Collapse, by Jared Diamond (12/107)

Same dude who won a Pulitzer for Guns, Germs, and Steel — and I can see why they’re reluctant to give him a second one, but really, this is the book that should have earned him that.

Let’s rewind and talk about Guns, Germs, and Steel first. In short, it’s taking the “Why?” game back to a paleobotanical level.

Why did the west (re: Europe) come to enjoy the global hegemony that it does? His thesis: because the west had guns (but why did they develop guns sooner?), germs (why were their germs so much deadlier?) and steel (why didn’t other places make steel?). Pseudo-science historians and anthropologists for centuries have tended toward theories of racial determinism — higher intelligence, greater ambition, “the Protestant work ethic,” etc — as being responsible for Europe’s success. Jared Diamond says “LOL NO, actually it was wheat.”

He goes on to prove that thesis methodically and at interminable length, until you are exhausted and begging for mercy, but prove it he does. The Fertile Crescent won the toss for “cereal crop best suited to human cultivation and consumption” and no one else ever had a chance. He goes on to do the same thing for domesticated animals; if you’ve ever wondered why nobody in the real world rides on bears and zebras and flying stingrays like in Warcraft, Jared Diamond will tell you.

The theme he explores in both his books is how human society is shaped by (and sometimes created and destroyed by) environmental factors, and for anyone doing world-building, that understanding is essential. It’s what will give you internal consistency, where your physical geography matches the human agriculture sitting on top of it; where you know what confluence of resources allowed civilization to spring up where it did; why your dominant cultures are dominant, and why your weaker cultures couldn’t compete; and, if you’re so inclined, how to plausibly write a society of wolf-riding warriors. (Oh aye, it can be done.)

If GG&S was about how civilizations are born, then Collapse is about how they die. It’s just as valuable for world-building, and given that his thesis doesn’t revolve around wheat, a lot more interesting. He examines a handful of premodern civilizations that built themselves up and then collapsed (Easter Island, Norse Greenland, the Mayans, and the Anasazi), which makes each subsection of the book its own little mystery. Why did the society on Easter Island — sophisticated enough to build the massive moai statues — fall apart? Plenty of other Polynesian island societies are thriving to this day. Why did the vikings who settled Greenland die out? Iceland and the Faeroese Islands colonies did just fine, and moreover, the Inuit kept on living Greenland for centuries after the vikings were gone, proving that humans were perfectly capable of surviving there.

Obviously you’d have to read the book to get his full nuanced analysis, but his general methodology is to compare societies on what he calls his five-point framework, the factors that he has identified as contributing to a culture’s demise or survival:

– Environmental damage, which encompasses both what people do and how well-equipped the land is to recover from it. Some environments are extremely resilient and can regenerate faster than humans can use up the resources, particularly if the human population is low. Other places, once you cut down a forest, it’s not growing back, ever.

– Climate change of all sorts. Both short term and long term fluctuations, getting hotter or colder or wetter or drier or anything requires a society to change the way they’ve been doing things to accommodate for different conditions. (As Diamond observes in many places, a few years/decades of excellent weather can be as dangerous as a decade of bad weather, because it encourages societies to expand past what the area can usually support, so as soon as that spell of good weather is up, everyone starves.)

– Hostile neighbors. Diamond draws the distinction between proximate causes of a collapse (the straw that breaks the camel’s back) versus ultimate causes (all the other straws), and hostile neighbors are often a proximate cause, but usually not the only one. Societies weakened by other factors are the ones vulnerable to military defeat.

– Decreased support by friendly neighbors — particularly if your society has become dependent on some resource that is mostly or entirely an import. (cough cough, OIL) Historical examples that he talks about are wood and iron, both of which Norse Greenland was entirely reliant on European traders to bring them, whenever they could be arsed to sail all the way out to Greenland. When the oceans got colder and that route became more dangerous and less profitable, those ships stopped sailing and Greenland was, to use the technical term for it, boned.

– Societal response to problems. This is ultimately the most important one, because as Diamond himself is at pains to point out, his book isn’t arguing environmental determinism. A society is not doomed to failure no matter how marginal the land they’re living on, provided they can learn how to live within their means. Conversely, the most abundant and fertile land on the planet can get devastated by poor husbandry, and often has been. (Fertile crescent: not so fertile these days.) Though again, he doesn’t just chalk it up to “Some people suck and some people don’t,” he breaks down what the successful societies had in common (often a strong central government) and why their particular circumstances allowed them to notice and address incipient environmental problems before they advanced past the point of no return.

***

Both GG&S and Collapse are hard books to review, because Diamond dumps a simply staggering amount of information on you, and it’s easy to get lost in the details and miss the themes running through all these historical narratives. (Too many trees; can’t get a feel for the forest.) I feel like I’d need to reread them both to really internalize a lot of the principles he’s trying to get across, but even if I never find my way back to these books again, they’ve already given me a much broader perspective on the interconnectedness of civilization and the environment, and the ways that both can change over time.

4 thoughts on “Collapse, by Jared Diamond (12/107)

  1. Good review. Collapse is wonderful, but depressing. I’ve reread both books a couple times and still can’t describe them beyond going off on really long tangents about the benefits of east-west geography, as opposed to north-south, on crop spread.

  2. Indeed. Usually I’m not too convinced by the epigram “Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it” — we’re going to repeat it anyway, because humans learn from their own mistakes, but not often the mistakes of others — but if ever we were going to recognize the trouble in the wings and head it off at the pass (to mix my metaphors), it would be when someone like Jared Diamond is there to spell it out for us.

    Incidentally, do you know of anyone who’s done a similar sort of overview-work on what causes certain political institutions to arise the way they do? I think we in the modern world tend to view representative democracy as the natural progression of civilization, but the backtracking that the Roman Empire did puts paid to that idea.

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