Diamond: Collapse

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Jared Diamond, Collapse : How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York : Viking, 2005. 575 pages.

Diamond attacks the question about how societies choose to fail or succeed head on, spending most of book examining in detail societies both modern and ancient, mostly those that have failed but some that have survived for long times. How did Easter Islanders manage to deforest their island completely? What drove away the inhabitants of ancient pueblo dwellings in America's southwest? Why did the Maya civilization disappear? Why did the Inuit settlement in Greenland survive while the Viking colony did not? How has the civilization of New Guinea's highlands lasted so long? What went wrong in Australia with imported sheep and rabbits?

The questions are big and getting a sense of the answers takes time and attention. Diamond looks at each example with substantial attention and substantiating detail, while still keeping his focus on the main theme. The bulk of the book is detailed societal case histories, with the last 15% devoted to summing up and looking for patterns and lessons. His viewpoint is largely environmental, no doubt because of his professional history, but he makes clear the notion that environmental problems can be big, threatening problems that require an entire society to solve.

The prevailing mystery seems to be: how can a society not take the necessary steps to sustain its environment when its survival depends on it? It's a serious question with modern application. No doubt some with an anti-environmentalists would like to dismiss Diamond's book as advancing "an agenda", but his writing is unusually cool and objective, his vocabulary neutral as he works through his material.

Indeed, this is a large book, but that is because Diamond has so much information to present to support his thesis, and he presents it in a well-organized way. Diamond's writing is clear and serviceable, but not approaching scintillating. I have to admit that my attention flagged in one spot, but such is his clarity of purpose that the book can be read as time and interest permit without losing the thread of the argument.

An excerpt:

Some readers may be disappointed or outraged that I place the ultimate responsibility, for business practices harming the public, on the public itself. I also assign to the public the added costs, if any, of sound environmental practices, which I regard as normal costs of doing business, like any others. My views may seem to ignore a moral imperative that businesses should follow virtuous principles, whether or not it is most profitable for them to do so. I instead prefer to recognize that, throughout human history, in all politically complex human societies in which people encounter other individuals with whom they have no ties of family or clan relationship, government regulation has arisen precisely because it was found to be necessary for the enforcement of moral principles. invocation of moral principles is a necessary first step for eliciting virtuous behavior, but that alone is not a sufficient step.

To me, the conclusion that the public has the ultimate responsibility for the behavior of even the biggest business is empowering and hopeful, rather than disappointing. My conclusion is not a moralistic one about who is right or wrong, admirable or selfish, a good guy or a bad guy. My conclusion is instead a prediction, based on what I have seen happening in the past. Businesses have changed when the public came to expect and require different behavior, to reward businesses for behavior that the public wanted, and to make things difficult for businesses practicing behaviors that the public didn't want. I predict that in the future, just as in the past, changes in public attitudes will be essential for changes in businesses' environmental practices. [pp. 484—485]

-- Notes by JNS

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