Environment History Science What I read

Collapse Narrates How Historical and Contemporary Societies Have Succeeded, and Have Failed, to Live in Ecological Harmony

Via case-studies across history, Collapse offers a series of engrossing narratives, informed by impressive scholarship across multiple disciplines. Collapse illustrates how fragile is the balance between a society and its ecological environment; and offers actionable lessons in how we, as citizens, can demand that our own societies function more sustainably.

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NOTE: This is not a book review; it is a summary of the book’s argument. I will do a review at some point.


The premise of Collapse (2014) is simple: the ecological environmental plays a role in the success, failure, and stability of societies. Diamond is a cross-disciplinary scholar and the book is a fascinating and very readable work of scolarship in social and cultural history, ecology, business practices, and sustainability.

The bulk of Collapse is written as case studies of past and present societies illustrating key points. I summarise the points below with examples from the book: 

  1. The characteristics of the ecological environment affect the success and destiny of human societies. Environments differ in terms of the population densities they can support, the levels and types of culture they lead to, and how hostile or hospitable they are to human societies.
  1. Most human societies depend heavily on plant matter – in the form of gathered edibles, crop harvests, and gathered non-edibles such as firewood and leaf for manure. Plant growth rates depend heavily on climate: they’re highest in tropical locations with high rainfall, in areas leeward rather than windward of a mountain (wind dries soil and plants, and blows away topsoil in the dry or fallow season when there’s no protective vegetative coverage), in regions with active or recent volcanic eruptions or which receive dust fallout (both types of activity disperse mineral-rich soils). Societies founded in locations with these favourable attributes are inherently more stable; they can support higher populations and more diverse material cultures. As an example: on the island of Hispaniola, Haiti and the Dominican Republic have significantly different environmental conditions, which in addition to differences in culture and policy have led to very different outcomes for these two countries.
  • Ease of access to other societies is another crucial geographical/environmental factor in the stability of a society. Norse settlements on Greenland, and some island societies such as Pitcairn, perished when they lost contact with their motherland and other trade partners.
  • However, environmental determinism is rare. It is relatively rare that a human society has been extinguished by a hostile environment alone. Much more typically, the society has failed to develop an ideology and lifestyle appropriate to its particular environment, or it has developed these things but then moved away from them, e.g. because of cultural or technological changes.
  1. On Greenland, the destiny of the Norse vs. the Inuit illustrates how, in the same environment, cultural attitudes and material adaptation can make a drastic difference to the fate of a society. The Norse came to Greenland from Iceland and Norway, bringing the material culture and ideology which they’d developed in these locations, and which was inappropriate for the very different environment of Greenland. The Norse flourished briefly in Greenland but never really adapted there, actively undermining themselves in many ways. E.g. they preferred to breed cattle instead of goats and pigs (even though cattle were much more difficult and resource-intensive on Greenland), refused to eat fish (abundant in Greenland), and distributed resources and manpower in questionable ways (sending men on walrus-hunts for ivory export rather than keeping them home to harvest winter hay, and importing church-related luxuries rather than grain and other essentials). The Norse failed to see the ecological fragility of Greenland, depended on unsustainable use of wood and iron, and refused to learn from other local cultures. Eventually, the Norse settlements on Greenland perished. In sharp contrast, the Inuit have survived on Greenland for centuries, having developed a unique culture that exploits available sustainable natural resources.
  • In Australia, initial settlers, wanting to recreate their native England, introduced rabbits and foxes – two alien species that have caused massive ecological and economic damage: rabbits by grazing vast stretches of grassland barren, and foxes by preying on livestock and native wildlife. Expensive efforts to eradicate these pests are ongoing. Until very recently, government policies throughout Australian history have encouraged citizens to extract renewable resources – notably wood, fodder, and foodgrains – at unsustainable rates: until recently, herders faced minimum stocking rates for livestock (instead of maximum stocking rates), and were paid to clear wild vegetation (instead of to preserve it). Economic costs including increasing costs of living and the total exhaustion of most once-arable soils have finally begun to change public attitudes and government policies.
  • Tikopia is a tiny island society that mainatined stability for centuries with meticulous multicropping practices, detailed regulations of type and amount of plant and animal harvest, protected areas including old-growth forest and no-fishing zones, and communal stewardship of the environment – as well as practices for population control including contraception and voluntary suicide. In the 19th century, Christian missionaries arrived, discouraged population control strategies, caused a change in attitudes about the relationship between humans and the natural environment, and set the stage for population growth and food-shortage problems. The island continues to be Christian, but has moved back towards a more sustainable lifestyle, partly by reinstating some previous population control strategies and by accepting emigration as a new strategy. (The link between religious belief systems and the ecological attitudes of a society is fascinating: our ideologies suggest, privilege, and naturalise certain ways of relating to the environment, and prohibit or undervalue others.)
  • Environmental causes have played a big role in the success of past and present societies. Environmental degradation often colludes with other factors – such as invasions, closing of trade routes, internal unrest and natural disasters – in causing the downfall of a society. These factors interplay: environmental degradation that leads to falling food production often causes internal unrest and also leaves the society open to hostile invasion.
  1. Rwanda in the late 20th century provides a chilling example of how environmental problems can escalate to cause total societal Collapse. While the Tutsi-Hutu genocides are often viewed as a case of communal tensions and ethnic cleansing, Diamond makes a convincing argument that they were in fact directly tied to environmental degradation caused by high population density and overharvesting. In turn, environmental degradation led to food unavailability, increasing poverty, unemployment, disputes over land, and widening social disparity. Rwanda is the most striking exemplar of the fact that environmental degradation destroys the quality of life of large numbers of people and often sets the stage for social unrest and violence.
  • Environmental problems today are much more severe than people realise, and the need for action is urgent. With appropriate action, many problems can be mitigated. Globalisation has interlinked the destinies of most societies, and presents both challenges and opportunities to good environmental stewardship.
  1. Biodiversity loss poses large economical threats to human society. Many obscure creatures provide invaluable services to humans such as soil aeration, pest protection, and crop pollination. Climate change above a certain level will drastically reduce food production in many areas. The well-established link between population stress/environmental degradation and unrest continues to show up as chronic unrest in places such as Indonesia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia.
  • Globalisation allows us to learn from other societies’ best practices and failures. It has also led to environmental and social exploitation on a massive scale. E.g. Japan, while preserving its own forested area, imports cheap wood from southeast Asia and Australia, and exports value-added wood products. (Japan is also notorious for refusing to accept international treaties for environmental conservation.)  Globalisation has allowed developed nations to exploit the rest of the world to extract resources cheaply and dump waste, and poorer nations to earn quick cash while allowing their long-term stability to be undermined.
  • It is tempting to blame big business for bad environmental stewardship. However, examples of good stewardship can be found in many industries; technology is expanding good stewardship options; and, with more consumers becoming vocal about the environment, businesses are recognising that good stewardship is essential to their public image and their ability to attract good deals. Also, some industries are intrinsically more environmentally damaging than others: e.g. hardrock mining is more damaging than coal mining, which in  turn is more damaging than oil extraction. The public does need to exert pressure on businesses to practice good stewardship, but this must be done at the appropriate level: hardrock mining (mining for iron, nickel, gold, etc.) is intrinsically a damaging business, but it’s not possible for the public to directly boycott mining companies. Rather, we must lobby the to-consumer producers: e.g. jewellers, automobile manufacturers, electronics manufacturers: to source their metals from a sustainably-managed mine.
  1. As an example of excellent stewardship, Diamond describes his visit to the Chevron oil extraction site on New Guinea. The area leased by the company was in excellent ecological health, by some measures even better than the rest of the island.
  • Hardrock mining uses toxic agents, leads to toxic seepages from ores which are currently untreatable and permanently poison the groundwater and water bodies into which they flow, and by its very nature disturbs large surfaces of land. Historically in the U.S., the cleanup costs have in effect been borne largely by the government. In many parts of the world, hardrock mining has become unprofitable because of low ore concentrations, or because companies have declared bankruptcy to avoid sky-high cleanup costs of older operations.
  • In response to consumer demand for sustainable products, certification has emerged as a way for companies to claim that their products were harvested and produced with minimal damage to the environment. However, most certifications are unreliable, not based on standardised external audits; or, they fail to track all stages of production from raw-material harvest to final packaging and storage. Two exeptions include the FSC and MSC certifcations (Forest Stewardship Council and Marine Stewardship Council), which certify respectively forest-based products and fisheries. Globally, overfishing has endangered many populations of fish. However, if properly managed, fish harvests can be sustained indefinitely at high volumes.

Diamond is hopeful that our environmental problems can be managed, but he is realistic. The difficulty of measuring either the rate of environmental decline or the impact of our policies bodes poorly for both governmental action and public acceptance of mitigation policies. As well, the idea that growth and consumption can continue to grow without limit is clearly incompatible with the limited energy and material resources of the earth.


Buy Collapse at Amazon. To save paper, please consider buying a Kindle or Audiobook ediiton.

Read my CounterCurrents review of The Third Chimpanzee, another of Diamond’s books.

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By Amita Basu

I'm a writer based in Bangalore, India.

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