Winter Books
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Issue Date:  October 7, 2005

By Jared Diamond
Viking Press, 575 pages, $29.95
What makes the world fall apart

Why and how societies self-destruct

Reviewed by RICH HEFFERN

We’re familiar with iconic images of vanished civilizations -- the abandoned, monolithic statues on Easter Island, the vine-entangled pyramids of the Maya, the fluted roofs of Angkor Wat. Why did these ancient civilizations abandon their cities and monuments? What caused their collapse? It’s more than just a romantic mystery, contends author Jared Diamond.

These questions are relevant to the environmental problems the world faces today -- the immense and daunting challenges of deforestation, overfishing, soil erosion, the complete loss of rain forests, global climate change and others.

“What can the past teach us,” Dr. Diamond asks, “about why some societies are more unstable than others, and about how some societies have managed to overcome their environmental problems? Can we extract any useful guidance that will help us in the coming decades?”

The author examines compelling evidence that some of these collapses were actually self-inflicted ecological suicides. Examples such as those provided by the Anasazi people of North America and the Pacific’s Easter Islanders show that human impact on the environment, similar to the adverse impacts we are having today, undermined natural support systems to such an extent that their civilizations could not continue.

A professor of geography at the University of California, Los Angeles, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his previous book, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies, Dr. Diamond begins his examination with his home state of Montana. Though it was once prosperous, its wealth based on copper mining, forestry and agriculture, now 70 percent of the state’s children depend on food aid. The state faces serious problems with forest fires, erosion, weeds, animal diseases and population decline.

“If Montana were an isolated country, it would be in a state of collapse,” Dr. Diamond says. But Montana won’t collapse because it is supported by the rest of the United States. Problems similar to Montana’s, however, are being faced by India, China, Australia, Nepal, Ethiopia and many other African countries.

Dr. Diamond identifies five factors that contribute to a society’s collapse and illustrates how these worked together to doom the Easter Islanders, the Maya, the Norse Greenlanders and the Anasazi. Environmental damage is first on the list, followed by resulting climate change, relations with both hostile and friendly neighbors and people’s cultural responses to impending decline.

Moving from the past to the situation today, Dr. Diamond reminds us there are obvious differences between environmental problems we face today and those in the past. Some of those differences make the situation today far scarier than it was in the past.

“There are 6 billion of us chopping down forests with bulldozers and chainsaws, whereas on Easter Island there were 10,000 with stone axes.” Globalization alters the equation significantly as well. “Anybody can cause trouble for anybody else in the world. A collapse of a society anywhere is a global issue.”

One factor in our favor, he says, is that we are in a much better position to learn from the mistakes of the past. Information is widespread and easily accessible.

Why do some societies, but not others, blunder into self-destruction? Despite our own society’s wealth and power, warning signs can be seen everywhere one looks. What choices can we still make so that we don’t go the way of Easter Island and the Maya? Dr. Diamond’s book sheds light on these questions.

Rich Heffern is an editor with Celebration Publications and is author of Daybreak Within: Living in a Sacred World (Ave Maria Press).

National Catholic Reporter, October 7, 2005

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