Collapse by Jared Diamond

In February 2021 concerns across the globe are rightly focussed on the COVID-19 pandemic. Humans will survive this disease, and so far the global death toll is nowhere near the estimated 50 million dead of the 1918 flu pandemic.(1918 Pandemic (H1N1 virus) | Pandemic Influenza (Flu) | CDC)

Once the virus has been tamed the world will have to turn its attention to the climate emergency once more. This has the potential to be much more damaging to human life in the long run than the virus. The United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 26, HOME – UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) at the SEC – Glasgow 2021 ( will take place in Glasgow in November. Some commentators believe this is our last best chance to avert global disaster.

This would be a good time to read, or re-read, Collapse (2005)by Jared Diamond ( The author persuades us just how fragile is human civilization, and how environmental destruction is a slow form of human suicide.

Diamond  uses the elemental power of nature as his background, but fills his foreground with an astonishing cavalcade of different peoples and cultures from across the planet. They are linked by his inquiry into what caused some of these societies (such as the Mayan civilization or the people of Easter Island) to collapse, while others facing similar challenges managed to survive.

He admits to having started out on this inquiry assuming it would prove to be straightforward abuse of their physical environment that precipitated their demise. In other words, serial ecocide. It turned out to be a lot more complex, with several equally influential factors involved, such as climate change, the presence of hostile neighbours, any involvement in trade, and a host of different response mechanisms on the part of those facing potential collapse. Each collapse or near-collapse throws up a different balance of those key factors.

Diamond is at pains to stress the objectivity he has brought to bear on a sequence of collapse scenarios that often continue to generate serious controversy, and for the most part (until the final chapter) leaves it up to the reader to draw down any conclusions from these scenarios that may be relevant to our own societies today.

The diversity of the case studies he uses (both past and present) is extraordinary. Ranging from the highlands of New Guinea to the Pitcairn and Henderson Islands, from Greenland and Iceland to Rwanda and the Maya, from Haiti and the Dominican Republic to the US southwest and China – with many an additional stop-off in between. His starting point and most lovingly elaborated case study is Easter Island (‘the clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by over-exploiting its own resources’), which he invites the reader to see as a ‘metaphor, a worst-case scenario for what may lie ahead of us in our own future’.

How could this particular collapse have happened? Or, as one of his own students put it, what do you suppose the islander who cut down the last tree on Easter Island said to himself as he was doing it? Given that in this instance there was no extreme shift in the island’s climate at that time and no hostile invaders, why would any group of people commit ‘ecocide’ in such a dramatic fashion?

He advances potential explanations to that question (in relation to all the different collapses and near-collapses that he explores) in the final third of the book. And several of these explanations have direct relevance to our own ecological crisis: a failure to anticipate future consequences; an inability to read trends or see behind the phenomenon of ‘creeping normalcy’, with things getting just a little bit worse each year than the year before but not bad enough for anyone to notice; the disproportionate power of detached elites, particularly when they condone or even positively promote what he describes as ‘rational bad behaviour’ on the part of those who manage or use natural resources.

For those interested in the role of big business (either as ‘saints’ or as ‘sinners’ in the pursuit of more sustainable ways of creating wealth), Diamond devotes a whole chapter to examining the behaviour of oil, mining and forestry companies around the world. Their recurring and often egregious ‘bad behaviour’ can indeed be interpreted as ‘rational’, inasmuch as governments have consistently failed to proscribe such behaviour (either through legislation or by forcing companies to pay a proper price for the use of the natural world), while the majority of consumers would appear to be relatively indifferent to the environmental damage done in pursuit of their cornucopian fantasies.

But Diamond reserves his most insightful analysis for the more ‘irrational’ reasons why we are not as yet responding to the scale and urgency of today’s converging environmental problems. The often irreconcilable clash between the pursuit of short-term gratification and the defence of future generations’ long-term interests features prominently in many of his collapse case studies – the concept of ‘intergenerational justice’ was clearly no more compelling to some of these long-gone societies than it is for us today. What’s more, the greater the level of change required (to a society’s core values), the easier it becomes to lapse into systematic and falsely reassuring denial.

Here Diamond finally nails his colours to the mast. Anticipating a wide range of rebuttals to his central hypothesis (that the kind of collapse experienced by many cultures and civilisations in the past could easily happen to modern-day societies), he reminds people that we are already witnessing the conditions for collapse in a number of different countries: ‘Just as in the past, countries that are environmentally stressed, overpopulated, or both, become at risk of getting politically stressed, and of their governments collapsing. When people are desperate, undernourished and without hope, they blame their governments, which they see as responsible for or unable to solve their problems. They try to emigrate at any cost. They fight each other over land. They kill each other. They start civil wars. They figure that they have nothing to lose, so they become terrorists, or they support or tolerate terrorism.’ The sixteen years since 2005 when Diamond wrote these words have borne out his thesis.

Interestingly, however, Diamond chooses not to conclude his arguments on an apocalyptic note. Reverting to the inference of his subtitle (‘how societies choose to fail or survive’), he briefly reviews the intriguing history of the Netherlands, the country with the highest level of environmental awareness and membership of environmental organisations anywhere in the world. One-fifth of the total land mass of the Netherlands is below sea level, reclaimed from the sea over centuries, and protected by a complex system of dykes and pumping operations. These reclaimed lands are called ‘polders’, and the Dutch have a clear sense of themselves as ‘all down in the polders together – we’ve learned throughout history that we’re all living in the same polder, and that our survival depends on each other’s survival’. This is a country that has chosen to avoid collapse through a combination of solidarity and smart engineering.

The title for Diamond’s final chapter, ‘The World as a Polder’, is premised on his optimistic instinct that even as the threat of ecological meltdown seems to get greater by the year, so too does our awareness of our interdependence and the need for unprecedented solidarity if we are to secure any kind of sustainable future. Diamond may well see in the extraordinary response of the rich world to those countries shattered by the Indian Ocean tsunami precisely the kind of empathy and engagement on which our ability to avoid ecological collapse will surely depend.

To read Diamond is to be in the hands of an extraordinary polymath. This is a quality read of the highest order and could not be more topical in 2021.

590 in Penguin paperback edition

ISBN 978-0241958681

Jared Diamond

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