ISBN: 0670033375, 9780670033379
There are many societal arguments that preoccupy modern American and worldwide issues affecting the globe today that have yet to be resolved. One of these arguments regards human society and its, largely negative, impacts on the planet. Global warming, air pollution, unclean water, as well as, environmental anomalies like drought, floods and diminishment of needed resources, like oil, are constantly being debated. As it stands, the many governments, like the United States, refuses to agree upon whether global warming even exists. If the problems are not being taken seriously or simply disregarded, then no solutions and no change can ever be accomplished. While many human societies today are highly advanced, productive and technologically superior, this will not save them from the fact that there have been many societies that have existed, who thrived and were, also, considered to quite advanced for their time that have fallen all across the globe throughout human history. The bigger they are the harder they fall and there is every possibility that modern societies, including the United States could face a similar fate. Pulitzer Prize winning author, Jared Diamond, in his book, “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fall or Survive,” details how many successful cultures failed to see the warning signs and as surely as they had thrived they, literally, fell apart; in most cases this collapse would result in the loss of an entire cultures. Diamond argues that today despite our technology and scientific understanding, the signs are being ignored and, the United States is no exception, may face the same fate. Many of the key factors Diamond feels that signify such a potential collapse are beings seen all over the world today.
Diamond is suggesting a concept that essentially can be defined as “ecocide.” This is the term to describe when civilizations, knowingly or not, make destructive decisions about the environment that will inevitably result in the “death” of that ecosystem and, in turn, bolsters the collapse of the given society. Diamond spends a large portion of the book discussing some of the most notable civilizations that were rich and advanced, for their times, that have fallen due to the acts that lead to ecocide and historically seems to keep repeating itself throughout time (30).
Easter Island is a small island in the South Pacific and Ranu Raruku is an ancient quarry site that surrounds a volcano. No one resides on the island now, but at one time it held a successful and advanced civilization. They are believed to have been responsible for the carving of hundreds of statues, some more than 20 feet high each showing the head, shoulders, and sometimes torsos of human beings. There are dozens of theories to explain what happened to the culture who built them, after all they must have had fairly advanced tools to carve and erect these monolithic statues. However, they peoples had simple boats and were very much restricted to the island. Over the years as the population grew the resources of the entire island were stretched too thin and society would collapse (89-92).
The Anasazi were ancient Native American people who lived in what is today the Southwestern United States on one side and stretching to what is today approximately 600 miles from Los Angeles, California. The Anasazi did not have a form of writing, therefore understanding much of the lives and culture remains a mystery. In the case of the Anasazi when their society began to collapse and their lands unproductive, they were absorbed in to a number of other native tribes, but as an individual culture the Anasazi’s time had come to an end (146-148).
The Mayan Civilization fell more than a thousand years ago. The Mayan people lived on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and spread into parts of South America. The Mayan had a rich tradition, built grand structures, like great pyramids reminiscent of those found in Egypt. These are the only things left of the great civilization and are visited by tourist from all over the world. There vast cities and cultural history was salvaged because descendents of the Maya are still alive today. Unfortunately, however, as an independent culture, like the Anasazi, was over. It is uncertain that any one event or the combination of many brought down the Mayan Empire. There is a theory that the large cities that made of the Mayan populations had grown too large to meet the needs of the society, others feel that it was a natural disaster like an earthquake or volcanic eruption and then there are others that argue that it may have been due to a drought that struck the era (167-169).
All of these societies were quite “modern” for their era and each and every one fell and did not recover. Diamond’s detailed explanations regarding these lost civilizations downfalls are succinct and scientifically supportable warning to the modern era to avoid the same from happening at present and in the future. Again, Diamond’s overall theme appears to be that without acknowledging the past, without being accountable to key issues in the present and no alternatives and changes are embraced, the humanity all over the globe will be doomed to repeat them.
Diamond spends a large part of his work on discussing not just through historical examples, but through potential examples in the modern world. Australia presently struggles with the fact the livestock, specifically sheep, brought originally from Britain may have had a damaging overall impact on the country. They are also struggling with the effects of mass mining operations. There rate of need and export have by far exceeded the ability of the Earth to renew those resources in Australia (388-390). However, there is still hope for countries like Australia and the United States. In the past, Japan struggled with the environmental issues of deforestation, soil erosion and infertility, they made efforts throughout the 17th and 18th centuries acknowledging and already taking measures to protect the vitality of their homeland. (287-290). America, despite its advancements is still in an incredible amount of danger and face the threat of future potential collapse as any of these aforementioned countries past or present (12-14).
It should be noted that the civilizations that fell in the past did not know or understand the negative environmental impact they were having on the environment. For example, the man that cut down the last tree on Easter Island did not know what it meant to lose all of the trees (33). They did not know that food, both animals and plant life, were fragile and limited resources, that if overexploited are going to disappear. Today modern civilizations all have a clearer understanding of how pollution is caused, why many ecosystems fail, living things go extinct, and that much of that damage are entirely attributable to human beings; yet so little has been done on a global scale to change it (66). Without change it appears likely that humanity may still be on a path to complete and total collapse.
As dire as Diamond’s historical examples and potential outcomes in the future paint a rather dark and gloomy image of the world that future generations of human beings will be surviving within he does not conclude the book with biblical “Revelations” or any other predictions of an apocalypse. Instead he offers up a refreshing dose of hope (450). He discusses that the alternatives that are being offered as substitutes to modern energy needs, like wind and solar energy, both of which are consistent and sustainable resources and are a fantastic step to beginning a process of positive change. Human beings may need to readjust their priorities and look more closely at the impacts of their actions and begin embracing revolutionary green technologies and more environmentally friendly options when they are made available (519). However, if these warnings are not heeded, if the signs and symptoms are ignore and if no changes are made then the collapse, as seen in the past, will happen again.
Many critics of Diamond’s views, and the people who share his perspective, argue that works like this are not valid; they are just “fear-mongering” and exaggerating minor issues into being something horrific, which they are not. These are the people who deny the severity of the human environmental impact. These are the same people who, despite provable facts, believe that global warning does not exist. Diamond response to criticism is to turn it back onto the opposition. There are many historians and interested parties who have argued that the rise and fall of civilizations is a part of history; the stronger conquer the weak and new nations rise in their place. They feel there are far greater contributors to the fall of civilizations than the negative environmental impact of human communities on the environment that they live. Diamond explains that today there are many people who perceive the kind of change that is required, the hard work necessary to implement such changes and, of course, the monetary value of loses that would accompany such changes is, simply, just too inconvenient to the comfortable lives people are current enjoying (470). This lackadaisical regard for genuine environmental issues and the seriousness of these impacts is what will, ultimately, be the inactions that lead to the collapse of society as we know it.
In the United States and all over the world we see the evidence of society’s negative impacts on the environment every day. Species driven to extinctions in rainforests destroyed before ever explored, water that is polluted and is unsafe to touch, let alone drink, and places becoming stripped of natural resources. On a grander scale, we see Nature’s response to some of these impacts, as well. We see it in the melting of the polar ice caps, the degradation of the ozone layer, earthquakes on record scales, tornados in places never impacted by tornados before, and storms of such vast proportions that it can submerge and collapse entire cities (209). Naturalists will tell you it is all connected. Human beings as a species may be clever, intelligent, adaptable and technologically advanced, but we are still at the mercy of the world around us, to the natural balances that keep it functioning and to the devastating environmental impacts that imbalances seem to inevitably cause (20). Diamond has laid out a very sound argument, presented competent historical proof and makes modern day connections that are difficult to ignore or disregard. He is showing us the mistakes that have been made, the things that were overlooked and how so many of those same things are happening in the world today.
Ultimately, Diamond ends his book with two very distinct conclusions for the reader to consider. If changes are made then the civilizations of the modern world have a chance of surviving collapse and may likely thrive well into the future. However, if modern civilizations options not to see the signs, not to believe the science presented and refuse to make changes with the environment, its resources and our interconnected livelihood, then, like many civilizations, long before, will fail, will collapse and there will be no one else to blame but ourselves, as societies, civilizations and as a species. The author is essentially telling mankind all across the globe that there is a “choice” to be made. A civilization can choose to change or they may choose not to; the consequences of the latter are outcomes most societies would like to avoid. Diamond’s work is a very worthwhile read and presents many valid questions, succinct examples, detailed comparisons and realistic solutions to real life and serious issues, which may act as the “wake-up call” that people today are in desperate need of.
Diamond, Jared. “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed” Viking-Penguin. (2005):