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How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

A-CollapseIn his Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel (1987), Diamond explained why certain societies came to dominate the world. Here, he explains why others vanished. Drawing on lessons from Easter Island, the American Southwest’s Anasazi, Central America’s Mayas, Greenland’s Viking colonies, and modern-day China, Rwanda, and Montana, Diamond foresees imminent environmental collapse and cites various crises that could lead to global demise. Some are age-old, including overpopulation, deforestation, and soil erosion; others are newer, from global warming to toxic waste. He concludes that these problems will come to a head in the next few decades as societies design various responses to them. "The only question," he concludes, "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 society."
Viking. 575 pages. $29.95. ISBN: 0670033375

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"A reader cannot help but leave the book wondering whether we are following the track of these other civilizations that failed, ignoring the signals that there is an impending problem, somehow hoping that in the end technology will save the day." Joseph E. Stiglitz

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"In a world that celebrates live journalism, we are increasingly in need of big-picture authors like Jared Diamond, who think historically and spatially—across an array of disciplines—to make sense of events that journalists may seem to be covering in depth, but in fact aren’t." Robert D. Kaplan

Scientific American 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Sorry, Professor Diamond, even in our time of enlightened science, societies don’t always have an easy, clear choice to survive, let alone succeed." Robert S. Desowitz

New York Times 3 of 5 Stars
"Interesting as such questions might be, this book remains, in the end, a messy hodgepodge of case studies, glued together with speculation and questionable analogies. … Why Easter Island and not ancient Rome? Why the Anasazi of the American Southwest and not the Minoans of ancient Crete?" Michiko Kakutani

Wall Street Journal 2 of 5 Stars
"While the individual stories are entertaining, a question remains as to how much light they shed on our current situation. … A more interesting choice of cases would have involved societies collapsing amid plenty—20th-century Argentina comes to mind." Francis Fukuyama

Minneapolis Star Tribune 1 of 5 Stars
"For a writer of Diamond’s stature and acclaim to produce such a frustrating book is a squandered opportunity and a waste of a precious resource." Martin Schmutterer

Critical Summary

Are we doomed, or can the next generation save us from ecological suicide? UCLA geography professor Diamond’s provocative, interdisciplinary picture of social decline paints a bleak vision of our future. He writes well, has done impressive research, and tells fascinating stories. Yet, his thesis failed to convince many critics. He connects his stories with common themes, but often draws tenuous links between past and present, especially given today’s use of technology and global markets to help solve environmental problems. Many critics also found fault with Diamond’s case studies. Some primitive societies like Easter Island, for example, left few clues to their demise. Other examples, like his population-based analysis of Rwanda’s genocide, raised questions about the relative role of ecological factors in societies’ collapses. Finally, despite Diamond’s cautious optimism about our ability to "choose" our destinies, a strain of environmental determinism runs throughout the book. You’re doomed if you do—and perhaps doomed if you don’t.