Jared Diamond's 1997 book, "Guns, Germs and Steel," won the Pulitzer Prize for its analysis of why Europeans and Asians came to dominate...
Jared Diamond’s 1997 book, “Guns, Germs and Steel,” won the Pulitzer Prize for its analysis of why Europeans and Asians came to dominate the world. His just-released follow-up to that book, “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed” (Viking, 575 pp., $29.95), is already poised to eclipse his Pulitzer Prize-winner — “Collapse” sits among the top three books on the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list (along with works by Jon Stewart and Amber Frey).
Besides a Pulitzer in his pocket, Diamond has won a MacArthur grant. Trained as a physiologist — he describes himself as formerly the world’s foremost expert on salt reabsorption by the gall bladder — he’s also a working conservationist. An authority on the birds of New Guinea, he devised a conservation plan, mostly adopted, for the Indonesian New Guinea’s national park system.
But Diamond’s most influential gift may be his ability to write about geopolitical and environmental systems in ways that don’t just educate and provoke, but entertain.
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A Los Angeles resident and professor at UCLA, Diamond spoke by phone recently from his native Boston. He credited his mother for the clear language that has made his books so popular: “In the seventh grade we were assigned weekly compositions,” he recalled. Every week his mother, a teacher and musician, gave them a going-over on the fine points of grammar and sentence structure.
But most of the interest in “Collapse,” Diamond says, is the visceral lure of its topic: “We’re all interested in the collapse of civilizations. Many of us go to see ruins. We recognize the obvious puzzle in the collapse of societies. And we’re concerned about the two dozen societies” on the verge of collapse today, those seemingly accursed spots like Haiti and Rwanda, Iraq and Afghanistan that seem perpetually to teeter at the abyss.
Easter Island to Greenland
Readers of “Collapse” may feel that they’re reliving seventh-grade world history, in a much livelier and more dramatic presentation. “Collapse” analyzes civilizations that died, from Easter Island to Norse Greenland. It then turns toward the present and future by examining ongoing catastrophes (Rwanda) and such countries as China and Australia whose future may be mortgaged by environmental degradation and/or overpopulation.
The author of “Collapse” will read at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Town Hall, 1119 Eighth Ave. in Seattle. Tickets are $5. For more information, call the Elliott Bay Book Co. (206-624-6600; www.elliottbaybook.com).
Diamond has a knack for retrieving dull nuggets from the detritus of history and buffing them up with a contemporary analogy. Comparing the pukao, the giant stone headdresses placed with great effort atop the famous Easter Island statues, Diamond writes: “I cannot resist the thought that they were produced as show of one-upmanship … the pukao I saw reminded me of the activities of Hollywood moguls living near my home in Los Angeles. … Tycoon Marvin Davis topped previous moguls with his house of 50,000 square feet, so Aaron Spelling had to top that with a house of 56,000 square feet.”
He begins his survey of doomed civilizations with Easter Island, a society that lived and died in almost complete isolation. He proceeds through small civilizations (Pitcairn and Henderson Islands) and large (Central America’s Maya, whose numbers may have exceeded 50 million at one point) to one of the most complex — the Christian Norse colony on Greenland. The Norse survived the harsh climate of Greenland for almost 500 years before perishing from a combination of resource ruination and shortsighted thinking by its leaders.
After accumulating a foot-and-a-half pile of paper on each society, Diamond interviewed experts. He visited ruins, often in the company of those experts, and then analyzed the demise of each civilization in five areas: environmental damage, climate change, the presence of hostile neighbors or friendly trade partners, and the society’s responses to its problems.
In Diamond’s telling, the Greenland Norse were undone by their own rigidity — the values that sustained them also killed them. They eroded the soil by cutting down all the trees and using agricultural methods that had worked well on denser European soil. But in Greenland, the feather-light volcanic soil was blown away by ferocious winds.
A fervent belief in Christianity held the colony together. But it also impelled the Norse to trade their raw materials to Europeans, not for iron for tools, but for crosses and stained glass windows for their cathedrals. A mysterious food taboo banished fish from their diet, though the surrounding oceans were awash in them: “Every archeologist starts off incredulous that they didn’t eat fish,” Diamond says. “Every archeologist who goes there thinks that past archeologists missed it, and thinks, ‘I will find those fish bones.’ ”
“If they had brought back iron” instead of church trappings, “at least they could have made tools. They didn’t get the metal tools. They had no military advantage over the Inuit,” the Greenland natives who Diamond believes eventually wiped the Norse out.
An accelerating horse race
Diamond vividly writes of countries in current decline; the saddest and most compelling chapter is on Rwanda. Long before the 1990s installment in the war between the Tutsis and Hutus, the country was plagued with overpopulation, environmental destruction and an inequitable distribution of land among the classes.
A Tutsi teacher whose wife and four of five children were killed tells a French researcher: “The people whose children had to walk barefoot to school killed the people who could buy shoes for theirs.”
Diamond says he wrote “Collapse” because he’s convinced that the world is near a crisis point.
On the one hand, environmental groups, notably indigenous ones in places like the Dominican Republic, have gained a place at the table in decisions on resource use and abuse.
On the other hand, the aspiration of emerging world powers like China to a first-world standard of living for their citizens is an understandable but ominous development. Millions of third-world citizens, whose way of life minimally affects the environment, are about to exponentially increase that impact: “China’s achievement of First World standards will approximately double the entire world’s human resource use and environmental impact,” Diamond writes. Thanks to globalization, no one can ignore that sort of impact.
Some societies have crashed shortly after reaching their peak. Diamond, tracing the trajectory of the Mayan empire, says that “after 1300 years of buildup, and 500 years of almost exponential buildup, the crash came and it was all over, in almost a century. You don’t expect a society to collapse at its peak, but that’s when a society has the most people and the most impact on the environment.”
Nonetheless, Diamond calls himself a “cautious optimist.” Resource depletion is increasing, but so is an emerging awareness of the likely effects.
“It’s an exponentially accelerating horse race between the forces of destruction and the forces of environmental concern,” he says. “My children will see who wins the race.”
Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or firstname.lastname@example.org