We all know that the actions of what could loosely be called ‘Western civilisation’ have changed the Earth’s face dramatically, and will continue to do so. The difference between a passionate environmentalist and, say, a shadow Minister for the Environment who doesn’t think that global warming or peak oil will be problems, is that one can imagine environmental apocalypse, while the other has a cheery confidence that we’re clever enough to solve any problem that our actions might cause. Collapse argues the environmentalist’s case. He uses historical evidence to show that past societies have been in exactly the same situation as us, have refused to make necessary changes to their lifestyle, and have collapsed as a result.
Diamond first looks at modern societies on the brink of environmental disaster: Australia, China, Haiti, the American midwest. He discusses what’s being done, or not, to combat their environmental problems. Then, in the most interesting chapters of the book, he details the collapse of five civilisations: Easter Islanders, Anasazi, indigenous Pitcairn, Maya, and Greenland Norse. He chooses these five rather than, for example, the Romans, because their collapses were almost entirely caused by the preventable collapse of an ecosystem. The story of the Easter Islanders is well known. They cut down every last tree on a once-forested island, to make rollers for the giant statues that adorn the island. The statues were entirely useless, but any chief who failed to build a larger statue than that of the neighbouring village risked appearing weak. Most of the islanders died, and those that remained led an extremely difficult life on an ecological wasteland.
Similarly, the Norse Greenlanders died out after several centuries of (initially successful) settlement, because of their inability to adapt. The thin soil could only support a limited number of livestock, but because beef was prestigious, they insisted on running cattle until the topsoil was ruined. They destroyed the ability of the land to support any community. All the while there were viable alternatives; the Inuit have lived in Greenland for thousands of years. The Norse starved to death in their cottages, while thousands of salmon swam in nearby streams. They had the latest in European fashions, and their own cathedral, but didn’t eat fish because it was for poor people and savages. It’s easy to scorn the Norse and the Easter Islanders for their blinding lack of foresight, but it’s really not so different from the overfishing, habitat destruction, water misuse and SUV driving of our own times.
Diamond seems to be an expert on everything. Collapse covers ecology, anthropology, archaeology and history, both ancient and modern. He wants us to take his message very seriously, so everything is meticulously referenced. He errs on the side of too much information rather than too little, so you may find yourself skipping over the details of Pitcairn middens or Dominican environmental law, but it’s there if you want it. He’s even-handed: if anything I wanted him to be angrier when describing the fraud perpetrated by mining companies. He doesn’t just point fingers, he proposes solutions, and describes some societies that have achieved sustainability. He’s a reserved optimist, but the same message comes through in every chapter of Collapse: we can’t just sit back and hope that the world will fix itself.