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18 May 2005

I've finally finished reading Jared Diamond's hefty new bestseller Collapse – and like its author, I don't know whether to hope or despair. I've been plowing through Diamond's analysis of environmental and social disasters at the same time that Elizabeth Kolbert's three-part series on global warming has been running in The New Yorker. Together, Diamond's and Kolbert's analyses are apocalyptic: unless something drastic is done, our species will soon succumb to its own out-of-control depredations upon the planet. But Diamond, unlike Kolbert, sees a fair amount of hope in the situation. Central to Collapse is the countervailing theme that past and present societies – and even past and present multinational corporations – have been able to solve environmental problems and undo environmental damage.

Like his late and former Natural History columnist colleague Stephen Jay Gould, Jared Diamond writes about the entire scope of human and physical nature. Everything is interlinked for Diamond, totally consilient. Diamond himself is "only" an ornithologist, but in the course of studying birds in Southeast Asia and Oceania, he has observed a bewildering assortment of social systems and economic strategies, and has experienced human impacts on the environment ranging from the Australian outback and the remote rainforests of New Guinea all the way to the ultra-urbanized settings of Indonesia and California. He writes with confident authority on a range of topics that would be hard for most of us to keep in mind, much less synthesize into a general argument.

But generalize he does, with great clarity. Diamond surveys famous examples of societal collapse from the past: Easter Island, the Anasazi civilization of the American Southwest, the Maya, Norse Greenland. Broadly speaking, all these failures involved a convergence of environmental factors and cultural reactions (or failures to react) to them. Diamond is especially interested in island cultures that have collapsed (Easter, Pitcairn) or survived (Tikopia, Tokugawa Japan) – and in trying to discern factors that lead to failure on the one hand or success on the other. In a globalized society, Diamond notes, we are all on the same island, Earth. It's a little bigger than classic islands, and its problems are of a different scale. But no subgroup can exempt itself from the problems of the rest of the island. The United States today, and its microcosmic suburban gated communities, preserve "the attitude of those Greenland Norse chiefs who found that they had merely bought themselves the privilege of being the last to starve" (520).

But just as we've brought on our environmental problems, Diamond notes that we can solve them ourselves. What we need most is a sense of community responsibility. Diamond observes that many environmental disasters – overfishing, overlogging, soil erosion – are examples of the "tragedy of the commons." A resource is out there for the taking. We should husband it and keep it renewable. But why husband it if someone else is going to simply grab and exhaust it? Why not exhaust it first and at least get some advantage out of it?

Yet governments and entire cultures have frequently, in the past, taken on seemingly intractable problems and reversed the course of impending disasters. China drastically slowed its population growth. Leaded gasoline is gone from American pumps and cigarettes have disappeared from our hospitals, classrooms, airplanes, and even bars. Faced with massive deforestation and the collapse of essential ecosystems, the populations of island nations like Iceland, the Dominican Republic, and Japan have adopted either broad-based democratic or insightfully autocratic solutions to their problems. There's some hope that the residents of Island Earth can do the same.

Diamond, Jared. Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed. NY: Viking, 2005.