Media Review - Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

Author:  Tiffany-Rose Sikorski
Date:  August 2005

The rise and fall of civilizations has captured the interest of world leaders, scientists, and general readers alike. We look at past civilizations and wonder what went wrong, and why no one stopped it. Finally, we ask could our civilization fall apart too?

Limited resources coupled with growing populations have created tensions between humans and their environment for thousands of years. Problems of deforestation, poor water quality, limited crop production, and climate change faced ancient civilizations just as they face us today. These environmental struggles resulted in the destruction of entire societies, including the Easter Islanders, the Anasazi, and the Maya.

In Collapse: How Societies Choose to Succeed or Fail, Jared Diamond investigates the environmental challenges facing ancient and modern societies, from deforestation on Easter Island in the 1600s to air pollution in China today. Each civilization is treated as a case study; Diamond explains the culture of the people, the challenges of the environments, and how people did, or did not, succeed in dealing with those challenges. Finally, Diamond illuminates what lessons we can learn from these past civilizations.

Unlike many social and environmental science books, Diamond includes some perhaps lesser-known environmental problems, such as erosion in Montana and salinization in Australia. The author also writes of environmental success stories, including forest preservation in Japan. Diamond includes a collection of poignant plates, which help the reader to visualize the dramatic environmental problems around the world.

With its vivid account of social development and adaptation, Diamond brings his stories alive, putting the reader into the competition on Easter Island, onto the farms in New Guinea, and onto the huge trash heaps surrounding major Chinese cities. The strong connection Diamond demonstrates between environmental science and social prosperity makes this book a great read for scientists and the general public alike.

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