Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.

New York: Viking, 2005. 575 pages.

When times are uncertain, some of us turn to “big think” books, books that draw a broad canvas over the social and natural sciences and speculate boldly about patterns of human history. And with the Bush administration at odds with every other Western government over the seriousness of our environmental problems, we look to the interdisciplinary thinkers who can explain these issues for us. No one is better qualified to do this than the biogeographer, avian zoologist and popular science writer Jared Diamond.


Diamond does not shy away from big issues or controversial ideas. His first popular book, The Third Chimpanzee, ranged brilliantly over the controversial field of evolutionary psychology. His Pulitzer Prize–winning Guns, Germs and Steel (1997) explained modern Europe’s dominance over the rest of the world as a function of its prehistoric geographical advantages for the domestication of plants and animals, the diffusion of technology and resistance to disease. Collapse shares its predecessors’ big ambitions. Diamond asks how and why societies exhaust their environment’s ability to sustain them, and ranges over ancient and modern societies in search of an answer.

As a theme, the threat of environmental degradation and exhausted resources is a familiar one: indeed, it is both so familiar and so technical that it is difficult to write interestingly about it. Warnings about imminent ecological destruction from increased population and consumption have blunted their impact through repetition. Edifying discourses about how we should lessen our impact on nature easily provoke sage nodding, but not action or real engagement. More nuanced discussions of specific environmental problems tend to be technical. Whatever their scientific merits, the “Cornucopians” who argue that markets and technology can solve environmental problems – writers such as Julian Simon (The Ultimate Resource) or Bjørn Lomborg (The Skeptical Environmentalist) – have the rhetorical advantage of sounding contrarian and provocative rather than pious.

Diamond’s strategy is to begin his argument about the dangers of contemporary regional and global environmental problems with a number of case studies of historic and prehistoric societies that declined or disappeared as a result of exhaustion of their environmental resources. Diamond believes that the fate of the Polynesians who left the giant statues of Easter Island, the Anasazi who built cities in the deserts of New Mexico, the Maya who abandoned their massive temples in the Yucatan and the Greenland Norse who were the first Europeans to explore the Americas provide insight into the world’s present-day environmental problems and their range of likely outcomes.

In each case, Diamond argues, a combination of self-induced environmental damage (primarily deforestation, but also soil degradation, overfishing and overhunting), climate change, hostile neighbours and loss of trading partners and allies led to total extinction or a brutal reduction in population. Diamond compares the collapsed ancient societies with those of the New Guinea highlands, the Polynesian island of Tikopia, Japan and Iceland – preindustrial societies that sustained themselves for millennia – to find the ingredients of success and failure.

Diamond’s strategy has mixed success. It is never quite clear whether the ancient case studies are intended to be data points for the elaboration of a scientific theory of social collapse or cautionary tales designed to motivate readers into action, a tactic to leaven the familiar topics of global warming, deforestation and depleted fisheries. If his strategy is to write stirring rhetoric, the hand of a more ruthless editor is sorely missed. Where The Third Chimpanzee was elegantly written and Guns, Germs and Steel was consistently provocative, Collapse is too long and unfocused.

On the other hand, if this book is to be viewed as a logical argument, the link between the decline of ancient societies and the environmental issues of the modern world is just too tenuous. Easter Island, the ancient Maya cities and the Greenland Norse all lacked modern science and technology, market economics and declining birthrates. Since Simon and Lomborg invoke technology, markets and birthrates as reasons to doubt modern forecasts of ecological doom, Diamond’s case studies are hardly relevant counterevidence to the argument of his principal adversaries. Further, all of Diamond’s cases either were isolated outposts of larger cultures that succeeded elsewhere, existed in areas of marginal potential for human habitation at the outset (like the Norse in Greenland or the Polynesians on Easter Island) or (like the Maya) could hardly be said to have collapsed at all.

Of course, the ancient societies Diamond examines did not have our energy- and resource-intensive consumption patterns or our large population, so their resilience is not necessarily comforting. But this just shows that our contemporary issues are genuinely new, and that it is hard to draw lessons from the distant past.

The preindustrial sections of Collapse would have been more focused if they had concentrated on the burning debate between those who see preindustrial societies as primarily in harmony with nature and those who see human beings as always and everywhere destructive. Diamond has a number of interesting things to say about this debate, and presents a subtle and nuanced picture. In The Third Chimpanzee, he set out evidence for the “always and everywhere destructive” position. He considered the extinction of many large mammal and bird species when people first arrived in the Americas, Pacific Islands and Madagascar, and argued persuasively against explanations that exculpated preindustrial humans.

In Collapse, Diamond continues to show that environmental problems are endemic to the human condition rather than a recent post-Enlightenment invention, but he is more interested than before in how preindustrial societies developed norms and institutions to limit damage to their environment. As he describes, while some societies were crippled by deforestation and overharvesting, others, with similar mixtures of selfishness and wisdom, managed to avoid these traps. Why?

Garrett Hardin, another environmentally conscious polymath, wrote a seminal article in 1968 that explained how rational individuals or small groups will harvest an open-access resource (whether grazing land, fish stocks, groundwater or soil fertility) to exhaustion. He called this dynamic the “tragedy of the commons” (see box). Since Hardin, much research has focused on how social norms and legal property rights can evolve to avoid the dismal consequences of individually rational but collectively irrational behaviour.

Diamond shows that the social institutions developed to overcome the tragedy of the commons come in various forms, and are not necessarily appealing or liberal. In Japan and the Dominican Republic, authoritarian rulers enforced decisions to avoid deforestation. New Guinea highlanders created and sustained one of the oldest systems of agriculture in the world, while organized in small bands with mutually incomprehensible languages and warlike traditions. But neither dictatorships (Stalin, Mao and the Duvaliers, père et fils, were directly responsible for environmental disasters) nor small decentralized societies (elsewhere, decentralized systems have left deserts) offer a guarantee of environmental sustainability.

Diamond’s case studies provide too small a sample for reliable inferences about which factors spell success and which failure. However, his comparison of Polynesian and North Atlantic island economies shows that, to maintain social identity, groups in new or particularly fragile environments may hold on to old ways unsuited for their particular circumstances. This is consistent with the basically conservative idea that it takes time for a society to evolve norms that constrain the basic selfishness of human nature. And these same norms can, in new circumstances, be the problem. Social identity and religious belief can override the collective ability to survive. One example is the Easter Islanders’ persistence in allocating resources to building and transporting statues of their ancestors as their food base collapsed. Another is the Greenland Norse’s reluctance to adopt Inuit hunting ways and, even more remarkably, their apparent refusal to eat fish, a major component of the diet of both their Inuit competitors and their Norse Icelandic progenitors. These identity-defining inhibitions likely contributed to their demise, possibly at the hands of the Inuit, when the Little Ice Age began in the 15th century.

Diamond’s discussion of the modern world is also structured on geographic case studies. He looks at Hispaniola (the island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Rwanda/Burundi, China, Australia and Montana. His discussion of disaster in Haiti and Rwanda is grim and compelling, and his account of the milder problems of Australia and Montana, mostly caused by the political power of agriculture and metal mining respectively, is provocative. He makes a convincing case that the worst ecological disasters are in regions marked by profound political instability, although it is arguable whether environmental degradation is primarily the cause or the consequence of political crisis. Solutions to collective action problems, including the tragedy of the commons, are inherently impossible without functioning institutions.

When Diamond comes to a systemic discussion of the environmental prospects of global capitalism, he fails to advance the debate beyond the polemic between the Simon-Lomborg school and neo-Malthusians like Paul and Anne Ehrlich and Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute. Diamond acknowledges that some of the neo-Malthusians’ past predictions, such as massive famine in the Western world in the 1980s, have failed to come true, but like them, Diamond predicts that the massive loss of productive fisheries, forest cover and species in the last five decades will lead to dire consequences. Ironically, in light of the structure of his book, he acknowledges that the past is no guide to the future when we are in the midst of exponential trends.

Even a polymath has his limits, and Diamond’s most serious is his lack of engagement with resource economics. Diamond is conversant with the literature on externalities and collective action problems, and he is impressed by the ability of environmentalists to use the economics of global branding to improve things. But like Paul Ehrlich before him, Diamond fails to grapple sufficiently with the power of the price mechanism. In what is essentially an exercise in high school mathematics, he shows that trends tracing exponential growth curves will, if uncurbed, inevitably result in catastrophe. In the 1970s, Ehrlich and the Club of Rome pointed out that many of the West’s consumption trends were exponential and that exponential trends cannot be sustained indefinitely, and rested their case. Three decades later, even a popular science writer must acknowledge the response of elementary economic theory. Higher demand will lead to increased prices that in turn will reduce demand and make substitutes more attractive and research into new substitutes more profitable.

Diamond’s attention to the global issues raised by China’s economic ascendancy is particularly timely. In the short time since his book was published, China has overtaken the United States as a consumer of raw materials. Chinese economic growth has contributed to a spike in resource prices (much to the delight of finance ministers in resource-rich provinces from British Columbia to Newfoundland). Diamond repeats Gandhi’s query: how will the world manage China and India’s consuming resources at the level of Canada and the United States? As environmentalists often point out, North Americans have many ways of reducing their consumption of energy, water and soil without seriously affecting their lifestyles; what we lack are material, in addition to moral, incentives to do so. When material incentives exist, behaviour changes. We saw this when the 1970s oil spike temporarily reduced the size of North American cars, and we may see it again as Chinese demand for oil induces a switch to hybrid vehicles and away from SUVs.

Diamond argues that current North American energy and resource consumption is incompatible with the development of an affluent China, but he ignores the social institutions through which modern capitalist societies adapt. While he is far from antibusiness, he emphasizes the brand at the expense of the more basic social institutions of a modern capitalist economy: prices and property rights. He legitimately highlights the power of consumers to affect brand-conscious corporations and their international behaviour – much progress has been made this way, and Diamond discusses examples. However, there will always be unbranded producers and brands, like Wal-Mart’s, whose business plan is to ride out negative publicity while delivering lower prices.

Orthodox economics does not claim that markets will, unassisted, prevent all environmental problems. Pollution is a classic instance of market failure and a candidate for government intervention. And governments often make things worse: Diamond discusses Australia’s destructive agricultural subsidies, while Canadians should think about the tax money expended to destroy the Atlantic cod fishery.

But sound government policy can use the basic capitalist institutions to prevent the degradation of common goods. Ken Livingstone, mayor of London and alleged socialist dinosaur, has dramatically improved his city’s traffic congestion through road pricing, imposing a charge for vehicles entering the inner city. Sweden prices its domestic water at cost, and has decreased usage by a quarter between 1980 and 1999, while Canada subsidized water and use increased by a third in the same period. Quantity restriction and tradable permits were central to the phaseout of CFCs and leaded gasoline, and have also been used for sulfur and nitrous oxides. Even though Kyoto’s effectiveness may be fatally undermined by the nonparticipation of the United States, China and India, if it establishes a global market in carbon emissions, it may create the institutional base for future progress.

Diamond’s consistent failure to give price incentives the consideration they deserve leads him to mischaracterize some of Simon’s arguments, and weakens the prescriptive force of the book. Ultimately, however, his central point is difficult to contest. As biological creatures, our numbers and lifestyle are limited by our interactions with the broader biological and physical systems in which we live. Our ability to manage these limits depends on our social institutions and our ability to modify behaviour in light of new knowledge and new circumstances. Diamond’s book, although flawed, is a serious contribution to greater knowledge and, perhaps, to necessary change.