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Paul WilkeMay 16, 2005

Collapseby Jared DiamondViking. 592p $29.95

Not long ago, surely in a fit of masochism, I dusted off The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. What with the current administration’s tactful outsourcing of war to the brave but dominantly underclass warrior, lack of interest for anything that smacks of environmental concern and the conspicuous raising of public religion to the status of willing handmaiden of partisan policy needs, I wanted to read the classic study of an empire that so badly avoided reading the signs of its times.

I didn’t need to read very far. The parallels were immediately apparent. Rome, once powerful and prescient, couldn’t quite grasp that its influence would not go on forever. The Roman Empire deluded itself majestically. Even as its people became soft and its wars were similarly outsourced (and then there is Halliburton and that merry bunch today), the empire could not get back to the basics that made it strongand make the tough decisions to ensure its survival.

It is with equal masochismconcerned masochism, hopefullythat one must read Jared Diamond’s haunting new book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Of course, choose implies a rhetorical conceit, no? No societies actually choose to fail, do they?

Following upon his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Guns, Germs, Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, which looked at why certain societies thrived because of their discovery and then tactful use of guns, germs or steel, Diamond, a wide-ranging geographer, turns the tables. He wanted to know, conversely, why seemingly richly endowedor at minimum, historically well positionedsocieties could stumble into oblivion.

The march of examples is impressive (but, alas, the capacious book should have been disciplined by an editor aligned with the more modest attention span of most readers).

Those haunting stone statues on now-abandoned Easter Island were the product of a very advanced society, but one in which one faction was so interested in out-idoling the competition that the very trees on whose surface those idols were rolled into place were also sacrificed, down to the very last, and ecological disaster resulted. The mysterious Easter Islanders sealed their own doom, tree by tree, it appears.

The mighty Norse who settled Greenland could not quite get the picture that this harsh, but certainly habitable land was not the Christian pastoral paradise they knew at home. The Norse looked askance at the pagan Inuit savages, who had figured out the balance quite handily over not a few centuries of experience. But the Norse and their dreams of empire vanished. The Inuit remain.

The Pitcairn Islanders of the South Pacific, the Anasazi of our own Southwest, the Mayans of MesoamericaDiamond cites a string of examples of societies that failed for a variety of reasons, some because of outside forces, but many simply from poor use of their once abundant natural resources.

Then, the flash forward to the present day. Rwanda, Haiti, Los Angelesyou get the picture. Then to Montana, China and Australia before Diamond takes a searing look inward at this nation as a whole, its bounty and its trajectory.

Is it any secret, he asks, that global warming is a real threat to ecological health and needs no further study, but dramatic action. While we may not be able to quote the statistics, the diminution of our forests is proceeding at a horrific speed (half the world’s forests are already cut; one-quarter of what remains will be gone within the next 50 years) that must make the Easter Islanders rumble in their graves. And coral reefs, breeding ground and home to our ocean fish population? A third are already damaged, possibly irrevocably, and half the remaining reefs may be lost in just 25 years.

Following page after page of assaulting examples, Diamond, who weighs in as a cautious optimist, offers the logical solution: make the tough decisions that previous societies were either too uninformed or too headstrong to make. But it is stunningly apparent that these are choices about moral values, not just responses to the alarums of the tree-hugging and recycling among us.

With the current climate so infused with the debate about moral values, it is interesting to consider Diamond’s book against the backdrop of Bill Moyers’s recent disturbing piece in The New York Review of Books (3/24), where Moyers portrays the rapture crowd of evangelical Christians so focused on the Second Coming that current concerns about ecological damage and fossil fuel depletion are almost laughably irrelevant. After all, why worry about such ephemera when the good are about to be swept upward, while Catholics and the rest of the unbelievers are sent the other way?

This is not an argument to be flicked aside. When such a huge percentage of Americans identify themselves as evangelicals, when public policy can be so conveniently shaped according to literal biblical mandates and promises, we must realize that all the warning signs of our own ecological meltdown mean very different things to different people.

For some they are signs of the end time. For others they are the legacy of a nation that has consumed and continues to consume far more of the earth’s resources than it has any right to do. So we are not the nation to set an example for the rest of the world of how to safeguard what is proving to be a sensitive planet.

In the world of the eighth century B.C., the Old Testament prophet Amos railed against the rich and self-satisfied elite of Israel for projecting a peace that was in fact no peace. He was not forward-looking at all; he simply read the signs of the time, so apparent to him but so shunted aside by the vast majority of the people.

And what is different today? Prophets like Jared Diamond will be branded alarmists, and we will go on buying our S.U.V.’s and Humvees and guzzling gas with impunity. When we feel down we will take our Prozac, or when we want to get up, our Viagra, and just turn on the telly and forget about all this ugliness.

As for the word choose in the subtitle of this disturbing bookperhaps it is not a conceit after all. Are webetter informed, technologically adept and historically astuteindeed choosing our fate by not facing ourselves in the darkening mirror of this biosphere?


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