Media Influences: Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

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Media Influences: Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed


In Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, American author and professor Jared Diamond explores history in order to discover how various ancient civilizations fell into ruin quickly by failing to perceive and solve their environmental problems. He extends his findings to contemporary areas overwhelmed by pollution and the loss of natural resources as a means for helping understand and overcome problems that may lead to modern-day societal collapses.

Published in 2004, Collapse discusses Diamond's theories about the various factors that can cause nations or communities to decline or even disappear. Among the civilizations he studies are the Easter Islanders, the inhabitants of Pitcairn and Henderson Islands, the Anasazi of the American Southwest, the Maya, and the Norse colonies of Greenland. Diamond also presents a look at modern Montana in the United States; the genocide in Rwanda; the divergence between the Dominican Republic and Haiti; industrialization and the resulting environmental situation in China; and Australia's mining economy.

Diamond cites a combination of factors, including deforestation and soil erosion, that contributed to the downfall of these societies. However, he asserts that the environmental problems were made worse because cultural attitudes kept those in positions of leadership from understanding or resolving the environmental crisis. Explaining that not every collapse begins with an environmental problem, he acknowledges that it is often the main catalyst, particularly when a society disregards signs of a coming disaster.

Historical Background and Scientific Foundations

Born in 1937 in Boston, Massachusetts, Diamond completed his undergraduate degree at Harvard University

in 1958 before earning his doctorate from Cambridge University in physiology and membrane physics. After joining the faculty of Harvard Medical School as an associate in biophysics, Diamond eventually moved on to the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1966, where he became a professor of physiology. He later became a professor of geography and also pursued studies in ornithology (the study of birds) and ecology. After undertaking various studies of birds in New Guinea, Diamond accepted a position with the American Museum of Natural History and wrote his first book, Avifauna of the Eastern Highlands of New Guinea, published in 1972.

Diamond began moving toward a career as a writer of popular science books with The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal in 1992. He gained more notice in 1997 for his book Why Is Sex Fun? The Evolution of Human Sexuality. However, it was another title, also published in 1997, that won Diamond the Pulitzer Prize. In Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, he examined human history and its patterns. The book, which was widely read and discussed, was also adapted into a three-part series that aired on PBS.

Guns, Germs, and Steel

In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond set out to discover why some cultures became dominant while others did not. Of the seven continents, or landmasses, on Earth— Africa, Antarctica, Asia, Australia, Europe, North America, and South America—six are inhabited by people. Four of those six were conquered by peoples from the other two (Europeans and Asians), and Diamond wanted to learn why. It was not, he theorizes, that Europeans and Asians were smarter or in some ways “better” than their counterparts elsewhere. Instead, he suggests, Eurasia (Europe and Asia as a landmass) gave its native-born inhabitants some very fortunate advantages, almost from the beginning of human history itself.

One of those advantages was geography. Eurasia had an east-west orientation, which gave it a more consistent climate, unlike North America, where the temperature ranges from arctic chill to tropical humidity. This meant, too, that Eurasia became home to many more domestic, or native, plants than in other parts of the globe. After that came domesticated animals, many of which were also native to the Eurasian continent but not elsewhere. Because of this abundance, agricultural communities sprang up, and out of these grew large urban centers. People began living closer together. This, combined with a surplus of food in such heavily populated places, made technological advances possible, leading to military strength. The “guns” of Diamond's title represent military power. The “steel” refers to the technological expertise that followed, which turned nations into economic powers.

Diamond points out, however, that “germs” made the conquest of other continents truly possible. Before explorers ventured off to discover new lands, Eurasians had lived for centuries among domesticated farm animals that carry diseases, which can cause epidemics, or widespread sickness. Over generations, Eurasians had developed some natural immunity to such diseases. When the viruses moved with colonizers to other continents, however, native populations were soon infected, and with no immunity to such diseases, died by the thousands. Environmental issues such as germs and climate change, Diamond observes, seem to be the deciding factors for the societies and civilizations that died out during the past ten thousand years of human history. He examined many of these cultures in Collapse.

The Collapse of Ancient Societies

In Collapse, Diamond begins his discussion of past civilizations with Easter Island in the South Pacific, whose nearest landmass is Chile. The island, also known as Rapa Nui, has fascinated Europeans since the first Dutch sailors arrived there in the 1720s and found giant carved statues called moai that dated back several hundred years. They also found a desolate Polynesian-heritage population of about 3,000. As archaeologists later discovered through their examination of physical artifacts, Easter Island was once home to 20,000 people.

In an earlier era, the island's community believed it was very important, probably for religious reasons, to place the moai on the hillsides. To do this, most of the island's trees were cut down to clear space for the statues. This deforestation led to reductions in the bird population, and therefore the food and fish supply for Easter Islanders. The loss of trees disturbed the ecosystem, the natural community and its environment. Trees hold soil firmly, and without them the soil blew away. Soil erosion then reduced food supplies even further. According to Diamond: “The further consequences [of deforestation and other human environmental impacts] start with starvation, a population crash, and a descent into cannibalism. Surviving islanders's accounts of starvation are graphically confirmed by the proliferation of little statues called moai kavakava, depicting starving people with hollow cheeks and protruding ribs.”

Diamond's account into the history of Greenland describes a story of pride and vanity. Around the year AD 1000, Norse seafarers arrived on the enormous island and began to settle in, building sod homes (which used many acres of grasslands each), similar to those in their native Scandinavia. They constructed churches out of wood, although the forests were not nearly as plentiful as they were in the Norse homeland. They raised the same cattle, which needed vast amounts of grazing land to survive. The soil in Greenland was much less fertile, and soil erosion soon became a problem because many of the trees had been removed.

Many of the Norse treated the indigenous peoples with disrespect, calling the Inuit skraelings, meaning “wretches.” Unlike the Norse, the Inuit knew how to survive on the land without draining its resources. For example, they burned seal fat through the winter for heat and fished the abundant waters off the main fjords. The Inuit had difficulty understanding why the Norse allowed cows to deplete so much of the land's resources. Less than five hundred years after they arrived, the Norse had starved themselves to death in the once-flourishing Greenland settlements. Diamond explains that archaeologists have searched through the remains for years, looking for the fish bones they were sure the Norse settlers must have left behind. This would indicate that the settlers had abandoned their reckless wasting of the land and adopted some of the survival strategies of the Inuit. However, just a handful of fish bones were ever found.

Diamond also delves into what became of the Mayan civilization in Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula. The Maya were an advanced people who died out almost entirely by AD 909. Again, Diamond notes that soil erosion and deforestation seemed to have been the main factors. Unexpected droughts made the situation worse. But the Maya were also aggressive, both among themselves and with their neighbors, and this drained valuable resources. As Diamond explains, “we have to wonder why the kings and nobles failed to recognize and solve these seemingly obvious problems undermining their society. Their attention was evidently focused on their short-term concerns of enriching themselves, waging wars, erecting monuments, competing with each other, and extracting enough food from the peasants to support all those activities.”


DEFORESTATION: Those practices or processes that result in the change of forested lands to non-forest uses. This is often cited as one of the major causes of the enhanced greenhouse effect for two reasons: 1) the burning or decomposition of the wood releases carbon dioxide; and 2) trees that once removed carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in the process of photosynthesis are no longer present and contributing to carbon storage.

EROSION: Processes (mechanical and chemical) responsible for the wearing away, loosening, and dissolving of materials of Earth's crust.

Diamond also examines modern examples, such as small communities in Montana that face a decline in living standards and a depletion of natural resources. He also addresses environmental devastation on the Caribbean island of Haiti, communities in China and Australia, and in the African nation of Rwanda. Overpopulation in Rwanda and Haiti led to overworking available farmland and cutting down forests, resulting in environments that are unable to sustain a large human population. In Rwanda, this contributed to civil war and genocide. As one survivor of the bloodshed in Rwanda told Diamond in Collapse: “The people whose children had to walk barefoot to school killed the people who could buy shoes for theirs.” In China and Australia, toxic wastes ruined the land that supplied growing populations with food and energy.

The plight of the peoples of the lost civilizations comes under what Diamond calls “ecocide,” or unintended ecological suicide. This happens when the environment that nourishes a community of people is permanently damaged by human mismanagement of natural resources, including deforestation, overfarming, polluting the water supply, or otherwise harming the habitat's natural plant and animal life. “This suspicion of unintended ecological suicide—ecocide—has been confirmed by discoveries made in recent decades by archaeologists, climatologists, historians, paleontologists, and palynologists (pollen scientists).”

Diamond concludes Collapse by listing what he believes are the twelve most serious problems of the early twenty-first century. Four of the problems concern the destruction or loss of natural resources; three involve the limitations of natural resources (energy supplies, freshwater, and sunlight blocked by pollution); three pertain to harmful things that move from one place to another (toxic chemicals, species that have harmful effects when introduced to a new area, and atmospheric gases that cause global warming); and two deal with overpopulation. Although these problems can be categorized as having different sources and effects, Diamond believes they are interlinked.

Impacts and Issues

Collapse was widely reviewed in the press, from mainstream daily and weekly newspapers to scientific and political journals. Its analysis of environmental factors that made some societies more unstable than others, as well as how some societies managed to overcome their environmental problems, won praise. “The lesson of Collapse is that societies, as often as not, aren't murdered,” wrote Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker. “They commit suicide: they slit their wrists and then, in the course of many decades, stand by passively and watch themselves bleed to death.”

Although environmental protection groups and others cite Diamond's theories when criticizing the United States for its large contribution to global warming, some prominent scientists and researchers disagree with Diamond's ideas, pointing out there are numerous exceptions to his arguments. However, his critics often credit him for raising awareness of environmental issues.

Diamond continues to write on the subject. Noting that modern-day humans have vast scientific and intellectual resources available that can help to determine why past civilizations failed, he contends that these valuable lessons can help present-day humans avoid the fates of so many lost peoples. He asserts: “Because we are the cause of our environmental problems, we are the ones in control of them, and we can choose or not choose to stop causing them and start solving them.”

See Also Erosion; Extinction; Forests and Deforestation.



Diamond, Jared. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Viking, 2004.

Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997.


Boisvert, Will. “Apocalypse Then: PW Talks with Jared Diamond.” Publishers Weekly (November 15, 2004).

Demenocal, Peter B., and Edward R. Cook, eds. “Current Anthropology Forum on Anthropology in Public: Perspectives on Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.” Current Anthropology (December 2005).

Diamond, Jared. “Collapse: The Dozen Most Serious Environmental Problems and What We Can Do about Them.” Skeptic (winter 2005): p. 36.

Diamond, Jared. “The Ends of the World as We Know Them.” New York Times (January 1, 2005): p. A13.

Gladwell, Malcolm. “The Vanishing.” New Yorker (January 3, 2005): p. 70.

Web Sites

Gladwell, Malcolm. “The Vanishing: In Collapse Jared Diamond Shows How Societies Destroy Themselves” (January 3, 2005). New Yorker. <> (accessed on December 12, 2007).

Laichas, Tom. “A Conversation with Jared Diamond.” World History Connected. <http://> (accessed December 12, 2007).

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Media Influences: Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

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