Reading a book called Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond


I recommend anyone thinking that our civilization can survive as is, for more than a few hundred more years (or less),  to read this book.

A comparison of various failed societies, some ancient, some within the era of our written history, with today’s society provides a striking and sobering analysis. The author identifies five possible contributing factors in differing combinations for failed societies, one of which is human misuse of the environment, food and water sources, another overpopulation, another, climate change.

One sobering example of a failed society is the so-called  Anasazi of Chaco Canyon, who were very successful in the ‘short run’ of 600 years and quickly collapsed after its peak in 1110 to 1120 AD. As the author states (pg 155):  “That should make us modern Americans hesitate to be too confident yet about our First World Economy, especially when we reflect how quickly Chaco society collapsed after its peak in the decade A.D. 1110-1120, and how implausible the risk of collapse would have seemed to Chacoans of that decade.”

600 years is the ‘short run’, during which the civilization lived quite well and prospered. We are just coming into 600 years past the discovery of America. The major economic giants of the continent as a unified society are only just over 300 years old and 140 years old. Yet we find it hard to believe we could ever just collapse.

One of the other contributing factors cited in collapse is a reliance upon imports and exports without having the ability to self-sustain the core of the society. The society is built on resources and manufacturing and growing of crops, which is nearby and self-contained, that keep itself sustained, then once attaining more population and using the available area for more residential purposes, ingenuity provides for finding other places further away or other peoples to trade for those things needed to sustain the growing society. But when one of those ‘others’ suffers a downturn and can no longer supply these things needed, it puts strain on the society, and as the ability and resources to self-sustain are long-lost it, along with other factors, pushes the society to collapse.

We in Canada manufacture very little for ourselves, even though we have many resources from which to draw and tracts of land on which we could do so. We are lucky to have these resources, and hopefully could sustain ourselves if our export/import partners take a nosedive, but one wonders how jealously those resources would be looked upon by these partners, and how easily we would be overcome if they decided they needed control over them. Without trying to be alarmist, I can’t help but notice how much of our oil industry is now owned or co-owned by China, and how dependent our imports are on China and our exports are upon the US economy.

Our use and overuse of resources is dangerous, of course. Clearing vast tracts of arable land for housing while not leaving a tree standing is, instead of becoming rare, actually the norm nowadays, it seems to me.

On page 114 of the book, the author is discussing Easter Island, which had been deforested completely by its inhabitants, who relied on the trees for food and shelter and building/transporting the famous statues.  Surely they wouldn’t have been so foolish as to cut down all the trees themselves, when the consequences would have been so obvious to them?

The author writes: I have often asked myself, “What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it?’ Like modern loggers did he shout ‘Jobs, not trees!’ Or: ‘Technology will solve our problems, never fear, we’ll find a substitute for wood’? Or: ‘We don’t have proof that there aren’t palms somewhere else on Easter, we need more research, your proposed ban on logging is premature and driven by fear-mongering’?”

Changes will come to our society, whether they be climate changes (human-caused or not, it doesn’t matter, does it?) or tax revolts or dwindling of natural resources due to the demands of the world’s population, or disease or war.

Will we have the foresight to recognize the convergence of factors that lead to the tipping-point and do something to prevent or mitigate the outcome?

Using an example of the climate change factor: If the waters are going to rise as dramatically as predicted, perhaps cities and human settlements should consider beginning a move inland (as they are doing in Wales), or building effective water dams or walls? Or at least bending our top minds to the task, instead of levying carbon taxes and changing lightbulbs.

Perhaps Canada should begin to foster the creation of more homegrown businesses who will manufacture the basic things we need for survival as a society, all from our own resources.

Perhaps encourage the trades to be learned by our young, as opposed to spending four years in university and pots of money obtaining a Psych degree, then having to import specialists to work  mines and build bridges, etc.

But wait, maybe Technology will solve our problems, won’t it?

Won’t it?



2 thoughts on “Collapse

  1. Ursula Hiatt

    Dearest Colin Thank you for this. I’ve sent it on to Roelof (who is, yet again, laid up after a fall – this time in the street, hitting his head on a stone and finding himself coming-to from unconsciousness in an ambulance on the way to the hospital) as I know he’ll be interested in the book and all you said in your excellent synopsis. I also sent it on to friend because we were saying the same things, today, minus the very interesting history of 600-year-old civilizations. So, bless you, as ever – and thank you too for those lovely photos of your holiday haven- the building with those flowers and the water around was SO pretty (and very like Spain) and your family members looked so relaxed and happy, as did that delightfully-happy little girl – all a treat. May it continue for at least a few days more and take much love from me Ursula Date: Thu, 14 Aug 2014 17:45:17


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