Sunday, September 04, 2005

BOOK: Jared Diamond, "Collapse"

Jared Diamond: Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive. Penguin, 2005. 0713992867, 0713998628.

I first heard of Diamond in connection with his book Guns, Germs and Steel, which I read last year and enjoyed it very much. It shows how environmental factors such as geography, climate, presence of domesticable species of animals and plants, etc. had a truly large influence on the development of human societies in different parts of the world (e.g. why some areas developed agriculture so much earlier than others, or why technological progress was faster in some societies than in others, etc.). I found this look at human history to be quite refreshing as historians usually don't write about history from this perspective. It was very interesting to see how geography and biology can provide valuable insights to help us better understand the development of human societies.

Thus, when I heard that Diamond wrote a new book, Collapse, again dealing with environmental influences of human societies, I naturally decided to read it as well. Which I did, as soon as I managed to find a paperback copy. Collapse discusses ways in which environmental factors have influenced the decline or collapse of some societies, and how in other examples societies were able to avoid such collapse by deliberatly adapting their activities to cope with the environmental problems. Thus one of the main messages of the book is that the present-day environmental problems shouldn't be ignored (because plenty of examples from both ancient and recent times show that environmental factors can indeed bring about the collapse of a society), and modern societies should instead look for ways in which they need to adapt to address the environmental challenges (as again plenty of examples from history show that it is often possible for a society to adapt in this way, if it chooses to do so). Much like with Guns, Germs and Steel, I enjoyed reading this book a lot, but at times I also felt that I am not as interested in biology and geography as the author perhaps expects some of his readers to be, and so I occasionally felt that the book was giving me more details than I knew what to do with. But this is not really problematic; it doesn't require any effort to ignore details that you aren't interested in, and the book is nevertheless interesting and the main messages not hard to understand.

My favourite parts of the book were the chapter about Easter Island and the one about Viking settlements on Greenland. On Easter Island (ch. 2), people eventually cut all the trees to obtain more land for agriculture; but then they weren't able to build boats for fishing, and agriculture also suffered because of soil erosion; this led to starvation, great decline of population and social upheavals (pp. 108–9). Diamond compared a number of Pacific islands from the point of view of various factors which would tend either to encourage deforestation or to slow it down, and it turns out that Easter Island is more vulnerable to deforestation than most others (pp. 116–8). Deforestation caused a similar collapse on another island, Mangareva (ch. 3), and the population of smaller nearby islands that used to depend on trade with Mangareva died out altogether. Deforestation is usually gradual enough that by the time the last trees are about to be cut, they have long ceased to be of any economic importance, and thus nobody hesitates to cut the last ones down as well (p. 426).

Sometimes problems are caused by variations in climate or the environment. During a sequence of good years, agriculture prospers, population grows and expands into areas less suitable for agriculture; then a sequence of bad years may follow, when it turns out to be impossible to feed the entire population (whereas a smaller and sparser population might have been able to survive in those circumstances; p. 156). Society may be unable to respond to this challenge quickly enough (changing its values, social structures, institutions, etc.), and can be plunged into chaos and collapse. Examples of this can be found among the pre-Columbian agricultural societies of the southwestern U.S. (p. 143). Similar reasons also contributed towards the difficulties of farmers in Australia (p. 384).

Another problem is that people sometimes move into a new environment and try to apply their experience from a superficially similar but actually different environment which they previously inhabited. Examples of this are Vikings moving from Norway to to the apparently similar but actually more fragile Iceland (p. 198) and then to even more fragile Greenland (ch. 7), or Britons moving to Australia (ch. 13; p. 382). In such cases people may inflict excessive damage on their environment before their realize that the soil they have tilled and the forests they have cut won't recover as quickly as in a more robust environment. In Iceland, the inhabitants managed to adapt to their new environment (p. 201), but in Greenland the Norse settlements eventually disappeared. Of course the natural environment is not the only important factor; for example, another thing that helped Iceland in comparison to Greenland was that Iceland was closer to the rest of Europe and thus better able to trade with it (p. 204).

Chapter 5, on the Maya collapses, is also quite interesting. Again the collapse was triggered by deforestation and soil erosion, leaving too little land for too many people, and the authority of the kings crumbled because they were unable to provide rain and food as was expected of them under their traditional social role (p. 170). Apparently, although we usually think of the Maya as living in a tropical rainforest, the climate is actually quite dry during about 1/3 of each year (p. 160).

Chapters 7–8 are about the Norse settlements on Greenland and their decline. Apparently the decline was brought about by a combination of factors. The Vikings' way of life, largely similar to what they had been used to while they still lived on Iceland, was just barely sustainable in the colder environment of Greenland in the first few centuries of the second millennium. It was too cold to grow crops (p. 227), so they mostly relied on raising cows and sheep; during the short summer months they had to gather enough hay to feed the animals while they were indoors during the colder part of the year (pp. 223 4). During the winter they mostly fed on last year's meat and dairy products, but in the spring these had usually run out, while the cattle were too weak to give milk (as they had been receiving so little hay during the winter), so the people had to supplement their diet through seafood, particularly seals (p. 228). Hunting was another source of extra food. All of these things taken together were enough to sustain the population and its way of life, but just barely (p. 231). If any of these things went wrong (a colder summer and thus less hay; or a longer winter, meaning that the reserves of hay wouldn't last until spring; or a poor year for hunting; or if they were unable to go to sea because of the presence of hostile Inuit; etc.), starvation could ensue quite quickly (p. 234). Another problem of the Norse in Greenland was their distance from Europe, which made trade difficult. It would be impossible to import large amounts of food (p. 240). Instead trade focused on expensive items; from their hunting expeditions, they brought walrus tusks, polar bear skins, and gyrfalcons which they could export to Europe (p. 241), and in return imported iron, wood, and various luxury items such as church equipment (bells, vestments, etc.) and consumables for the wealthy people (p. 242).

The factors which caused the decline of Norse Greenland were: colder climate (meaning more risk of starvation, etc.; pp. 266–7), soil erosion (partly due to grazing, partly due to cutting turf for insulation of buildings; p. 254; eventually not enough area was left for pastures), decline of trade (partly because of colder climate and more ice in the sea; partly because of internal problems in Norway and Denmark; partly because of less demand for walrus tusks after African ivory again became available in Europe; p. 267), hostile encounters with the increasing numbers of Inuit (pp. 219, 255, 258; the Norse were rather inclined to be hostile from the very beginning, pp. 261, 265; and the Norse were by then little better equipped than the Inuit, as iron was becoming more and more scarce in Greenland, pp. 251–2),

An important point in all of this is that there are several things that the Greenland Norse could have done, but didn't, to increase their chances of survival (p. 274). They could start eating fish, which they apparently (and amazingly) resolutely refused to do, for reasons unknown (pp. 229–30; and eating fish was in fact normal in Iceland and Norway). They could try establishing friendlier relations with the Inuit and learning from them such very useful techniques as how to catch fish (and a species of seals, called ringed seals, which the Norse didn't hunt) with a kayak and harpoons (pp. 258–9; the boats used by the Norse were clumsier in many ways, and required more wood which was hard to get in Greenland), and how to use seal blubber as fuel instead of wood (p. 250). (Indeed the potential for trade between the Norse and the Inuit seems excellent, but practically no such trade seems to have occurred; pp. 263–4.) They could try importing less of the expensive church-related items and luxury goods, and more useful things like iron and wood. Or they could try importing less stuff altogether and thus also wouldn't have to worry about hunting walrus and bears for export (p. 242); instead they could avoid these risks and efforts, and spend this time hunting for food or visiting the American coast to collect wood and iron (p. 276). But their chiefs, the wealthy segment of their society, had enough influence to prevent this (pp. 236, 276; because of the great interdependence of people given the way of life described above, there weren't any independent farmers; they were all tenants to the few chiefs, p. 239). And it wasn't just the chiefs; the whole Greenland Norse society was very keen to maintain their image of themselves as Europeans and Christians, immitating the latest changes in fashion and architecture, even if this required them to import expensive stuff that they could ill afford, and prevented them from establishing better ties with the Inuit, which could greatly increase their prospects of survival (pp. 246–7). Admittedly, part of the reason why they didn't make any of these potentially life-saving adaptations was that the way of life to which they had been accustomed had indeed worked well enough for them in the first few centuries after their settlement in Greenland, and they didn't want to experiment because most changes were likely to be changes for the worse (p. 236, 274; cf. pp. 201–2 on similar conservatism in Iceland). Their not wishing to give up the institutions such as the chiefs and the Church which gave important cohesion to their society is also in a way understandable (p. 275).

On a more optimistic note, chapter 9 shows several examples of societies that avoided environmental disaster by adopting suitable policies before things got out of hand. Sometimes these are implemented by the people from the bottom up, sometimes they are imposed from the top down by a central authority that controls enough territory to be able to actually address the environmental problems. For example, in the highlands of New Guinea, people started deliberately planting trees to avoid deforestation and erosion, and they also adopted various other sophisticated farming techniques in order to be able to keep on feeding the relatively dense population (pp. 281–2). On the tiny Pacific island of Tikopia, the people adopted careful farming techniques to make as much use of the land as possible (p: 288), sustainable fishing by way of taboos (p. 289), and practiced a number of ways to prevent the population from growing beyond sustainable levels (p. 290). And in 17th-century Japan, the authorities realized the risks of deforestation and the lack of wood and started to promote better techniques for the the cultivation and sustainable exploitation of forests (pp. 300–2).

Ch. 10 is about the recent genocide in Rwanda, and says that in addition to ethnic hatred, one of the important causes of the mass killings was overpopulation (p. 326). For example, in some parts of Rwanda mass killings of Hutu by other Hutu occurred (p. 319), i.e. not due to hatred between different nations.

Ch. 11 compares the fortunes of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which are located on two parts of the same island. For various essentially social reasons, the environmental situation is much worse on Haiti than on the Dominican Republic. Interestingly, the Dominican dictator Balaguer implemented many policies that helped protect the environment (pp. 342–5).

The chapter on Australia is also fairly interesting. When people started moving from Britain to Australia, they also brought to Australia their experience and farming practice from the much different climate of Britain. This resulted in many farming practices that were badly suited to the Australian environment, and were often unsustainable in the longer term (e.g. maintaining more livestock than a certain area could support; p. 399). It isn't always easy for a society to adapt to its new environment, however, as it may require abandoning some of its long-held values and opinions (p. 390), e.g. about land value (p. 393), the importance of farming (p. 394), or about which kinds of animals should be raised and eaten (sheep, not kangaroos; p. 391).

Chapter 15 shows the environmental practices of the oil, mining, and logging industries. One of the reasons why some oil companies are more environmentally conscious than others, and why the oil industry as a general is more environmentally conscious than mining industry, is the fact that consumers buy oil directly from the oil companies and can thus exert pressure on them by not buying from those which they deem too environmentally harmful; on the other hand, there are several layers of intermediate producers and middlemen between a mining company and a consumer, so that the consumer cannot really influence the mining company or show his/her displeasure with its policies (p. 464). (Another reason is that mining is usually less profitable than oil drilling, p. 459; and there is also the problem of prevalent values and attitudes in the mining industry, leftovers from the days of the pioneers and the Wild West; p. 462.) Similar problems exist in the logging industry, although efforts have been made to distinguish environmentally friendly wood and track its use in products, so that environmentally aware consumers could buy products made only of sustainably harvested wood (p. 473–8).

There are many interesting and curious facts in the book. During the years of wartime food rationing, some British biologists apparently supplemented their diet by such things as creamed laboratory rats (p. 105). Or, in 19th-century Nevada: “In effect, the hungry gold miners were eating dried rat urine laced with rat feces and rat garbage” (unknowingly; p. 145). The name of a well-known Maya king translates to “18 Rabbit” (p. 171). I guess the name is derived from his birthday or something like that. But anyway, if one tried translating the names that we use nowadays (insofar as their etymology is known, which it often is), the results would often be nearly as hilarious, and certainly much more absurd. Not to mention those silly new-fangled short made-up names of three or four letters, a single syllable, that are so fashionable nowadays and by and large mean nothing at all (there I go, grumbling away like a decrepit old man again; sigh). On p. 192 there is an interesting parallel between the organization of local churches in Viking societies and the opening of a McDonald's franchise :-). And there is something Freudian in this sentence from p. 217: “Drilling down into the mud at the bottom of a lake or bog may not strike the rest of us as exciting, but it's nirvana for a palynologist”.

A priceless quote from p. 164: “Socially stratified societies [including modern ones] consist of farmers who produce food, plus non-farmers such as bureaucrats and soldiers who do not produce food but merely consume the food grown by the farmers and are in effect parasites on farmers.”

The plates in the middle of the book are well-chosen and the text actually refers to them. This is much better than the plates in my copy of Guns, Germs and Steel, which are simply photographs of people from different parts of the world and do nothing except illustrate the considerable variation in the physical appearance of human beings.

Curiously, I have a paperback copy of this book, ISBN 0713998628, which for some reason isn't available from (at least not directly from them; it's possible that some seller on their marketplace happens to have it for sale at the moment) or indeed from any of the bookstores included on AddAll. doesn't even have a page for it (they do have a page for the U.S. paperback edition; however, according to that page, the U.S. paperback will only be published in December 2005). I bought my copy in one of the bookshops at Stansted Airport. I really don't see why and the other on-line bookshops don't sell the paperback edition if it is already available in the brick-and-mortar bookshops. The book itself, incidentally, is the same size as a hardcover, rather than the size of a typical trade paperback. I'm not terribly happy with this trend of ever-larger paperback formats (and typically the accompanying ever higher prices); one of the nice things about paperbacks is that you can squeeze more of them into a limited amount of space. If you really want a big tome that you can fetishize, you can always get the hardcover.


  • Kirsten Seaver's The Frozen Echo, a book on the decline of Viking settlements in Greenland.


Blogger Quit Smoking said...

Hello fellow fisherman,

Did you know that 16% of the U.S. population goes fishing at least 16 days a year?

Did you also know that over 75% of the nations fishermen do not fish during "prime time"; fish feeding hours?

Those precious few moments before twilight can be absolutely magical. Even up until 11pm at night, the largest predators of any species feed ravenously.

Don't believe me? Check out Daniel Eggertsen's story, and a picture of a couple of his catches here : "Evening Secrets plus more"

I want you to do me a favor and try it out so I can see what you think of it, and if it works for you as well as it did for me.

You will be one of the first to try it out.

Gone Fishin',


Sunday, October 09, 2005 12:24:00 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home