Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

Reviewed on , book by Jared Diamond

Book about societies that have collapsed over time. Diamond treats each as a microcosm for what can happen to the climate and environment of the planet as a whole. Unfortunately, too many chapters are not interesting enough (or too long).

That said, the chapter especially on the Greenlandic Norse is fantastic. Tells us how Eric the Red was banished from Iceland for manslaughter. He sailed North-West and named Greenland, really as good marketing to attempt to lure others from Iceland. Seriously, who wouldn’t take “Green”-land over “Ice”-land? While that was clever naming, the two settlements on the island were “Eastern Settlement” and “Western Settlement”—both in Western Greenland. A bit of a blunder, as several ships from Scandinavia went to look for the larger Eastern Settlement in Eastern Greenland and had to turn back, not finding any trace of people (only walruses and polar bears). They completely wrecked the environment there, insisting on preserving their European identity through raising pigs, sheep, and cattle instead of embracing seals or other sources of food available to them. Ultimately, clinging to this, rather than embracing the inuit way of life, could not sustain them and the rich stratum of society only earned themselves the privilege of being the last to die. Fun side-note, since timber was so scarce they occasionally rowed across the pond to the New World (Labrador/New Foundland) to chop down some wood. However, at times, they were too lazy (or.. starved?) to make this journey and resorted to e.g. walrus baculum (penis bone) as axe handles as a replacement. Turns out it’s really perfect for that sort of thing, I know now, because I bought one to confirm this (story for another time).

Unfortunately, many other chapters were forgettable. It’s clear the forrest control has played a major factor for the survival of many nations (Japan and Germany are, apparently, good examples of this). It’s difficult to think long-term with most political systems, Churchill’s stance on democracy as the best-worst, etc. etc.

The last chapter is pretty dark when you consider this book was written more than a decade ago, where you might expect things to be a little lighter than it looks now. There were moments in this book that felt emotional. Because, ugh, is Climate change scary and hard to fully wrap your head around the long-term ramifications of without going to a dark place. When you consider these small islands around the Pacific and how their lack of climate prudence caused them to attempt to create the most desperate 30 x 30 inch gardens protected by rocks to try to grow something, it doesn’t take much imagination to scale up that dire picture to mass-movement of people that’ll make the Refugee Crisis in Europe look like nothing.

If you want to pick this up, read these chapters (and skip the rest): Montana, Greenlandic Norse, Easter Island, forrest management in Japan/Germany, China, and all of Part Four which is mega-scary that draws on all these rich examples.