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Book: "Collapse: How Societies Succeed ..." by Jared Diamond

A forum to either submit your own review of a book, video or audio interview, or to post reviews by others.

I was somewhat disappointed with the book

Unread postby ubercynicmeister » Wed 18 May 2005, 19:11:45

Hi all.

I was looking forward to a rollicking good read, after I read some of the reviews, but I found the book disappointing, especially the bit on Australia.

Y'see, I LIVE in Australia, and have a somewhat more intimate knowledge of the place that Jared Diamond indicates.

Sure, we've got dry-land salinity, he was right there, but some of his throw-away lines are downright misleading & display a curious lack of knowledge about Australia, viz:

"Australia was more British than Britain." (he was talking about his first visit to Australia, during the 1960's).

This is simply laughable.

The start of the Australian disgust with Britain happened with the Bodyline series in the 1930's, where one Donald Bradman (a cricketer, and a very famous Australian batsman) was targetted by one Douglas Jardine (a bowler from England) - it was the first formal use of the saying "play the man, not the ball". Jardine was ordered to aim squarely at Donald Bradman's head (instead of the wickets), in order to "take him out".

With a cricket ball travelling at 60 miles an hour, one's brains could VERY effectively concussed.

Donald Bradman, y'see was a fantastically good batsman, and the Poms (Aussie contempt word for anyone of British extraction) did NOT like the idea of continuously losing to "the colonials".

It was so blatant and so obviously wrong, it damn near caused Australia to become a Republic.

The SECOND of the two "incidents" was the humiliating collapse & surrender of Singapore in 1942 - after telling everyone that Singapore was "impregnable", and could "never fall", the surrender of 87,000 Commonwealth troops to 6,500 Japanese soldiers, all of whom had just ran out of ammunition, well, that caused the Aussies to lose ALL faith in Britain.

It was revealed that the "big guns" of Singapore Station were facing the wrong way (ie: away from the enemy, not towards them) and could not be turned around to fire at the attackers. Winston Churchill wrote of it afterwards: "I no more considered that the guns at Singapore could not be turned around that one would launch a battleship without a bottom."

The Aussies jumped on the American bandwagon from 1942 onwards.

Jared Diamond seems not to know this.

The other thing that Jared Diamond tries to do (oddly) is play DOWN the effcts of world-wide climate change (for the LIFE of me, I cannot figure out why, in a book vurtually about climate change).

For example, he notes (hurredly) that the collapse of the Mayans happened "about 1450".

Then, in another chapter, he notes that the collapse of the Greenland Norse "happened about 1450".

Uh, Jared, don't you think that this was due to the same thing?

It seems he wants to push the idea that "all collapses" were due to human stupidity alone, and climate change was just ...well, secondary.

He also seems not to know of the humongous asteroid impact that happened in the late 1400's/ early 1500's off the coast of New Zealand (I will have to look up the links...hang on) which lowered the Earth's temp's at a time when the Earth was already cooling after the extraordnary warming of the period 800AD to 1400AD (when the climate warmed by 4 to 6 degrees C - odd, how "catastrophic climate change" is going to be caused by a 2 degree warming, now).

URL's: Ted Bryant on ABC Australia's Catalyst Science program

I have only read the book once, so p'raps I should not be so hasty, but it's just that he does start talking about a subject I am intimately familiar with - Australia.

We have huge "ecological" problems, yes, but the ...assessments...about Australia are more like the small "cut-back" versions one finds in travelogues issued to tourists who do not plan on reading them.

Anyway, I want to re-read it.
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Unread postby JLK » Sun 05 Jun 2005, 17:27:29

I just finished the book. I enjoyed the historical accounts of failed civilizations such as the Greenland Norse, the Anasazi and the inhabitants of Easter Island. That part was really interesting, and Diamond really did his homework.

I thought that the end of the book was somewhat weak. Analogies between a situation like the last tree being cut down on Easter Island and undesirable modern conditions such as cyanide leaching from old mines just don't do it for me, but that is exactly what Diamond tries to get away with. The latter is a problem, of course, but it hardly threatens our civilization with collapse.

Essentially, then, I enjoyed the book for the facts that it provided but I found the overall contemporary message to be somewhat dubious. Now if Diamond would have spent more time on oil depletion.........
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Book: "Collapese" by Jared Diamond

Unread postby Leanan » Sun 05 Jun 2005, 19:30:41

No, this isn't a book review. I haven't even finished it yet. However, I was struck by something Dr. Diamond said around the middle of the book.

He talks about the likely last days of the Norse who settled Greenland. While it's understandable how some of the smaller, poorer farms died out, how could the largest, wealthiest farms, with huge barns and hundreds of cattle, have failed?

Diamond points to "overcrowded lifeboat syndrome." People respect authority only if those in power can provide for them and protect them in bad times. Once that broke down, there would have been nothing to keep people from overrunning the wealthier farms and looting them.

Starving people would have poured into Gardar [the largest farm], and the outnumbered chiefs and church officials could no longer prevent them from slaughtering the last cattle and sheep. Gardar's supplies, which might have sufficed to keep Gardar's own inhabitants alive if all their neighbors could have been kept out, would have been used up in the last winter when everyone tried to climb into the overcrowded lifeboat, eating the dogs and newborn lifestock and the cows' hoofs as they had at the end of the Western settlement.


Diamond then draws an explicit parallel with unrest in the U.S., and our inability to secure our borders against illegal immigration:

I picture the scene at Gardar as like that in my home city of Los Angeles in 1992 at the time of the so-called Rodney King riots, when the acquittal of policement on trial for brutally beating a poor person provoked thousands of outraged people from poor neighborhoods to spread out to loot businesses and rich neighborhoods. The greatly outnumbered police could do nothing more than put up pieces of yellow plastic warning tape across roads entering rich neighborhoods, in a futile gesture aimed at keeping the looters out. We are increasingly seeing a similar phenomenon on a global scale today, as illegal immigrants from poor countries pour into the overcrowded lifeboats represented by rich countries, and as our border controls prove no more able to stop that influx than were Gardar's chiefs and Los Angeles's yellow tape. That parallel gives us another reason not to dismiss the fate of the Greenland Norse as just a problem of a small peripheral society in a fragile environment, irrelevant to our own larger society. Eastern Settlement was also larger than Western Settlement, but the outcome was the same; it merely took longer.


Rather sobering. Even if we want to "lifeboat" the U.S., will it be possible?
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Unread postby Jack » Sun 05 Jun 2005, 19:45:44

That is a powerful portion of the book....I think we could lifeboat the U.S. I question whether we have the will to do so.

There was an earlier post about the use of a taser on a traffic violator. Do we have the national will to seal the border - and use deadly force to do so? Frankly, I doubt that we do.
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Unread postby Leanan » Sun 05 Jun 2005, 20:03:24

I suspect as times get tougher, people will be more willing to use deadly force. Whether it will work is another story.

This article is about how violence against border agents is increasing:

http://msnbc.msn.com/id/7997408/

Illegals are getting more desperate.

And of course, we really don't know how peak oil will go down. Maybe it will be like "The Day After Tomorrow," with Americans trying desperately to get into Mexico. Or Canada...
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Unread postby holmes » Sun 05 Jun 2005, 20:47:02

Its called cannibalism coming to a theater near you. :)
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Unread postby ehv_nl » Tue 07 Jun 2005, 07:01:02

I suspect as times get tougher, people will be more willing to use deadly force. Whether it will work is another story.


I think the thing to study here is the second half of fourteenth century and the first half of the thirteenth. The middle ages collapsed, so did the population, but old hierarchical structures stayed intact for quite some time. They just turned more brutal than ever before. There were some of the most fierce farmers and lower class uprisings during these times, though..
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what I took from Diamond's book

Unread postby lee » Tue 07 Jun 2005, 10:38:28

Is the importance of cultural flexibility/rigidity.

Under changing or different conditions, is a culture
able to make the behavioural changes necessary
to sustain a civilization. When I look at the US,
the answer seems to be "No."

The biggest cultural change I can think of in the US
is the attitude towards smoking. We have done a 180
on that.

But overall, I don't see Americans willing to make
significant behavioural changes. The Europeans and
the Japanese have managed to do so.

Anyhow, it's an interesting perspective to use when
interpreting global human events in the future.
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Unread postby Revi » Thu 09 Jun 2005, 12:12:37

This was a great book, but shouldn't be used as a prediction of our collapse. It talks about small, islolated societies that collapsed suddenly. Ours may go the route of the Roman Empire. Rome went from a huge city to a small town, but it took 400 years. Things will slowly fall apart.
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I highly recommend it!

Unread postby I_Like_Plants » Sun 12 Jun 2005, 17:23:48

I found it for $20 new in the local mom'n'pop book shop and it's a great read!

He really speaks up for the superiority of hunter/gatherer and smalltime farming+hunter/gatherer cultures over time.

Remember he's the Guns Germs and Steel guy and it's recommended to read that first, because the 2nd book ties in to the first.

I like his explanation of why he things New Guinea tribesmen are smarter than the average Caucasian North American/Western European. He says the New Guinians' having to think on their feet all the time and survive their constant fighting, vs. most Caucasians' having survived by having the genes to survive plagues, makes the New Guinea'ans crafty and mentally (as well as physically) agile while the Caucasians come out a bit dumber but more germ-resistant. I find this funny, and have to agree with his logic, even though most of us have been conditioned to believe a guy standing there in a dirty loin cloth in the mud of a sweet potato farm might not be the sharpest tool in the shed. Au contraire!

The arguement I've taken away from this book is that our modern nation-state is a short-lived type of "civilization" that historically has not survived. Nation-states tend to use up their surrounding resources and die off. Meanwhile, the hunter-gatherers who do a bit of farming or semi-farming (spread seeds and enhance the landscape but are not land-bound) historically have done the best, surviving for tens of thousands of years and perhaps hundreds. The implication is that as a lasting civilization, the modern nation-state is a dead end. We'd better look at how we can live more spread-out, more locally, and more tribally. At most we might live like the Amish, and there is not Supreme Ruler Of The Amish or Amish Army etc.
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Unread postby MD » Sun 12 Jun 2005, 17:30:16

Revi wrote:This was a great book, but shouldn't be used as a prediction of our collapse. It talks about small, islolated societies that collapsed suddenly. Ours may go the route of the Roman Empire. Rome went from a huge city to a small town, but it took 400 years. Things will slowly fall apart.

Comparison to Rome falls apart also. The energy problem is the glaring difference among many similarities. The technological differences are significant also. There is no historical precedent for what the US economy currently faces.
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Unread postby Revi » Mon 13 Jun 2005, 09:03:18

I guess not. We are in trouble. I have been thinking that things could get bad in a hurry in the US. No mass transit, cars that get low miles per gallon, not much of a sense of community. On the other hand, we will get creative in an emergency. Things will change.
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Unread postby julianj » Wed 15 Jun 2005, 15:33:35

I have just finished the book. I think it's essential reading for people on this board.

Although I agree that the global crisis that we face has no precedent in the past, it does seem to me that some of the things that doomed previous societies are here in spades:

Ecological damage, climate change, and ruling castes who are resolutely failing to address the problem.
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Unread postby Tuike » Wed 15 Jun 2005, 15:48:40

julianj wrote:I have just finished the book.


Me too! :) The last chapter was the best. I liked the comparison where environment was compared with a bank account. We are using the money in the account fast and we are soon bankrupt. The name of the finnish language version of the book is "Romahdus". I wonder how many languages the book has been translated to?
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Unread postby Leanan » Mon 25 Jul 2005, 09:15:33

Fascinating as the descriptions of collapse were, the most useful parts of the book may be the descriptions of cultures that have succeeded. It's not easy, but it's possible. There are cultures that have existed sustainably for thousands of years - harvesting, not mining, their natural resources.

The secret? Well, there are many, but probably the most important is population control. Zero population growth is seen as a virtue, and in order to reach it, sustainable cultures practice celibacy, birth control, abortion, infanticide, suicide, and warfare. On one island, the king has declared a maximum population limit, and people are sent off the island if this number is exceeded.

Another thing that struck me...the sustainable societies Diamond describes all lead fairly isolated existences. Most are on islands - New Guinea, Tikopia, Iceland, Japan. Others are isolated by geography, such as the Inuit. I suspect this is not a coincidence. The problem is that if you are leading a low-energy, sustainable existence, and your neighbors are not, they will come over and take your resources with their superior numbers once their own run out. I'm not sure how we are going to keep that from happening.
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Unread postby Doly » Mon 25 Jul 2005, 09:24:21

Leanan wrote:The problem is that if you are leading a low-energy, sustainable existence, and your neighbors are not, they will come over and take your resources with their superior numbers once their own run out. I'm not sure how we are going to keep that from happening.


If there's a global shortage of energy, the problem will solve itself eventually. The unsustainable neighbours are going to fall to pieces.
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Unread postby Leanan » Mon 25 Jul 2005, 09:44:58

If there's a global shortage of energy, the problem will solve itself eventually. The unsustainable neighbours are going to fall to pieces.


Not really. There's no doubt that unsustainable societies collapse. But there's nothing to keep history from repeating itself, and unsustainable societies arising again (or invading from elsewhere). Competition between human groups favors the unsustainable societies - the ones willing to trade long-term success for short-term advantage. That's how we got into this mess to begin with.

I doubt the world will see the rise of the SUV again. But it doesn't take SUVs to destroy the environment. Just ask the Easter Islanders.
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Unread postby rostov » Fri 29 Jul 2005, 02:55:20

Just read half of the book in the library, jumping away from several chapters which we're all aware of already. A few quick thoughts.

Firstly, it's why Tikopia survived. In parallel to Montequest's message on teamspeak + forum on a consensus for ZPG, this island community already gets it. Active abortion / pregnancy prevention methods (fav rave : "Coitus Interruptus") + active killing of babies when born. Volunteer-based suicide, or allowing mass virtual suicide when one clan choose to die rather than be murdered by another clan. I've gotta spend some time digesting this in my quest to answer my own question : "Who and how do we choose the 9 out of 10 that need to be pushed out of a sinking boat?"

The second thing that irked me is this : all this materials on his book, with obvious signs of overshoot in population and resource depletion, and he calls himself an optimist?

Interestingly Richard Heinberg's summary of the book is quite accurate. I like also the fact on amazon that those who bought this book or tainter's book also had the following bought :

Customers who bought this book also bought

* Powerdown : Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World by Richard Heinberg
* The Party's Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies by Richard Heinberg
* Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict With a New Introduction by the Author by Michael T. Klare
* Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change by William Catton
* Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond
* The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of the Oil Age, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century by James Howard Kunstler


A must read for those who really want a waking-up picture of what we're facing right now.
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Re: "Collapse" Jared Diamond

Unread postby Novus » Thu 12 Jan 2006, 21:39:05

This book just came out in paper back and it is an excellent read. This is not just a peak oil book but a Peak Everything book. No conplex society has ever collapsed because of the over exploitation of a single resource be it modern oil or the Trees on Easter Island and Greenland.

Jared Diamond documents the twelve components that lead to societal collapse. The societies of Greenland, Easter Island, Ankor Watt, and Mayan America completely distroyed the entire ecologies their civilizations needed to survive. When people over exploit an ecological system it tends to completely collapse taking the people and civilization with it. Easter Island and Greenland once had lush forests but today are barron rocks in the ocean. The fertile cresent in Iraq, Syria, and Lebonon was once the bread basket of the ancient world. Today it is a desert. The same process that distroyed the ancient civilizations is alive and well today. The ecosystems in Rawanda and Somalia are in a state of ongoing collapse and the human populations are crashing into genocide and dieoff.

The process is also comming to the First World for not even America is immune. He uses the case of Montana which was once one of the richest states because of its vast natural resources but is now the second poorest because of over exploitation. The forests have all either been clearcut or are unhealthy tinder boxes because of poor forest management in harvesting the old growth trees. Montana's 20,000 abandoned copper and gold mines will leach leathal doses or cynide and arsenic into into the water sheds for 100,000 years. Over 90% of the fish in the lakes and rivers are now dead and many ponds have become toxic waste dumps from the mines. The once fertile soil is now encrusted with salt from the distruction of complex root systems. Many wells that once produced clean drinking water now produce water twice as salty as seawater. Montana which was once a great exporter of Timber, Mined metals, and Farm goods is now an inporter of these things. The economy is almost entirely tourism based now with rich people building summer homes where farms once stood. If Montanta were isolated from the rest of the world its' economy and population would have already crashed and died off.

Similar proped up dead zones exist all over the world including Europe, China, India, and Austrailia. Easter Island, and Greenland and others did not die-off all at once but had occurances of dead zones or abandoned farmland and fisheries long before the main die-off. After the oldest exploited lands were abandoned for less spoiled zones the entire ecollogy collapses as the unspoiled areas were quickly distroyed and stripped until there was nothing left but barren rock. The entire earth going through a similar process until it will be completely stripped and left as a dead rock in space.
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Re: 'Collapse' Jared Diamond

Unread postby Graeme » Tue 07 Mar 2006, 02:10:46

Here's another site which reviews "Collapse" and "Guns, Germs, and Steel":

chron

"And he hammers home the idea that we can cut our consumption of natural resources without diminishing our standard of living. "A lot of our consumption is wasteful," he says, pointing out that Germany maintains higher living standards than the United States while consuming half as much oil per capita."
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