“Guns, Germs, and Steel” counts as one of those eye-opening books that correlate things you hadn’t thought about before, just like “Godel, Escher, Bach” a while back. I enjoyed it immensely, and I was looking forward to whatever Jarred Diamond was cooking up next. Which turned out to be the present book, Collapse.
Guns was about how European societies dominated the world because Europe benefited from climatic benefits that no other area of the world had. While the premise was deeply flawed (China had none of the benefits, rose much faster than Europe, and then declined), it was a very interesting read, since it pretty much said that any culture would have made it to the power of Europe if it had had the advantages that Europe enjoyed.
Collapse focuses on societies in the past, present, and future that have collapsed, are collapsing, or will collapse. The book is entirely different than its predecessor, because it expounds a cause that is not rooted in the past, but that affects the present, which of course puts the whole book in the category “controversial.”
Why do societies collapse? Mr. Diamond claims that it has to do with 5 properties, the most important of whom are the way the society’s culture interacts with the environment. Societies routinely fail when they have to deal with a weak environment, one in which any mistake causes long term damage.
This is demonstrated on a set of societies of the past: the Maya, the Norse of Greenland, the inhabitants of Mangareva atoll, the Southwest Indians. Comparable societies that succeeded are analyzed. Results are then used to look at societies of the present, like Haiti or China, that are strongly in danger of causing great harm to themselves.
There is always a look askance at the situation in the United States. Montana and Los Angeles, the two current locations where Mr. Diamond’s family is located, are identified as either moving in the wrong direction (Montana) or being already in a state of ecological disgrace (LA). The policies of the current administration are attacked constantly, and Mr. Diamond is clearly embroiled in the conspiracy of Liberals to attack good American values, like polluting rivers, depleting resources, and the like.
The book as a whole is important, but one seriously wished Mr. Diamond had put the axe he’d liked moved away from the forests of the world to some of the lengthy paragraphs and chapters. All in all, there is too much repetition to make this book a good read, and the fundamental paradigm is not going to shake a Republican loggerhead, and is going to sound trite to any Liberal.
One realizes with horror that the current administration has indeed succeeded in an incredible feat: to detach its base from scientific thinking. Even though Mr. Diamond’s book sounds well-researched, there is no argument that will convince those he needs to convince to make a difference.