You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Thursday, February 02, 2006


Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed was written by Jared Diamond, a professor of geography. It presents several studies of societies over the course of history that have collapsed, and examines the reasons for their collapse. At 592 pages, it contains a lot of detail about many cultures, past and present.

What impressed me the most about this book was the level of detailed knowledge we have about many of these historical people. For example, the pollen in lake mud can be examined at different levels to determine where and when different plant species thrived. This tells us a lot about how grasses were overgrazed in medieval Greenland, among other places. Diamond describes how researchers determined the eating habits of the Greenland Norse by examining their garbage pits and the bones therein.

Easter Island is known for its famous statues, but it's also known among anthropologists and others for the society that died out after cutting down all the trees on the entire island. Why would they cut down all their trees? It's an excellent question, and one that Diamond can only begin to answer. The short answer: island tribes were competing for the biggest statues, which required cutting down trees to make rope from the bark. When the trees were gone, the statues could not be moved, and more impotantly, they could not make fires to cook.

A contrast is provided in Japan in the 17th century. When it became clear that deforestation was a growing problem, leading to erosion, siltation, and other problems, the shogun established a "top-down" approach to forestry that severely limited wood production and provided for stiff penalties for violations. They also completed extensives inventories of trees. Amazingly, Japan has gone from being heavily deforested in the 17th century to being more well-forested today than many other developed countries.

Other examples include more islands in the Pacific. Like Tikopia, whose chiefs decided to destroy all the island's pigs because of how destructive they were. Diamond examines modern-day Australia, and their problems with salinization and introduced pests. He also looks at Rwanda, which had a huge overpopulation and environmental stress problems leading up to the genocide. Also China, which is having a huge and growing impact on its land. The book is very detailed.

Towards the end the author attempts to come to grips with why some societies can't deal with the impending doom, even if they foresee it. One of the more important reasons is that different elements of different societies have an interest in the status quo, so they either won't admit there's a problem, or fight any attempts at change. The one issue that sticks in my mind is hard-rock mining; gold, silver, and other metal mines produce a huge amount of waste for the small amount of ore they produce. Especially bad are poisonous elements like arsenic and lead. Yet mines often close down without cleaning up the mess they have made. I still can't figure out why society lets mining companies pollute so bad, and get away with it, often with bonuses for the executives. Diamond points to the miners' claims of Western values and tradition, but I for one wouldn't let them get away with what they do based on such BS.

Jared Diamond does a great job of bringing together history, land use, politics, and societal values. He shows how overpopulation and environmental strain converge to wreak greater havoc than either would alone. He also brings messages of hope, based on ways that societies have come back from the brink, and things that we can do to make things better, like reduce our impact on the land.

I give the book an A. I highly recommend it, even if you're not into such a dry sounding topic. The descriptions of societies that have failed is fascinating.


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