Environment 2000

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed



Selection 38 is a piece of the novel Collapse : How societies Choose to Fail or Succeed written by Jared Diamond, professor at UCLA. The main topic of this excerpt is how the choices of today will lead directly on the impacts of not only tomorrow, but everyday in the future.

Diamond starts by describing different societies who have collapsed because of the choices the societies made. He also explains what he means by collapse : “A drastic decrease in human population size and/or political/economic/social complexity, over a considerable area, for an extended time.” (p.184). He also explains how minor declines do not count as full-on collapses, because these declines happen but they do not stay for an extended period of time, and they do not escalate into a loss of population. Some examples of societies that  full-on collapsed are : the Maya cities in Central America, Mycenean Greece, Harappan Indus Valley cities in Asia, and Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean. It is suspected by archaeologists, climatologists, historians, paleontologists, and palynologists, that the collapses in those societies have been triggered by humans destroying their environmental resources, which is called unintended ecological suicide, or ecocide. Diamond says there are eight categories that list possibilities of how the people could of destroyed their environment. They are : Deforestation and habitat destruction, soild problems, water management problems, overhunting, overfishing, effects of introduced species on native species, human population growth, and increased per-capita impact of people. Societies who had exponential population growth had to expand their crops, destroying their forests. These categories would keep going until it was inhabitable, therefore the people would either die, or emigrate. Diamond says the same eight categories would be the reasoning behind collapses today, except there would be these categories added : human-caused climate change, buildup of toxic chemicals in the environment, energy shortages, and full human utilization of the Earth’s photosynthetic capacity. He questions if the new technology will help or destroy even faster our environment, and therefore have an ecocide in the world today. Living in a sustainable manner is one of the best solutions human beings can incorporate into their lives to lesson the eight categories to happen to their environment. Diamond shares a more positive story to make his readers realize that not all collapses are irreversible. “Iceland for a long time was Europe’s poorest and most ecologically ravaged country.” (p.186). People in Iceland had enough and they learned from their mistakes, such as deforestation and using up all their resources, depleting the earth. They put in place severe measures of environmental protection, and now they are one of the highest per-capita national average incomes in the world, not to mention they are self-sufficient in many different things, says Diamond.The author suggest a five-point framework, to understand environmental collapses that could happen. This includes : environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbours, friendly trade partners and the society’s responses to its environmental problems. He then talks about each point. One that struck me is how climate change has a huge effect on the health of the population because as humans, we are very reliant on the weather. If it is a very dry year, there will be less vegetation in the crops, therefore the population will starve. The society’s response to its environmental problems depend on its economic standpoint, its political standpoint and many other aspects such as their cultural views. This ties into how these days, there is two points of view. The first one being, people who are non-environmental are pro-business, meaning that people who do not care about the environment care about the economy and will do anything to make the economy better, even if that means cut down every tree in the country. The second point of view is people who are environmentalist are also pro-business, because they are looking at what can be done to be economically friendly as well as taking care of our environment. Diamond finishes off this selection by saying “…it won’t be possible to solve the world’s environmental problems…” (p.189).

  1. Are societies that damage their environment doomed to collapse? Is ours?

According to Jared Diamond, it is not all societies that damage their environment that are doomed to collapse. He explains that there are eight categories in which societies have wrecked themselves by destroying their environments. The categories are : “deforestation and habitat destruction, soil problems (erosion, salinization, and soil fertility losses), water management problems, overhunting, overfishing, effects of introduced species on native species, human population growth, and increased per- capita impact of people.” These categories are all harmful effects made by humans to their societies, which will enable them on the path to collapse. Although these effects are devastating and will make societies collapse, it is possible to repair these collapses by making serious changes to how the societies live. Iceland is a very good example of a society that repaired their environmental problems, because they learned from their past experiences and took serious environmental measures to repair their environment. They became self-sufficient, regulated their population size, and became the highest per-capita national average incomes in the world. If we take this example and learn from what the Icelanders did as their rigorous measures of environmental protection. Diamond also explains how another set of factors is the damage people do on their environment. This encompasses either fragile or resilient properties; meaning either potential for recovery or potential for recovery from the damage done, respectively. This can be damages such as cutting down more trees than the environment can produce. The final set of factors to take into consideration when examining if a society will collapse is the impact of climate change on that society. If the impacts are not extremely destructful, the society has a very good chance at recovering from the environmental destruction. After reading Jared Diamond’s article, it is fair to say that it really depends on the society’s environmental condition and the factors mentioned above.

Reference :

Diamond, Jared. (2005). Collapse: how societies choose to fail or succeed. In T. A. Easton (Ed.), Classic Edition Sources: Environmental studies (4th ed., pp. 184-189). New York, NY: Mc Graw Hill