Diamond's "Collapse"

The following is a brief essay and critique of Jared Diamond's "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed" (2011). Furthermore, the essay focuses on Diamond's assertion that past societies have met their doom as a result of their poor environmental awareness. 

Diamond’s “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed” gives us great insight into our interaction with the world around us, and how we have both been affected by it, and how we have come to affect it. It is not a surprise, then, that we have already identified the patterns that have led to the collapse of past, once formidable, societies; unfortunately, our new globalized society seems to be suffering from amnesia, for we have started to suffer from the effects of a damaged ecosystem. Diamond presents us with a brief outlook into the past, and explains the process through which these societies failed to survive. The process through which past societies have damaged their environment, he elaborates, rests in 8 categories which he labeled: deforestation and habitat destruction; soil problems; water management problems; over-hunting; over-fishing; the effects of introduced species on native species; human population growth; finally, increased per-capita impact of people. Furthermore, he identifies another four agents of environmental destruction, and these four have only come to be recognized in modern times, meaning that as we have evolved and progress, so have the problems that we face. These four include: human-caused climate change; buildup of toxic chemicals in the environment; energy shortages; lastly, full human utilization of the Earth’s photosynthetic capacity.

Diamond has taught us that this process stems from the continued human interaction with his/her environment, but what is most concerning is that the rate by which we have seen the changes has accelerated. One may conclude that it is due to the hostile capitalist practices of the Western nations, or the core nations as Wallerstein’s World Systems Theory would label the most powerful and rich nations in the world. However, eight of the above mentioned environmental problems, were still present before the great technological advancements of modern times, and predated the booming of globalization and its process of human interconnection, albeit these existed in smaller scales. Still, it is important to recognize that these elements have been present for as long as humans have been aware that they could manipulate their surroundings.

Diamond describes the general trajectory of the fall of societies, due to their inadvertently damaging practices, as follows: as human populations began to grow in each society, the need for materials increased, the need to feed the many increased, and resources were strained. Humans began to adopt hyper-agricultural measures, began heavily irrigating the earth, thus erosion began to play a part in the destruction of soil quality, as well as the intense practices of double-cropping, which meant that the soil was inevitably exhausted of its nutrients, rendering it unable to sustain crops. Eventually farming was expanded onto more unsuitable land, and these unsustainable practices led to long term damage of their surroundings.

As Diamond writes, these practices led to consequences for society as a whole, these included food shortages, starvation, wars among too many people fighting for scarce resources, and struggles for power between the few powerful folk and the disappointed, and outraged larger public. As a result of all these conflicts coming together—starvation, war, disease—society began to lose the power and might that they once had, but it was not just simply political and governmental power that declined, it was also its economic, and cultural “complexity” as Diamond calls it, that was lost. In general, “Collapse” tries to show us, in the preface, how some societies have failed to learn from their neighbors and ancestors, and continue to overestimate their resources, while also underestimating the negative effect that they have on their surroundings. After all, too much of a good thing is a bad thing, right?

Going back to the book, societies are described as “collapsed” or “dead” when the members of this group either all emigrate to other regions, or when all the members of this group die as a result of the unsustainable practices that led to its decline. It is important to note that not all societies met the same end, and in fact some societies have been able to survive and adapt to maintain some form of equilibrium with their environment. Unfortunately, we see that as become more connected to one another, as globalization continues to build bridges across the world, as economic globalization and not-so-subtle hostile capitalism continues to rule world processes and its overall function, our world as a whole is in danger of collapsing.

As Diamond points out, and as many of you should become aware, the negative side of globalization, mainly the exploitation of the periphery, has already claimed a few victims. Particularly, Somalia, which is, by far, the greatest example of what Diamond labeled “buildup of toxic chemicals in the environment”. Somalia’s fishing industry once thrived and led the nation to sustain itself, today, it is mostly known for its pirate attacks on Western ships. Its fishing industry collapsed as more core nations dumped their trash in this nation, now, all that remains is a shell of its former self. Pirates, terrorist groups, anarchy in place. If the core still believes that this is not the future of, not just the Third world, but the second and first, they are sadly mistaken. Until the world’s political AND economic leaders realize that resources are NOT unlimited, we could be seeing the Somalia effect in many other nations, and perhaps, maybe even our own. Megacities like New York, Tokyo, and Mexico City will turn into slum ridden megalopolis like Lagos, Nigeria.

Those who do not believe in global warming must become aware that it is not simply a natural phenomenon, it has increased due to the vast human contribution to the warming of the planet. Once cannot think that by simply claiming that because you can make a snowball in Nebraska, that there is no such thing as global warming; that would be like me holding up a sandwich and saying that there is no such thing as world hunger. As Diamond writes, another, fairly modern, effect of human interaction with the environment is the aptly named “human-caused” climate change. Today, whole nations are at in the border of extinction. The pacific island nations of Tuvalu and Kiribati are an example of this threat; as a matter of fact, the nation of Tuvalu has asked that the island nation of New Zealand allow them to buy land in order for its citizens to escape the inevitable drowning of their island home. Many believe that this may be the last generation of Tuvaluans to be raised in their home nation.

Don’t think that this is not of your concern and that because it is occurring thousands of miles away, it does not affect you. There have been plenty of local events that I am surprised many have not become aware of. What Diamond describes as the “effects of introduced species on native native species” is an example of Florida’s continued struggle to control the Burmese python’s invasion of the Everglades. It baffles me that people do not understand the destructive power of alien species; furthermore, we are currently dealing with an infestation of giant African slugs, and more. I remember reading of a group of scientists that were planning to release genetically modified mosquitos in the Keys. We have failed to maintain our local ecosystem, what makes one think that this is not happening all over the world and that it will eventually lead to irreparable damage? If you read the first chapter of the book, then you would have seen Diamond explaining that the introduction of certain fish into the streams and local ponds of Bitterroot Valley have done away with most of the Rainbow trout population.  One may think, well how does this affect me? Think about it. A great collapse always starts with a crack in the foundation. I think I see a fissure, what about you?

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