October 10, 2006
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Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, by Jared Diamond
9/10, gripping social histories and not entirely pessimistic modern relevance
I am way behind on reviews, and waffled over whether to write a review of this book at all. After all, it isn’t fiction; what relevance does it have to a writing journal? Its main message is: Stop screwing up the environment if you don’t want to end up a puzzle to archaeologists in a thousand years.
That said, Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel” was not only a great history of how societies become established and spread; it was also a useful tool for world-building. Climate dictates the spread of societies on an east-west flow rather than north-south (because you can cultivate the same crops at roughly the same latitudes), so civilizations in the east-west Eurasian landmass spread and grew, where the north-south orientation of the Americas slowed the growth of the societies that began there. Interesting stuff to know when you’re making up your own world and civilizations.
“Collapse” is similarly helpful. Given the establishment of a civlization, “Collapse” examines the stresses it can fall victim to, and the various responses that affect its survival. With few exceptions, the pattern seems to be: establish a population that is at the limit of what the land’s resources can provide, then get in serious trouble when the limit drops. That drop can happen as a result of climate (decade-long droughts did in the Anasazi and the Mayans) or as a result of transplanted people not understanding the land properly (in Greenland and on Easter Island, overplanting and overharvesting of trees made it impossible for people to survive). There are other factors–many of the societies that collapsed were isolated , but some were not, and Diamond provides a couple instructive examples of isolated societies that survived (Iceland, Papua New Guinea, Japan). Diamond points out that the intertwined effects of globalization in the current century are to eliminate isolated societies by connecting everyone, and to make of this Earth a single society that is more isolated than even tiny Easter Island or remote Greenland.
If you’re building a world, “Collapse” will get you thinking about resource allocation, societal attitudes and traditions, and the tricks a world can play on its people over the course of centuries. Even if you’re not, it’s worth reading for its sober assessment of our current civilization and the reasons for despair, and for hope.