George Santayana's admonition that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it takes on global implications in Jared Diamond's thought-provoking new book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Diamond, a professor of geography at UCLA who won the Pulitzer Prize for Guns, Germs, and Steel, sees disturbing parallels between some once-thriving societies that all but disappeared from the earth and our own. The unwise choices these cultures made when faced with environmental devastation, climate changes and unsustainable population growth hastened their decline, and it is not a big leap to imagine us doing the same on a much larger scale.
This premise hardly makes for light reading, but Diamond is a sufficiently talented writer to make his less-than-upbeat message compelling. He blends anthropology, history and environmental science into a narrative that, though prone to repetition at times, never fails to absorb. As he looks at both ancient and modern societies that abruptly collapsed, he identifies five components, some or all of which brought them to the brink: human damage to the environment, climate change, hostile neighbors, decreased support from friendly neighbors and, most important, how the society responded to these four other factors.
As Diamond explains it, the prehistoric society on Easter Island responsible for those great stone statues that still capture our imagination may have deforested themselves out of existence with a battle of egos among tribal chieftains. The loss of woodlands and climatic changes spelled the end for the Anasazi of the American Southwest. The collapse of the Mayan culture, the most advanced in the pre-Columbian New World, was precipitated not only by environmental damage and climate change, but by a political reality focused on war and the erecting of monuments rather than on solving underlying problems. Diamond is not merely concerned with ancient history, though. He points to modern societies that have collapsed under their own weight, including Rwanda, where Malthusian population growth led to civil war and massive genocide. Closer to home, he writes about insidious problems in contemporary Montana, where a sharp delineation between the haves and the have-nots, and the subsequent rising land values, have all but destroyed the traditional occupations of farming and ranching, while a legacy of environmental destruction by the mining and logging industries further jeopardizes the future. Diamond's prognostications are not all dire, though. He points to Iceland and Japan, both of which have met challenges head-on and succeeded, and he examines the problems facing China and Australia and the different strategies they are adopting to circumvent collapse.
So what does all of this mean for us? A lot, Diamond says. We in the First World can no longer continue to live as if in an isolated fortress. As the world's population increases and Third World peoples aspire to live the way we do (and who can blame them?), we cannot stubbornly hold on to our current living standard of excess and waste. We face tough choices. Because we are rapidly advancing along this non-sustainable course, the world's environmental problems will get resolved, in one way or another, within the lifetimes of the children and young adults alive today, Diamond predicts. The only question is whether they will become resolved in pleasant ways of our own choice, or in unpleasant ways not of our choice, such as warfare, genocide, starvation, disease epidemics, and collapses of societies. After reading Collapse, it is hard to dismiss Diamond's far-reaching arguments. If it gets the attention it deserves, Collapse could have a greater impact than Silent Spring had 40 years ago. At the end of the book, there are some valid suggestions for what individuals can do to make a difference. While all well and good, though, the biggest question remains: how do we get the leaders of the world, the men and women to whom we have entrusted our future, to read, and heed, what Diamond has to say? Robert Weibezahl's novel, The Wicked and the Dead, will be published early this year.