- Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed
Jared Diamond has done it again. In 1997, he burst into the reading public's consciousness with a Pulitzer Prize–winning book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, a work of awe-inspiring scholarship and sweeping breadth that explained how Europeans and their culture came to dominate the world.
Diamond explained the large disparity between wealth and technology in different parts of the world as an accident of geography. The temperate latitudes of Eurasia facilitated the East-West dispersion of species over an extensive area, allowing a diversity of plants and animals to be domesticated, and this domestication led to increasing civilization as nomadic hunter-gatherers put down roots and progressed in their communities from families to tribes to villages, cities, nations, and empires. By contrast, the Americas with their North-South axis had little opportunity for the diffusion of species and thus were much slower to develop. China lagged behind Europe for different geographical reasons. The mountains, rivers, and irregular coastline of Europe ensured its division into competitive nation-states, which fostered technological development and the rise of a merchant class. With its regular coastline, absence of mountain ranges dividing its mid-section, and two navigable rivers connecting much of the country, [End Page 464] China was easily ruled for millennia by a central government that did not encourage development. Although many of the technical inventions, such as gunpowder and large ships, were made about the same time as in Europe, these discoveries were not put to the same effective use. And this, in a nutshell, is why the modern world is dominated by Europeans and their wares. Guns, Germs, and Steel has been criticized by some as being too "deterministic." To me, this is not a criticism but one of the book's virtues. The author marshals his facts with such logical order that the outcomes seem inevitable.
In Collapse, Diamond provides further insight into where we could be going, through case examples of societies that have either perished or survived. He extends his insights into the interactions between geography and societies to explore how man's interaction with his environment affects societies. From analysis of these case studies, he has identified five factors that determined whether a society succeeded or failed: environmental damage; climate change; hostile neighbors; lack of friendly trading partners; and, most important, the society's response to the first four factors. In general, none of these factors by itself has brought down a society, but collectively they bring doom.
Diamond analyzes both large and small communities, some that have lasted for millennia. On the survival side, he examines Tikopia, an isolated island of 1.8 square miles that has been settled and inhabited continuously for 3,000 years, currently by about 1,200 people or 700 people per square mile. A larger example of success is the New Guinea Highlands, an isolated civilization that was not discovered by modern man until air travel revealed its existence. At 7,000 years, it is one of the world's longest-running experiments in sustainable food production. These successes are contrasted with Easter Island and the Pitcairn Islands, which were once extensively populated by relatively sophisticated Polynesians but were nearly completely depopulated by the time they were discovered by Europeans.
Diamond compares the Norse settlements that survived in Greenland for nearly 500 years and collapsed entirely in the early 1400s when the climate became colder with the successful Norse colony of Iceland and the Inuit civilization, both of which continue to thrive in the same inhospitable climate. He also compares Haiti and the Dominican Republic, two countries that occupy the island of Hispaniola. Both have recently emerged from prolonged periods of dictatorship, with Haiti as the Western Hemisphere's basket case and the Dominican Republic as one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Caribbean. How did this happen? It turns out that Trujillo and Belaguer were more far-sighted dictators than the Duvaliers.
In presenting these cases, Diamond describes some modern societies that may or...