Book Review: Collapse, by Jared Diamond

Posted on June 4, 2011


Ezra Levant would make a terrible lumberjack:

Notice how he takes a few seconds to even figure out how to work the chainsaw that he so clumsily wields against the potted shrubbery in his studio? Funny stuff. Ezra Levant’s rather predictable incompetence with power tools is not the most remarkable thing about this video, however. What really stands out to me is his total mischaracterization of environmentalism. He thinks, as do many, that environmentalists will actually be upset by the untimely death of a tree that was probably destined in a few years to slowly die in somebody’s living room with presents underneath.

This is a common attitude. Environmentalists are frequently dismissed as having an irrational emotional attachment to the Earth which drives them to try and restrict the lives of everybody else. Perhaps this reflects the undue influence of deep ecologists in the environmental movement, or maybe it’s just typical Sun News, Ordinary Canadian (TM) ignorance. Either way, it’s an attitude that must be fought.

Jared Diamond. Collapse. 592 pages. Viking Press, 2005.

And there is nobody better equipped to fight such sentiments than Jared Diamond. Diamond is not an ecologist, climate scientist, or environmental activist. He is a ridiculously accomplished anthropologist. If you can name an obscure society, there’s a good chance that Diamond not only knows a ton about them, but has also visited them on multiple occasions. The book includes first-hand accounts of such disparate locations as Greenland, Haiti, Australia, Los Angeles, Rwanda and New Guinea.

Diamond’s ridiculous body of experience in his field equips him well to pursue the book’s primary investigation on the reasons for the failures and successes of past societies. It is the failure stories that are most striking, and most frightening to a modern audience. The book uses an incredible wealth of evidence to conclusively show how societies such as the Greenland Norse, the Mayans and the Easter Islanders were tragically unable to adjust their lifestyle to one that their environment could support.

The latter of the three discussions that I have listed is perhaps the most instructive. The mysterious stone Moai statues on Easter Island were built by an impressively wealthy civilization, given the small size and extreme isolation of their home (Easter Island is the most isolated land on Earth). Unfortunately, the construction of these statues, along with other aspects of the Easter Islanders’ lifestyle, required a great deal of wood. This wood came from the island’s palm trees, which were necessary for food, the prevention of erosion, and the construction of boats which were essential for trade and fishing. The Islanders’ intensive use of wood, while it made them rich in the short-term, was unsustainable in the long-term and eventually lead to the total deforestation of the island, which was quickly followed by a social collapse. The statues were toppled, and by the time Europeans arrived at the island, they found a culture that was perpetually near starvation.

The comparisons with our current society are obvious. Diamond drives this point home by considering cases where failure to effectively manage our environment has already caused significant social and economic harm in the modern world. He effectively argues that environmental mismanagement had a role to play in such well-known modern social disasters as Haitian poverty and the Rwandan genocide. The message: We are currently treating our entire planet as the Easter Islanders treated their little island. If we are not careful, their fate could be ours. In the final chapter, Diamond starkly sums up the choice that lies before us:

“…because we are rapidly advancing along this non-sustainable course, the world’s environmental problems will get resolved, in one way or another, within the lifetimes of the children and young adults alive today. The only question is whether they will become resolved in pleasant ways of our own choice, or in unpleasant ways not of our choice, such as warfare, genocide, starvation, disease epidemics, and collapses of societies. While all of these grim phenomena have been endemic to humanity throughout our history, their frequency increases with environmental degradation, population pressure, and the resulting poverty and political instability.”

The book is a little bit intimidating at first. It is over five hundred pages long, and while it is very well written (As the above quotation demonstrates), its prose is nevertheless quite dense. It is, nevertheless, required reading for anybody even remotely interested in environmental issues. It demonstrates with incredible effectiveness the falsehood of Levant’s assertion that you have to fetishize trees to be an environmentalist. Diamond leaves no shadow of a doubt: We have to move to an environmentally sustainable economy NOW, because there is a lot more than at stake than shubberies in a TV studio.