Excerpt from Collapse by Jared Diamond, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Collapse

How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

by Jared Diamond

Collapse
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  • First Published:
    Dec 2004, 575 pages
    Paperback:
    Jan 2006, 592 pages

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In addition, I don't know of any case in which a society's collapse can be attributed solely to environmental damage: there are always other contributing factors. When I began to plan this book, I didn't appreciate those complications, and I naïvely thought that the book would just be about environmental damage. Eventually, I arrived at a five-point framework of possible contributing factors that I now consider in trying to understand any putative environmental collapse. Four of those sets of factors—environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbors, and friendly trade partners—may or may not prove significant for a particular society. The fifth set of factors—the society's responses to its environmental problems—always proves significant. Let's consider these five sets of factors one by one, in a sequence not implying any primacy of cause but just convenience of presentation.

A first set of factors involves damage that people inadvertently inflict on their environment, as already discussed. The extent and reversibility of that damage depend partly on properties of people (e.g., how many trees they cut down per acre per year), and partly on properties of the environment (e.g., properties determining how many seedlings germinate per acre, and how rapidly saplings grow, per year). Those environmental properties are referred to either as fragility (susceptibility to damage) or as resilience (potential for recovery from damage), and one can talk separately of the fragility or resilience of an area's forests, its soils, its fish populations, and so on. Hence the reasons why only certain societies suffered environmental collapses might in principle involve either exceptional imprudence of their people, exceptional fragility of some aspects of their environment, or both.

A next consideration in my five-point framework is climate change, a term that today we tend to associate with global warming caused by humans. In fact, climate may become hotter or colder, wetter or drier, or more or less variable between months or between years, because of changes in natural forces that drive climate and that have nothing to do with humans. Examples of such forces include changes in the heat put out by the sun, volcanic eruptions that inject dust into the atmosphere, changes in the orientation of the Earth's axis with respect to its orbit, and changes in the distribution of land and ocean over the face of the Earth. Frequently discussed cases of natural climate change include the advance and retreat of continental ice sheets during the Ice Ages beginning over two million years ago, the so-called Little Ice Age from about a.d. 1400 to 1800, and the global cooling following the enormous volcanic eruption of Indonesia's Mt. Tambora on April 5, 1815. That eruption injected so much dust into the upper atmosphere that the amount of sunlight reaching the ground decreased until the dust settled out, causing widespread famines even in North America and Europe due to cold temperatures and reduced crop yields in the summer of 1816 ("the year without a summer").

Climate change was even more of a problem for past societies with short human lifespans and without writing than it is today, because climate in many parts of the world tends to vary not just from year to year but also on a multi-decade time scale; e.g., several wet decades followed by a dry half-century. In many prehistoric societies the mean human generation time—average number of years between births of parents and of their children—was only a few decades. Hence towards the end of a string of wet decades, most people alive could have had no firsthand memory of the previous period of dry climate. Even today, there is a human tendency to increase production and population during good decades, forgetting (or, in the past, never realizing) that such decades were unlikely to last. When the good decades then do end, the society finds itself with more population than can be supported, or with ingrained habits unsuitable to the new climate conditions. (Just think today of the dry U.S. West and its urban or rural policies of profligate water use, often drawn up in wet decades on the tacit assumption that they were typical.) Compounding these problems of climate change, many past societies didn't have "disaster relief" mechanisms to import food surpluses from other areas with a different climate into areas developing food shortages. All of those considerations exposed past societies to increased risk from climate change.

From Collapse by Jared Diamond. Copyright Jared Diamond 2005. All rights reserved. No part of this book maybe reproduced without written permission from the publisher.

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