It’s pretty rare for me to recommend one of my textbooks—from a science class, no less—as recreational reading, but UCLA professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jared Diamond has written a crucial piece of nonfiction on the past and present condition of our environment and economy; one that should provoke introspection into humanity’s duel capabilities for progress and self-destruction. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed combines science, history, geography and personal experience to shine light from every angle on the formula that leads to a civilization’s breakdown.
Collapse is divided into four parts, the first of which describes the environment and economic history of the state of Montana, from the Native American hunger-gatherers to the individual stories of current farmers and their agricultural methods. Part Two examines past societies that have collapsed, describing the factors of their failure in terms of a five-point framework, while Part Three takes on modern societies, such as the Rwandan genocide and the developing nation of China. Part Four wraps it up on a wider scale, taking on corporations, globalization and the merits of the polder model, the Dutch version of economic consensus policy.
What is both revealing and frightening is Diamond’s portrayal of civilizations that collapse into themselves, such as the ancient society of Easter Island. While it is generally believed to have been torn apart by European colonizers, who conducted slave raids and infested the natives with disease, Diamond’s claim is that the society was well on its way to collapsing before the arrival of colonizers, due to environmental damage and the ensuing civil war that erupted over resources versus the growing population. Such factors also contributed to the collapse of the ancient Mayans, and the more recent genocide in Rwanda was due in part to overpopulation. The parallels drawn between ancient and modern societies are a resounding call to action to keep history from repeating itself, and provide a haunting and thought-provoking exposé on humanity’s slow-motion murder-suicide involving the planet we call home.
This is certainly no typical textbook of bone-dry facts; Diamond presents his subject matter in a voice that is both scholarly and conversational. He gives the impression of a pleasant conversationalist who is both intellectual and approachable, and he injects an entertainment factor among the disheartening accounts and statistics. Therefore it comes as no surprise that he ends the book on a high note, declaring his cautious optimism for the future.
Collapse is a glaringly relevant book for today’s world; a means of opening our eyes to the downfall in progress we are currently living within. If Al Gore’s campaign for the environment didn’t convince you, Jared Diamond certainly will. You don’t need to turn to sci-fi for a good apocalypse-based story—just pick up a copy of Collapse and discover the apocalypse happening in our own backyard.