22 December 2006

Collapse: Light reading on starvation, cannibalism, and death (and a few success stories)

I first read Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel about five years back at the suggestion of my friend O. While I didn't buy into all its arguments - particularly the way he seemed to gloss over the out-sized impact of bovine-based diseases on unexposed populations as compared to porcine- and avian-based diseases of Asia and Melanesia. I also continue to wonder how important it is that wheat provides more protein than other cereal grains when so many older societies (not to mention modern societies) meet most of their protein needs from animal sources. These minor complaints aside, GG&S was a great read that brought Diamond's keen mind and broad knowledge to an ongoing 9000-year-old story.

I picked up Collapse a couple of months back, and after I finished reading DFW's Everything and More(which I recommend to none but those as aspergerlicious as I) I moved it into my lunch-time slot. Whereas GG&S tells the story of growth, expansion, and success, this companion piece tells the story of failure; however, this book kicked its predecessor's ass from here to the New Guinea highlands. Most significantly, gone is much of the ecological determinism from which GG&S suffered. The subtitle says it all: "How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed".

From Easter Island to Greenland, the Yucatan peninsula to modern-day Australia, Diamond weaves a compelling tale of ecological disasters and the resulting societal collapses. What struck me most was how (at least in Diamond's interpretations of events) so many of the collapses happened almost overnight. Reaching a tipping point beyond which their environments could no longer support the weight of their societies, they truly did seem to collapse, rather than slowly decay.

Offering some tales of societies that succeeded, this is happily not a threnody for Mother Earth, but a warning. Diamond's own feelings on our future makes him "a cautious optimist", and after reading Collapse I think I'm in that camp as well.