Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Book Review: Collapse by Jared Diamond

Reviewed by Jeffrey Caminsky

Human history is full of tantalizing riddles. Some of the most fascinating of these arise from the appearance of ancient ruins in unlikely places, such as Easter Island, or the dense jungles of the Yucatan Peninsula. To the uninitiated, these ruins are the ghosts of phantom civilizations whose disappearance is a mystery to our 21st Century minds. But like geologists reading Earth’s history in the rocks, archaeologists can often read the history of past civilizations by studying the records of these ruins.

In Collapse, author Jared Diamond brings an inquisitive mind and a varied and distinguised career as a student of humanity to bear on some often-alarming questions about the mysterious disappearances of past cultures and societies. And he asks a disturbing question that often goes ignored in our modern, 21st Century World: If advanced cultures in the past have disappeared—sometimes almost without at trace—can this mysterious past be part of our own future? In this fascinating and highly informative book, Diamond offers some alarming lessons drawn from the historical record, as well as reason to hope for the future.

Employing a five-part analytical framework, the author studies a number of past and present civilizations, hoping to draw lessons to explain why some survived and prospered, while others withered and died. Among the factors which seem to affect a society’s chances of enduring, he points to a civilization’s environmental damage to its surroundings, the impact of climate change, the rise of hostile neighbors or dislocations caused by the decline of trading partners, as well as the choices made by the society itself when confronting past crises that arise through changing circumstances, as being the most important.

Although the infinite variety of people and circumstances makes firm conclusions beyond the reach of our limited knowledge, cultures as diverse as the Vikings and the Japanese, the Anastasi and the Australians, the Chinese and the Polynesians, have all faced similar challenges, many of which are well known to our own era. Ecological fragility, the overuse of both fixed and renewable resources, the over-extension of settlements, and the tenuous interconnections of trading networks are all problems that face 21st Century societies. Now, as throughout history, advanced cultures often export the depletion of their own resources to those of underdeveloped societies that are desperate for cash; and the effect of leaders who come to view their own interests as synonymous with those of their societies—and who therefore make decisions that sacrifice the interests of their people for their own—are hardly confined to ancient civilizations.

But the author gives us reason to hope, as well as cause for concern. Not all societies collapse: some are able to confront and overcome their problems; and others, blessed with rich abundance and a forgiving environment, are able to skirt disaster through dumb luck or good fortune. Throughout the book, the author presents the reader with an interesting blend of history and theory, and his readable and accessible prose enlightens and challenges the reader. This book is not for those made uncomfortable by thinking about the challenges that may lie ahead; but for readers interested in expanding their knowledge of the past, and thinking about the kind of world we may be leaving to our children, its central message is one of cautious hope, tempered with the reality that in this world, all things are transitory...and that even the mightiest civilizations are not immune from the consequences of their own folly.

JEFFREY CAMINSKY, a veteran public prosecutor in Detroit, Michigan, specializes in the appellate practice of criminal law and writes on a wide range of topics. His books include the science fiction adventure novel The Star Dancers, the exciting second volume in the Guardians of Peace-tm series, The Sonnets of William Shakespeare, and the acclaimed The Referee’s Survival Guide, a book on soccer officiating. All are published by New Alexandria Press, and are available on Amazon, as well as directly from the publisher.

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