As we see more and more outcomes of what were only formerly predictions, more and more people are fearing what lies ahead, I found Collapse, a research-based book describing how past civilizations on Earth have flourished then collapsed and vanished.

The intent:

Elucidate a set of principles that caused those societies to collapse … so that we might learn how we might avoid a similar outcome.

The book is thick, with researcher-like long compound sentences and half-page paragraphs.  But the data is solid, not “doom-and-gloom.”  And does include positive suggestions for avoiding collapse.  Because of its length, and the amount of useful data, I’ll provide my summary of key points in three separate blogs.  I’ll add comments after the third blog.

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                                                            Jared Diamond

(Part 1 of 3)

This first segment focuses on an historic look at why some past civilizations collapsed and disappeared.  Rather than seeing the information as advocating for or against current policies, it’s simply an attempt to learn underlying causes, to enable us to make wiser decisions about problems we’re facing today.


P. 6: It has long been suspected that many of those mysterious abandonments we at least partially triggered by ecological problems: People inadvertently destroying the environmental resources on which their societies depended.  This suspicion of unintended ecological suicide–ecocide–has been confirmed by discoveries made in recent decades by archeologists, climatologists, historians, paleontologists, and palynologists – (pollen scientists).  The processes through which past societies have undermined themselves by damaging their environments fall into eight categories, whose relative importance differs from case to case:  deforestation and habitat destruction, soil problems (erosion, salinization, and soil fertility losses), water management problems, overhunting, overfishing, effects of introduced species on native species, human population growth, and increased percapita impact of people.

Those past collapses tended to follow somewhat similar courses constituting variations on a theme.  Population growth forced people to adopt intensified means of agricultural production (such as irrigation, doubled-cropping, or terracing), and to expand farming from the prime lands first chosen onto more marginal land, in order to feed the growing number of hungry mouths.  Unsustainable practices led to environmental damage of one or more of the right types just listed, resulting in agriculturally marginal lands having to be abandoned again.  Consequences for society included food shortages, starvation, wars among too many people fighting for too few resources, and overthrows of governing elites by disillusioned masses.  Obviously, though, this grim trajectory is not one that all past societies followed unvaryingly to completion:  different societies collapsed to different degrees and in somewhat different ways, while many societies didn’t collapse at all.


P. 7: The environmental problems facing us today include the same eight that undermined past societies, plus four new ones: human-caused climate change, buildup of toxic chemicals in the environment, energy shortages, and full human utilization of the Earth’s photosynthetic capacity.  Most of these twelve threats, it is claimed, will become globally critical within the next few decades:  Either we solve the problems by then, or the problems will undermine not just Somalia but also First World societies.  If this reasoning is correct, then our efforts today will determine the state of the world in which the current generation of children and young adults lives out their middle and late years.

Will modern technology solve our problems, or is it creating new problems faster than it solves the old ones?  When we deplete one resource (e.g., wood, oil, or ocean fish), can we count on being able to substitute some new resources (e.g., plastics, wind and solar energy, or farmed fish)?


P. 8: We know that some past societies collapsed while others didn’t: what made certain societies especially vulnerable?  What, exactly, were the processes by which past societies committed ecocide?  Why did some past societies fail to see the messes that they were getting into, and that (one would think in retrospect) must have been obvious?  Which were the solutions that succeeded in the past?  If we could answer these questions, we might be able to identify which societies are now most at risk, and what measures could best help them, without waiting for more Somalia-like collapses.


P. 10: Some societies that I shall discuss, such as the Icelanders and Tikopians, succeeded in solving extremely difficult environmental problems, have thereby been able to persist for a long time, and are still going strong today.

I don’t know of any case in which a society’s collapse can be attributed solely to environmental damage:  there are always other contributing factors.  Eventually I arrived at a five-point framework of possible contributing factors that I now consider in trying to understand any putative environmental collapse.  Four of these sets of factors – environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbors, and friendly trade partners – may or may not prove significant for a particular society.  The fifth set of factors – the society’s responses to its environmental problems – always proves significant.


P. 17: If environmentalists aren’t willing to engage with big businesses, which are among the most powerful forces in the modern world, it won’t be possible to solve the world’s environmental problems.

(This last statement is incredibly significant.  If environmentalists and big businesses vie for control, they’re playing a zero-sum game in a non-zero-sum situation.  The outcome is invariably lose-lose.)


Next week, Part 2 of 3.

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