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Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

Author: Jared Diamond

Viking Press, 2005

This is about societies making choices leading either to economic and political collapse or to success in preserving well-being.

Part One of Diamond's book is about developments in modern Montana. Part Two begins with Easter Island.

Easter Island was settled perhaps around the 900s when it had an abundance of trees, game, fish and shell fish. Diamond writes in detail about recent archaeological work and about Easter Islanders destroying their forest. When the Dutch explorer Jacob Rovveveen arrived in 1722 he found no trees over ten feet tall. Without big trees there was no wood for making canoes – canoes with harpooning platforms for taking porpoises and tuna on the open sea. Fish were now caught only in the shallow waters. Deforestation had led to soil erosion by rain and wind. Compost for agriculture was no longer available. Land birds had disappeared. Shellfish had been over-exploited and people instead were eating small black snails. Over-hunting had decreased the availability of small animals. When Captain Cook arrived in 1774 he found the islanders "small, lean, timid and miserable." People were still growing food but there had not been enough to sustain their numbers. Starvation and cannibalism had appeared. Islander oral history dwelled on cannibalism, including the taunt: "The flesh of your mother sticks between my teeth."  

Before the hard times, ceremonies had buttressed an ideology that associated the island's chiefs and priests with the gods and a promise of bountiful harvests. Environmental degradation led to ideological breakdown. With starvation and civil war, commoners moved onto the coastal properties that had been preserved for the elite. The religious rivalries of warring clans led to the building of ever bigger statues and the throwing down of rival statues. The last mention by a European of an erect statue, writes Diamond, was in 1838, and in 1868 it was reported that none was standing.

Diamond does not believe that Easter Islanders were exceptionally foolish. Easter Island was more vulnerable to bad choices than were some other islands in the Pacific. Easter Island had a colder climate, less rain and slower plant re-growth than many other islands in the Pacific. Its soil was less fertile because of the island's remoteness – less ash fallout from neighboring volcano eruptions. Younger islands, with more recent volcano activity, were more fertile than the older Easter Island, which had not had volcanic activity for over a million years. Also, Easter Island did not have the coral reefs or lagoon had by other Polynesian islands. Diamond does not see the Easter Islanders as an inferior breed but thinks that with the greater vulnerability of the island it was unfortunate that they were not more mindful of what they were doing.

Diamond writes of other Pacific islanders: on Pitcairn and Henderson Islands and the tiny 1.8 square-mile island of Tikopia (now  part of the Solomon Islands). Tikopia, he writes, supports 1,200 people, with 800 people per square mile of farmable land, because the islanders had been taking reasonably good care of their environment. Diamond writes about the Anasazi Indians and their neighbors in what is today the southwest of the United States, the collapse of the Maya, the collapse of Viking societies in Iceland and Greenland, and modern Rwanda. He compares the Dominican Republic with collapse in Haiti. He writes of  Tokugawa and modern Japan and the wisdom of actions taken there to maintain forests. He writes of today's China and Australia and of life in Los Angeles.

Diamond lauds Japan and Europe for preserving its forests. Europe's total forest area, he writes, "has been increasing since around 1800." He reports that 80 percent of Japan is "sparsely populated forested mountains," with most people crammed into its plains. He writes of the shogun Hideyoshi in 1582 contributing to the preservation of Japan's forests by limiting the amount of timber that fiefdom's could consume.

The genocide in Rwanda, described by Diamond, was connected to population growth and land competition. But Diamond is not an eco-determinist and refuses to say that these made the genocide inevitable.

He describes the differences between the two nations of the Dominican Republic and Haiti, sharing the same island, as an example of the affect of choice, as opposed to ecological determinism. The Dominican Republic had some advantages that Haiti did not have – rainfall being one. But the Domincan Republic preserved more of its forests. Today, writes Diamond, "28 percent of the Dominican Republic is still forested, but only 1 percent of Haiti. According to Diamond,

... the consequences of all that deforestation include loss of timber and other forest building materials, soil erosion, loss of soil fertility, sediment loads in the rivers, loss of watershed protection and hence of potential hydroelectric power, and decreased rainfall. All of those problems are more severe in Haiti than in the Dominican Republic.