While the individual stories are entertaining, a question remains as to how much light they shed on our current situation. Many of Mr. Diamond's case studies involve societies situated in marginal parts of the globe, like Greenland or tiny Pitcairn and Henderson Islands, where societies rarely flourish under the best of circumstances. A more interesting choice of cases would have involved societies collapsing amid plenty -- 20th-century Argentina comes to mind.
A second problem is our ignorance of detail. Mr. Diamond cites a number of reasons why societies make bad environmental choices, including political conflict, cultural biases and a failure to grasp the seriousness of an approaching problem or to take collective action. Yet his examples are drawn mostly from ancient and primitive societies, which means that we have virtually no information to tell us which reasons were most important. Mr. Diamond assumes, for instance, that environmental collapse drove political conflict on Easter Island. But perhaps it was the other way around: Years of tribal fighting exhausted the island's resources and led to the cutting of the last tree -- a much more conventional story. We will never know.
The final problem with "Collapse" concerns Mr. Diamond's analogy with our current problems. He lists 12 crises today that could lead to global collapse, including overpopulation, loss of biodiversity, global warming, soil erosion, toxic wastes and the like. All these are serious problems, but it is not clear that any of them (except global warming) can trigger a sudden, irreversible planetary collapse, as opposed to a slow period of technology substitution and social adjustment.
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