Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond

I collapsed after reading this. What a slog. Good, but dense, detailed, and darn long. I don't particularly care for Jared Diamond's writing style. He's detailed, scholarly, and repetitive. There is so much information I had to take frequent breaks and snatch some quick reads in-between chapters. I almost abandoned it a few times but then I'd find a different chapter interesting and get hooked again. Diamond has solid arguments for explaining why societies collapse and while fascinating, he's overly detailed in spots - at least for me. His thesis shows five factors that influence the collapse of a society: environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbors, decreased support by friendly neighbors, and society's response to environmental problems. The book is full of great information and I can see recommending students to read certain chapters, but not the whole shebang - unless they are persistent readers.

Many of the societies he examines collapsed because of their fragile environments. While Diamond doesn't play judge and is sympathetic toward those who made decisions that were wrong and caused the downfall of their societies from ancient to modern times, he is judgmental against those who obviously don't care about the environment, who "rape-and-run" making quick cash and leave environmental disasters for citizens and governments to clean up. He balances this analysis of greedy businesses with stellar businesses whose good practices show how everyone can benefit when a company creates a product that respects the environment.

"Environmental determinism" looks at the physical environment such as climate and geography trying to determine how it affects societies. This concept has had negative press over the years and has led to some people using racism or superiority of intellect over other cultures based the oppressor being smarter than the suppressed group of people. Diamond is always refuting this and he also takes his studies further looking at multiple aspects of a hypothesis that include climate, geography, botany, science, economics and more. It is one reason his books are so dense and slow to read. But they are fascinating and require thoughtful reflection.

He has quite a few great quotes and I would have expanded on them if my Nook eReader hadn't deleted all my highlights. I will try to remember some from my bad memory. The genocide in Rwanda was a product of land disputes, deforestation, exports, and too many people living in extreme poverty. There was a direct correlation between starvation and increased crime. Diamond explains how the ethnic violence was not based solely on ethnic hatred but tied in with land disputes. The argument is compelling and interesting. Australia's fragile environment is a great chapter to read as well.

Diamond discusses the rarity of a leader who has the courage to anticipate a potential problem and take steps to solve it before it becomes a crisis. "Such leaders expose themselves to criticism or ridicule before it becomes obvious to everyone that some action is necessary." Think of all the leaders you've come across in your life that surround themselves with people that tell them what they want to hear. The ability to listen to criticism and use it constructively and not be corrupted by power is not the norm.

I thought "Collapse" and "Gun, Germs, and Steel" both had first chapters that were hard to get through. This one is too detailed on Montana and slowed the pacing. The ancient societies that collapsed were not quite as interesting as the modern ones as his analysis is more complex because he has more information to prove his hypothesis. The author is quite brilliant and worth reading.

3 Smileys

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