diamond shows how racial genocide was exacerbated by ecological problems and population density. He illustrates that the politicized racial problem was sometimes just an excuse to wipe out neighbors who had resources you needed. For example, some areas only had one Tutsi living there, yet during the massacre, Hutus killed many of their own Hutus anyways since there were no Tutsi nearby to kill. The political race bait was just the ‘match to light the keg.’ He compares and contrasts the Dominican Republic’s sustainability efforts with the lack thereof in Haiti, while both share the island of Hispaniola and a history of dictator government.
The book also covers the modern prospering countries of China and Australia that are on the cusp of having major ecological problems in the coming years. Throughout Diamond uses a framework of five factors that contribute to collapse: self-inflicted environmental damage, unanticipated ‘normal’ climate change, hostilities with other societies, friendly trading relations with other societies, and cultural attitudes. I highly recommend the book for those looking for a common sense, apolitical view of ecology in a global world.
2 of 2 people found this review helpful
By Jeff H on 01-15-15
Interesting subject, not as good as GG&S
Interesting and important subject, but I had a really hard time remaining interested in this book. I really enjoyed his other book, "Guns, Germs, and Steel". This one, however, seemed a lot more disjointed. The individual points he covers are interesting to learn, but I frequently struggled to see how they related to each other or to the theme as a whole. Towards the end it started getting very preachy (most of the book is not) and I found a few logical fallacies during his countering of opposing views (mostly "straw man"issues, like picking 2 outrageous false claims by an opponent and countering them against very mild invalid claims from members of his camp). Overall I would say I learned from the book, and it made me examine a few of my beliefs on the subject, but I would have a hard time recommending it to others.
Side note on the performance: overall, the reading was done well. Occasionally, there were major shifts in the tone and intensity of the reader's voice, from a higher pitch and higher intensity level to a softer, smoother voice. It was as though he were steadily getting more forceful in speaking, then ended for the day and resumed in a milder voice the next day. It didn't didn't really detract from the reading, but I was very aware of it each time it happened.
14 of 18 people found this review helpful