Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed by Jared Diamond

'Collapse' is an excellent read. In this book Jared Diamond tries to analyze what caused some of the major civilizations of the past to collapse and what can we learn from their failures. The book is divided into three major sections. In the first two sections Jared does an in depth analysis on several past and modern societies and the factors that led to their success/failure. In the final part of the book he tries to come up with some practical lessons that we can learn from the failure of past societies and how do they apply in today's context. Overall the key message from the book is that environmental destruction and unsustainable development are key reasons for failure of successful societies.

Jared picks an diverse set of societies from different geographies, time periods and cultures for this analysis. He has come up a 5 point framework for analyzing each of the societies. The key factors of the framework include environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbors, friendly trade partners and society's response to environmental problems.

The book starts off with a detailed analysis of modern day Montana - considered to be one of the most natural and pristine states in US and analyzes some of the problems faced in Montana society due to mining, logging, non-native species etc. In the next few chapters he analyzes some of the past societies starting with Easter island where the natives had deforested the complete island while competing with each other to build more and bigger statues. He then briefly covers the collapse of Pitcairn/Henderson societies, Anasazi's of American southwest and Maya civilizations. This is followed by analysis of some successful societies like New Guinea, Tikopia and medieval Japan(Tokugawa era). He wraps up this section with detailed analysis of Vikings and Norse Greenland society which had failed after surviving for more than four centuries. Jared concludes that the Norse society failed due to its inability to adapt to the harsh Greenland environment, clinging on to unsustainable European lifestyle and last but not the least - not mingling and learning from the Inuits(locals).

The second section of of book covers about the challenges faced by some of the current societies and their outcomes. Jared starts off with the Rwandan Genocide and the factors leading to it. He then talks about Hispaniola and contrasts how the two countries of this island(Dominican Republic and Haiti) with the same history and environments had responded to their challenges differently leading to different outcomes - Dominican Republic is thriving whereas Haiti is on the verge of collapse. He goes on to analyze how the rapid growth and industrialization of China is impacting its environment and affects the quality of life if its people. Finally he wraps up the section with an analysis of some of the challenges faced by Australia and their response to it.

Based on the detailed analysis Jared reasons that past societies had made their disastrous decisions due to - Failure to anticipate, Failure to perceive, Rational bad behavior, Disastrous values and unsuccessful solutions. He sums up the current day scenario and details some of the actions taken by governments and corporates to protect the environment. He concludes the book on a positive note stating that the awareness of environmental issues is increasing and that governments and corporates are taking it seriously and acting on it. He is fairly optimistic about the success of our society.

Overall it was a very interesting read. Jared has done an excellent job by providing indepth details and doing a thorough analysis using a logical framework. The only comment i have is that most of the past societies he has taken are fairly small(except Mayas) and have fragile environments. However his point that environment destruction is a key factor leading to failures is valid and true. It would have been good if he had analyzed the failure of any major civilizations. Anyways this book has spurned my interest in studying the demise of major historic societies like Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Indus Valley and Chinese civilizations. If you have any pointers to these pls let me know!


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