Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

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Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed
File:Collapse book.jpg
Author Jared M. Diamond
Country United States
Language English
Publisher Viking Press
Publication date
Media type Print (hardback and paperback)
Pages 592
ISBN 0-14-303655-6
OCLC 62868295
Preceded by Guns, Germs, and Steel
Followed by The World Until Yesterday

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (also titled Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive) is a 2005 book by academic and popular science author Jared M. Diamond, which reviews the causes of historical and pre-historical instances of societal collapse—particularly those involving significant influences from environmental changes, the effects of climate change, hostile neighbors, and trade partners—and considers the responses different societies have had to such threats. While the bulk of the book is concerned with the demise of these historical civilizations, Diamond also argues that humanity collectively faces, on a much larger scale, many of the same issues, with possibly catastrophic near-future consequences to many of the world's populations.


In the prologue, Diamond summarizes his methodology in one paragraph:

This book employs the comparative method to understand societal collapses to which environmental problems contribute. My previous book (Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies), had applied the comparative method to the opposite problem: the differing rates of buildup of human societies on different continents over the last 13,000 years. In the present book focusing on collapses rather than buildups, I compare many past and present societies that differed with respect to environmental fragility, relations with neighbors, political institutions, and other "input" variables postulated to influence a society's stability. The "output" variables that I examine are collapse or survival, and form of the collapse if collapse does occur. By relating output variables to input variables, I aim to tease out the influence of possible input variables on collapses.[1]

Diamond identifies five factors that contribute to collapse: climate change, hostile neighbors, collapse of essential trading partners, environmental problems, and failure to adapt to environmental issues.

He also lists 12 environmental problems facing humankind today. The first eight have historically contributed to the collapse of past societies:

  1. Deforestation and habitat destruction
  2. Soil problems (erosion, salinization, and soil fertility losses)
  3. Water management problems
  4. Overhunting
  5. Overfishing
  6. Effects of introduced species on native species
  7. Overpopulation
  8. Increased per-capita impact of people

Further, he says four new factors may contribute to the weakening and collapse of present and future societies:

  1. Anthropogenic climate change
  2. Buildup of toxins in the environment
  3. Energy shortages
  4. Full human use of the Earth’s photosynthetic capacity

Diamond also writes about cultural factors, such as the apparent reluctance of the Greenland Norse to eat fish.

Diamond says Easter Island provides the best historical example of a societal collapse in isolation.

The root problem in all but one of Diamond's factors leading to collapse is overpopulation relative to the practicable (as opposed to the ideal theoretical) carrying capacity of the environment. The one factor not related to overpopulation is the harmful effect of accidentally or intentionally introducing nonnative species to a region.

Diamond also states that "it would be absurd to claim that environmental damage must be a major factor in all collapses: the collapse of the Soviet Union is a modern counter-example, and the destruction of Carthage by Rome in 146 BC is an ancient one. It's obviously true that military or economic factors alone may suffice".[2]

Book structure

Collapse is divided into four parts.

  • Part One describes the environment of the US state of Montana, focusing on the lives of several individuals in order to put a human face on the interplay between society and the environment.
  • Part Two describes past societies that have collapsed. Diamond uses a "framework" when considering the collapse of a society, consisting of five "sets of factors" that may affect what happens to a society: environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbors, loss of trading partners, and the society's own responses to its environmental problems. The societies Diamond describes are:
    • The Greenland Norse (climate change, environmental damage, loss of trading partners, irrational reluctance to eat fish, hostile neighbors and most unwillingness to adapt in the face of social collapse)
    • Easter Island (a society that collapsed entirely due to environmental damage)
    • The Polynesians of Pitcairn Island (environmental damage and loss of trading partners)
    • The Anasazi of southwestern North America (environmental damage and climate change)
    • The Maya of Central America (environmental damage, climate change, and hostile neighbours)
    • Finally, Diamond discusses three past success stories:
  • Part Three examines modern societies, including:
  • Part Four concludes the study by considering such subjects as business and globalization, and "extracts practical lessons for us today" (p. 22 – 23). Specific attention is given to the polder model as a way Dutch society has addressed its challenges and the "top-down" and most importantly "bottom-up" approaches that we must take now that "our world society is presently on a non-sustainable course" (p. 498) in order to avoid the "12 problems of non-sustainability" that he expounds throughout the book, and reviews in the final chapter. The results of this survey are perhaps why Diamond sees "signs of hope" nevertheless and arrives at a position of "cautious optimism" for all our futures.


Tim Flannery gave Collapse the highest praise in Science, writing[3]

...the fact that one of the world's most original thinkers has chosen to pen this mammoth work when his career is at his apogee is itself a persuasive argument that Collapse must be taken seriously. It is probably the most important book you will ever read.

The Economist's review was generally favorable, although the reviewer had two disagreements. First, the reviewer felt Diamond was not optimistic enough about the future. Secondly, the reviewer claimed Collapse contains some erroneous statistics: for instance, Diamond supposedly overstated the number of starving people in the world.[4] University of British Columbia professor of ecological planning William Rees wrote that Collapse's most important lesson is that societies most able to avoid collapse are the ones that are most agile; they are able to adopt practices favorable to their own survival and avoid unfavorable ones. Moreoever, Rees wrote that Collapse is "a necessary antidote" to followers of Julian Simon, such as Bjørn Lomborg who authored The Skeptical Environmentalist. Rees explained this assertion as follows:[5]

Human behaviour towards the ecosphere has become dysfunctional and now arguably threatens our own long-term security. The real problem is that the modern world remains in the sway of a dangerously illusory cultural myth. Like Lomborg, most governments and international agencies seem to believe that the human enterprise is somehow 'decoupling' from the environment, and so is poised for unlimited expansion. Jared Diamond's new book, Collapse, confronts this contradiction head-on.

Jennifer Marohasy of the think-tank, Institute of Public Affairs wrote a critical review in Energy & Environment, in particular its chapter on Australia's environmental degradation. Marohasy claims that Diamond reflects a popular view that is reinforced by environmental campaigning in Australia, but which is not supported by evidence, and argues that many of his claims are easily disproved.[6]

In his review in The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell highlights the way in which Diamond's approach differs from traditional historians by focusing on environmental issues rather than cultural questions.[7]

Diamond's distinction between social and biological survival is a critical one, because too often we blur the two, or assume that biological survival is contingent on the strength of our civilizational values... The fact is, though, that we can be law-abiding and peace-loving and tolerant and inventive and committed to freedom and true to our own values and still behave in ways that are biologically suicidal.

While Diamond does not reject the approach of traditional historians, his book, according to Gladwell, vividly illustrates the limitations of that approach. Gladwell demonstrates this with his own example of a recent ballot initiative in Oregon, where questions of property rights and other freedoms were subject to a free and healthy debate, but serious ecological questions were given scant attention.

In 2006 the book was shortlisted for The Aventis Prizes for Science Books award, eventually losing out to David Bodanis' Electric Universe.[8]


Jared Diamond's thesis that Easter Island society collapsed in isolation entirely due to environmental damage is contested by some ethnographers and archaeologists who argue that the introduction of diseases carried by European colonizers and slave raiding,[9] which devastated the population in the 19th century, had a much greater social impact than environmental decline and that introduced animals, first rats and then sheep, were greatly responsible for the island's loss of native flora which came closest to deforestation as late as 1930–1960.[10]

Similar theories


In 2010, National Geographic released the documentary film Collapse based on Diamond's book.[11]

See also

Further reading


  1. Diamond, J. "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed", 18.
  2. Diamond, J. "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed", 15.
  3. Flannery, T. (January 7, 2005). "Learning from the past to change our future". In Science, 307, 45.
  4. "Of Porpoises and Plantations". (January 13, 2005). In The Economist, 374, 76.
  5. Rees, W. (January 6, 2005). "Contemplating the Abyss". In Nature, 433, 15 – 16.
  6. Jennifer Marohasy, "Australia's Environment: Undergoing Renewal, Not Collapse" (PDF), Energy and Environment 16 (2005)
  7. Malcolm Gladwell, "The Vanishing", The New Yorker, 2005-01-03
  8. The Royal Society, "Prizes for Science Books previous winners and shortlists" The Royal Society, 2008-12-31
  9. B. Peiser (2005), "From Genocide to Ecocide: The Rape of Rapa Nui", Energy & Environment, 16 No. 3&4<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. "Late Colonization of Easter Island", Terry L. Hunt and Carl P. Lipo, Science, March 9, 2006

External links