Book Review: Collapse by Jared Diamond

Jared Diamond, Collapse, Societies, Civilisation, anthropology, environment, sustainability, book review, bookstagram, science

It’s been a long-held dream of mine to be an anthropologist, so much so that I even seriously considered studying anthropology in college. I still think I could have been one if it wasn’t for my career counselor seriously squashing that dream, advising me that there were no careers and no money in that field. Now that I look back on it, I should have done more research instead of just listening to my counselor who was seriously useless and only ever advocated studying business, law and medicine, fields which I would never go into anyway. Oh, for a dream that might have come true…

But I’m still very much interested in studying cultures and societies, and in particular, ancient cultures and societies, and so it was with great interest that I dove into my July science read – Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive.

In Collapse, Diamond examines several ancient civilisations, from the Mayans to the Easter Island tribes that once raised those enormous stone heads to the Vikings of Norway, particularly those who followed Erik the Red (a terribly nasty sort of dude who had pretty much quarreled with everyone and sounds like he had serious anger issues, which is saying a lot considering that a lot of these Vikings also sounded like they had major anger issues) to Greenland where they tried to eke out a living only to… well, eventually perish. With each of these societies, Diamond applies his five-point framework – human impacts on the environment, climate change, relations with friendly neighbours, relations with hostile neighbours, and the political and cultural identity of the society which influences the way it perceives and handles its environmental issues – to identify why these civilisations eventually failed and collapsed.

And it.is.interesting. And also a little scary to see how people can so quickly turn a blind eye to the environmental issues that are causing the collapse of the society. For example, what were the Easter Islanders thinking as they cut down the very last tree on their island? Did they simply did not care what they were doing to their environment – to their future? Were they so blind as to not see what they were doing or were they just that selfish – was it every man out for himself by then, and who cares about what happens tomorrow or the day after or the year after that? Was it a problem of, as Diamond calls it, ISEP – It’s Someone Else’s Problem?

Needless to say, it is pretty frightening to think that even today, there are people out there who are behave the same way, who fight against the growing evidence of climate change and would happily decimate an entire forest, using the argument of promoting jobs and the economy in the short-term while ignoring the fact that unmanaged and unsustainable deforestation will only create more costly problems, cut more jobs and create irreversible problems in the future.

But it’s not all doom and gloom in this book. Diamond himself addresses this, calling himself a cautious optimist when it comes the future of our planet. He also cites other examples of societies who have taken a firm hand in controlling their environmental problems and in doing so, have managed to make a success of their societies – societies like the Tokugawa Shogunate of Japan, the tiny Pacific island of Tikopia, and Iceland. Then he goes on to look at countries like Rwanda, China and Australia, and the environmental and societal problems these countries have run into and what they are or could be doing now to curb these problems.

Australia, in particular, is a topic of interest for me, having lived in this country for over 10 years. Diamond’s observations are a little dated, the latest edition of this book having been published in 2011. But they are still relevant enough to coincide with current issues. For example, Diamond observes that when the British came to Australia, they were unnerved by the strange, un-European-like characteristics of its flora and fauna, such as the acacia and eucalyptus trees, and sought to clear the land of its natural flora, not just because they were uncomfortable with it but also for agricultural reasons (And, look, when I came here, I was a little unnerved myself by the dry, rather withered looking appearance of bush fauna and found myself yearning for lush green rain forests. In time, though, I got used to it and now I find myself appreciating the look of the Australian bush with all its unique qualities).

The first colonists who came to Australia sought to grow wheat and stock sheep on the land, just as their ancestors did back in their mother country. Of course, Australia not bearing the same climate  and environment as Britain did, they eventually ran into problems with overgrazing, soil erosion and issues with salinization. Even now, through my day job working in the media industry and often covering regional farmer issues, I can see these same problems facing farmers in the Wheatbelt and the fragile line their livelihood balances on – the high costs and the risks that farming often incurs, their battles with the banks on loans, the supermarket supply chains, and the Government, particularly over leaseholds of land. I wonder now what Diamond would make of all this, including the Ord II irrigation scheme here in Western Australia, where thousands of dollars was poured into running expensive water systems in the hopes of farming the land with crops, especially after he had cited the Ord I scheme and its costly problems in his book. Would he see improvements made in Ord II or would there be the same problems again facing the creators of the Ord I scheme?

But again it’s not all gloom here. In Collapse, Diamond wondered if Australians would be able to shed their cultural identity, which causes them to identify so strongly with their distant motherland of England, in favour of identifying more closely with the land they have made their home. As the years go by, Australians are beginning to favour their unique identity more and more, with more voices calling for the creation of a republic, to severe ties with the English monarchy, and a greater emphasis placed on trade relations with their Asian neighbours.

Just this week, the Water Corporation in Western Australia has caused a kerfuffle, calling on residents to tear up their European-style green verges in favour of native plants that would require less usage of water, a precious resource here in a country where 35% of the land is classified as dessert and 70% as arid or semi-arid. (Interestingly, media outlets have provided a list of the suburbs which use the greatest amount of water to maintain their lush green verges, and the top of the list happens to be – surprise, surprise – the richest suburbs, namely the ones who can afford to pay for costly water rates without batting an eyelash.) And in agricultural news, there is a greater push towards sustainable fisheries, not just from the Fisheries Department but also from consumers and restaurants who have voiced a preference for accredited sustainable fishing labels on their products. People are beginning to worry about the effect overfishing has on the oceans and are more than willing to pay the price for sustainable fishing.

There’s still a long way to go, of course. But like Diamond, I am a cautious optimist about our future. And having read Collapse, I feel I am armed with more information, more knowledge which allows me to make my own views and play my own part in looking after the environment and the world that is ours to live in. I highly recommend this book for all budding anthropologists and environmentalists, and for just anyone who is interested in learning about the environment, sustainability and the future of our planet. After all, we’re all in this together, living alongside each other in this global society, for better or for worse, and the fate of our world lies in our hands.

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  1. Pingback: Book Review: Adventures in the Anthropocene by Gaia Vince The Salonniere's Apartments

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