Review of "Collapse"

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

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Jared Diamond starts off with one star and an uphill battle since I thought GG&S was shameless profiteering from a pamphlet sized idea. That's prejudice for ya, folks! Don't worry though, my convictions are just as ductile as they are forceful. I'll be happy to eat these words later, like always.

Ok it's later...

I have warmed to Diamond's presentation somewhat, though I still think it a flaw to expand this idea to 500 page format. Lots of the details are fun if you're not in a hurry so I was going to let that cricicism go until late in the book we were treated to a comprehensive list of every baseball player from the Dominican Republic ever to make it in the big leagues. To no useful end, it is surely superfluous to add? Really, Jared? This book requires more skimming than anything, ever.

Tainter's Collapse is a great foil for this book. Here, I'd like to consider Greenland only, just as a case study, sort of comparing Tainter & Diamond's themes. While Diamond describes a panoply of factors and their various interactions, the short story is: they starved to death. My question is why the settlements collapsed catastrophically instead of finding a lower equilibrium within the carrying capacity of their environment?

As with Tainter, "control systems" provide an interesting insight that instability requires some kind of net "bad" feedback in order to run away out of control. Development of such instability is abetted by delays and momentum. There are fancy terms for these that I'll eschew, but you can imagine the effects of delay in noticing the trees are running out: you get "surprised" by a challenging problem. The basic question is how, in the face of diminishing returns on (technological) investment, population doesn't level off instead of collapsing? In microcosm of Greenland, I think Diamond makes a pretty good case for a terminal crisis.

In some good expansion years, population could rise while an insidious debt is being incurred, "flaying the outfield" for sod homes faster than it can be renewed, clear cutting timber, and raising sheep and cows that further degrade the turf. The population, their homes, their animals all represent the momentum needed to carry the economic balance between the Vikings and their environment from "challenging" over into "desperate." I describe it as "momentum" because you NEED those animals for cheese & meat, turf is NEEDED for fodder and homes, and so these are commitments from which you can't easily turn aside if the grass runs out. So, in the space of a couple of bad years, maybe precipitated by an atypical snowstorm, a crisis arises, the stock get gobbled and everybody dies.

Why did the Greenland Norse not see trouble coming and reduce their demands on the environment? Did they have no foresight at all? Here's a three part answer to that.

(a) tragedy of the commons (selfishness trumps global foresight),

(b) foresight's actually difficult to come by. (hey does America operate on a balanced budget, reducing the debt in "sunny" years? We STILL have no foresight, or at least don't act on it.) and

(c) well, no actually they really didn't see it coming: they didn't understand carrying capacity or soil erosion & so would have more vague ideas of impending environmental crisis.

He titled the book "how societies CHOOSE to fail or succeed," but I don't think it was all that conscious a choice.

Another thesis one could explore in this book is: "Religion takes the cheese, even if everybody starves." This is perhaps a more understandable root of the Mayans' more prolonged wilting, and draws attention to the joining of church and state. It's not religion per-se but the chiefs, which two groups in those days were nearly indistinguishable, that ruled, and continued to demand fealty shiny trinkets and big stone houses whatever the cost.

Last and scariest, what if it's (drum roll) CHAOS?! Not to go all Jurassic park on you, but we certainly don't understand all the ways life interacts and it's not written in stone anywhere that things are guaranteed to come out ok or behave in stable fashion. Maybe societies collapse for reasons that are essentially ineffable, or at least so complex and nonlinearly coupled as makes no difference. It's certainly possible the Norse didn't see it coming. The Easter Islanders? That's harder to excuse, isn't it? Chopping down the last tree and all. I'm tempted to blame them for a Onceler-ian selfishness & failure to cooperate; tragedy of the commons sort of collapse.

For us, for all of modern 21st century society, arguably doomed to stand or fall together, maybe it's gonna be Chaos (and chaos, too) since we can't so far agree on what the problems are and what to do about them.

But I am working hard to find some cohesion, some theme. Diamond makes no such attempt, beyond listing five factors which go beyond pedantic: warfare, trade, environment, I can't even be bothered to enumerate them. Environmental mismanagement is surely the core idea, though he won't quite come out and say it that clearly. Indeed his fifth cornerstone is actually made of three more minicornerstones, and they themselves vague and broad enough to support many fractal recursions thereupon, as "fleas hath smaller fleas... and so on ad-infinitum." Sigh.

A closing note, Tainter said something about us ALL not being able to collapse together as a unit, because he felt you had to collapse in relationship to something. So if human society is now one big monolith, then we can't formally undergo a collapse by Tainter's definition. (Interesting. I need to go back and reread that bit.) Yet, Diamond's cautionary tales of history surely seem to suggest something bad may happen. Let's just call it "severe, comprehensive involuntary lifestyle retrenchment. heh.

Last, to be unambiguous: this book deserves 3 stars for being thought provoking, not for itself containing cogent thoughts. Instead it's a compendium of factors. As for synthesis, Diamond just leaves us hanging in a maelstrom of minutae.

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