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Fri, 16 Jun 2006

Collapse, How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

— SjG @ 6:32 pm

Jared Diamond, Viking Press, 2005

This book actually took me the better part of a year to read. In his studies of societal collapse, Diamond finds reasons for optimism; in his describing past collapses, it is difficult for me to find any.

Diamond is an engaging writer. With the exception of occasional passages where he throws out lists of numerical data, he paints very accessible pictures of civilizations both past and present.

As a researcher, Diamond loves to create enumerations (“these are the ten factors that determine success of an island society”), and, once he has them defined, he uses the model as fact. While I don’t doubt that he’s researched the factors, I’m not convinced that parameterization of highly complex, open systems is reasonable.

The most though-provoking parts of the book can be summed up by the question Diamond attributes to one of his students: “what did the Easter Islander think as he was cutting down the last tree?” Of course, by the point a single tree is left, it’s far too late to have any meaningful response. But where is the point where response is possible? When is it too late?

Diamond finds reasons to be optimistic. Unfortunately, I don’t feel that his research bears out that optimism. What do we have today that was lacked by the various failed civilizations he describes? It seems to me that we have two things: cheap, abundant energy, and widely distributed information. The former, however, is limited, and may fall into that “last tree” question above, while the information will whither without the energy to sustain its communication. Technology cannot save us without energy to drive it. And has human nature changed? Are significant numbers of people acting in a way that will lead to a sustainable population and way of life in this world? I don’t see it.


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