Thursday, June 15, 2006


A Preview of Jared Diamond's "Collapse"
By Thomas Riggins

Jared Diamond, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Guns, Germs and Steel, is coming out with a new book called Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. PA will provide, hopefully, a full review when we receive it. Now we have a preview based on Diamond’s huge op-ed summary ("The Ends of the World as We Know Them") – taking up almost the whole page – published in The New York Times on 1-1-05.

Why do some societies thrive and last for thousands of years (Japan) while others die off (the Maya)? This is the question that Diamond sets out to answer. We shall see what he has to say and, most importantly, how relevant it is to our own society.

Reviewing civilizational collapses throughout history (he mentions Easter Island, the Maya, the Polynesian culture on Pitcairn and Henderson Islands, the Anasazi in the American Southwest, the Greenland Norse, Ancient Middle Eastern societies, the Khmer of Angkor Wat, and the Moche of Peru among others), Diamond comes up with five dialectically related factors responsible for the demise of these cultures.

It is important to stress that he is dealing with cultures that died out on their own and not with those that fell victim primarily to conquest or destruction by their neighbors. I say primarily because conquest or destruction could be a secondary factor ending a once prosperous society that became weakened by inherent degenerating factors within the doomed culture itself.

What are these five factors? They are 1) not protecting and taking care of the environment; 2) change in the climate; 3) enemies; 4) problems with your trade partners; and 5) how the culture deals with the irst four factors.

In some cases all five factors will be at work, in others a lesser combination two or three or even one. The Easter Island culture fell primarily due to bad environmental practices, for example. We all know about the giant statues of heads on Easter Island. There was a powerful agricultural society that produced them based on fertile soil protected by thousands of trees covering the island. Over the centuries the islanders cut down all the trees and denuded the island. The fertile soil was lost and the society collapsed.

This was not rational behavior from our point of view – but neither is ignoring the Kyoto Treaty and allowing the ozone layer to deteriorate, or allowing air pollution to increase. We understand that capitalism strives to maximize profits and grow and increase its capacity and markets and will do this because its the nature of the system – it can’t help but destroy our environment because it is motivated solely by the profit motive. What factors were at work on Easter Island? Surely the people recognized that destroying all the trees, leaving only a rocky landscape was fatal to their society yet they did it anyway!

The Maya did the same thing. They denuded their forests in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico and other areas of Central America. The environmental destruction resulted in droughts, soil erosion and the collapse of their civilization. The Maya rulers insulated themselves from the masses whom they exploited. Diamond says the rulers "were able to insulate themselves from the problems afflicting the rest of society." By so doing," the elite merely bought themselves the privilege of being among the last to starve."

There is a lesson here for us as well. The elites of today in their gated communities, their private schools, their private protection agencies are isolated from the rest of society and increasingly uninterested in the public funding of schools, hospitals and police and fire departments.

Diamond gives us a "blueprint" for social collapse. That is if the ruling elite cuts itself off from "the consequences if its actions." Global warming, for example, and other attacks on the environment currently being pursued by US and other capitalist forces may not have ultimately fatal consequences for many decades, or even generations so that by ignoring them now present day elites are ultimately laying the bases for the future collapse of our civilization.

Diamond is more optimistic than this. He sees that America is not responding rationally to the long term problems facing the world. "Historically," he writes, "we viewed the United States as a land of unlimited plenty, and so we practiced unrestrained consumerism, but that’s no longer viable in a world of finite resources." Nevertheless, we have not changed our habits and behavior. The war in Iraq is a case in point. It is driven by the desire to control the world’s oil supplies so we can maintain cheap fuel prices to support an ever increasing pollution based economy.

Why is Diamond optimistic for the future? Because he says that these problems are entirely human made. We can solve all the social problems leading to collapse if we only have the "political will." We can learn from the mistakes of others. This is very optimistic indeed. History may actually be teaching us that the most difficult problems to solve are exactly those that are "man made."

--Thomas Riggins writes a regular column for Political Affairs and can be reached at

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