December 31, 2004
What is more haunting than the specter of a civilization’s collapse – the abandoned temples of Angkor Wat, the Maya cities overgrown by jungle, or the somber vigil of Easter Island statues? Who hasn’t looked at such ruins and wondered, could the same thing happen to us?
In his Pulitzer Prize-winning best-seller Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond examined how and why Western civilizations developed the technologies and communities that allow them to dominate much of the world. Now, Diamond probes the other side of the equation: What caused some of the great civilizations of the past to collapse into ruin, and what can we learn from their fates?
As in Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond weaves an all-encompassing global thesis through a series of fascinating historical-cultural narratives. Moving from the prehistoric Polynesian culture on Easter Island to the formerly flourishing Native American civilizations of the Anasazi and the Maya, the doomed medieval Viking colony on Greenland, and finally to the modern world, Diamond traces a fundamental pattern of catastrophe, spelling out what happens when we squander our resources, when we ignore the signals our environment gives us, and when we reproduce too fast or cut down too many trees. Environmental damage, climate change, rapid population growth, unstable trade partners, and pressure from enemies were all factors in the demise of the doomed societies, but other societies found solutions to those same problems and persisted.
What makes one environment more fragile than another? Why do some societies, but not others, blunder into self-destruction? Similar problems face us today and have already brought disaster to Rwanda and Haiti, even as China and Australia are trying to cope in innovative ways. Despite our own society’s apparently inexhaustible wealth and unrivaled political power, ominous warning signs have begun to emerge even in ecologically robust areas like Montana. What economic, social, and political choices can we still make so that we don’t meet the same ends?
Huge in scope, clear and passionate in style, Collapse is destined to take its place as one of the essential books of our time, raising the urgent question: How can our world best avoid destroying itself?
Jared Diamond is a professor of geography at the University of California, Los Angeles. He began his scientific career in physiology and expanded into evolutionary biology and biogeography. He has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society. Among Dr. Diamond’s many awards are the National medal of science, the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, Japan’s Cosmos Prize, a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, and the Lewis Thomas Prize honoring the Scientist as Poet, presented by the Rockefeller University. He has published more than two hundred articles in Discover, Natural History, Nature, and Geo magazines. His most recent book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.