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Collapse: how societies choose to fail or survive, by Jared Diamond (Penguin hardback, £20) is the sort of book that archaeologists should write but don’t. Jared Diamond has an interesting background. He began as a biologist and became professor of physiology at Los Angeles at a very early age. However, he is also into birds and spent a couple of years in New Guinea. Subsequently, he discovered environmental history and is now professor in the Department of Geography at UCLA. He has already written several best-sellers, notably ‘Why is Sex Fun?’ and then a history of the world entitled ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’. This new book is really a follow-up, looking at the collapse of societies.
Jared Diamond is essentially an environmentalist, and he looks at the past from an environmental point of view. The book is in three parts: the first part deals with past societies, the second part with modern societies, while in the last part he draws some practical lessons. And as he writes like an angel, the result is fascinating reading.
As archaeologists, our main interest is obviously in the first part, and here it is tempting to say that he is a little naughty – no naughty is far too strong a word. Rather, that he does what we all do: we choose those examples that best fit our thesis. Thus, instead of looking at the decline and fall of the Roman empire, or at the collapse of the civilisation of the East Mediterranean in the 12th century BC at the hands of the Sea Raiders, his main example is Easter Island.
Now, over the past generation the archaeology of Easter Island has become well explored. When settlers first arrived there around AD 900 it was fully wooded. The population expanded rapidly, rival chieftains arose who erected the statues for which Easter Island is so well known. However, the trees were gradually cut down, the source of the ropes needed to erect the statues was destroyed, and eventually the last tree was chopped down. It was no longer possible to erect statues, it was no longer possible to build boats, and the population collapsed. The story is excellently told in a book The Enigmas of Easter Island by Paul Bahn and John Flenley, which we reviewed in Current Archaeology 129. It is the classical story of a collapse due to ecological disaster.
Diamond then goes on to similar examples – the Pitcairn and Henderson islands, the Anasasi villages in the inhospitable deserts of Arizona in South West America, and then onto the Viking explorations, notably to Greenland, which eventually collapsed when the climate turned cold at the end of the Middle Ages.
These are all examples of what one might call ‘hard cases’, of societies achieving a short-term success against the odds in inhospitable settings. The one mainstream civilisation that he deals with is that of the Maya collapse in the 9th century AD. The causes of the Maya collapse are indeed hotly disputed – there seem to be as many explanations as there are Maya scholars, but he makes a strong case that it was the over-cultivation of the lower slopes that was a major cause for the collapse.
He also deals with some environmental successes. He gives an excellent account of New Guinea, where ‘stone age’ villages were unexpectedly discovered in the 1930s when aeroplanes first flew over what were considered uninhabited tracts of forest. Having lived there for several years studying birds, he is able to give an excellent first-hand account of the archaeology of the villages and explain how the inhabitants gradually learnt to master the environment and to achieve an equilibrium. He also gives an excellent account of Japan in the Tokugawa Era, that is between AD 1600 and 1860 – the great era of the Shoguns. At the beginning of the era, their extensive building programmes threatened to deforest the island, so strict and effective forestry laws were established, which led to the green appearance of much of inland Japan of today.
When he comes on to modern societies, some of his descriptions are enthralling. I particularly liked his account of the terrible problems facing Australia. The trouble with Australia is geological. Geologically, Australia consists almost entirely of old rocks, and the older the rocks the more degraded they become: the nutrients leach out of them and they form deserts. What you need is volcanoes to stir things up and spread their ultimately fertile ashes, or alternatively, some nice earth movements – and the only major earth movements in Australia are those forming the Great Dividing Range in eastern Australia – where the only fertile lands are to be found. There were no glaciations to stir the soil up, (except in Tasmania): geologically, Australia is awfully boring, which is why the soil has been leached of its nutrients, and most of Australia is desert. Thus he argues that in Australia much of the farming is what he calls ‘mining’, that is the farmers are taking out of the soil what little nutrients it has and are not putting any back. The water supplies are also becoming more saline and this will lead to yet further problems.
He looks at China and Rwanda, being gloomy on both, but he is also fascinating on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, which is divided into two halves between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Of the two halves, Haiti is an unqualified failure, the Dominican Republic is at least a partial success. How far is this due to the ethnic make up – Haiti being the descendents of African slaves and French speaking, the Dominican Republic being much more mixed and Spanish speaking? Or how far is it due to the fact that Haiti has had a succession of bad dictators whereas the Dominican Republic has had one at least moderately ‘good’ dictator (Ballaguer), who has ensured substantial reforestation and economic success.
When he comes to sum up, he draws many of his examples from Montana which is the north west corner of the USA on the eastern side of the Rockies. This has traditionally been devoted to farming, logging and mining, but now increasingly it is catering to the retirement market, attracted by the spectacular scenery. He himself has fallen for it, and has a retirement home to which he escapes from Los Angeles. He is good on the problems of sustainable forestry but even better on the problems of mining, especially compared to the oil industry which he also knows well, having acted as environmental consultant to some of the big oil firms.
The possibility of cleaning up oil is comparatively easy, due to the fact that the product itself is paid for by the ultimate consumer, and these consumers can therefore put pressure on the oil companies to clean up their act. Copper however, though omnipresent in manufactured goods, is never sold to the end customer, and thus there are no direct customers to pressurise the mining companies – and copper mining is extremely dirty.
There are a number of fascinating conclusions to be drawn. He emphasises the importance of taking a long view and praises those who wish to hand on to the next generation: at times (naughtily) I wanted to draw the conclusion that he was arguing in favour of benevolent dictators or even hereditary monarchs who are not concerned with the next election but can concentrate on handing over the country in a good state to the next generation. As an environmentalist he confesses himself to be a moderate. He is perhaps too kind to some environmental organisations and tends to exaggerate e.g. on climate warming, and he nowhere discusses the hideous problems as to how far atomic power should be used to replace oil and coal; but he is surely right to point to the dangers of population growth and to urge that we reconsider the necessity for zero population growth.
In conclusion, how far does this all stand up? Ultimately I fear, not very well. There are many causes of collapse – political, economic, spiritual, perhaps even sheer old age of a society. Gibbon (whom he never mentions) in his Decline and Fall covered many of the reasons. Environmental concerns are one reason for collapse, and a reason that has been overlooked in the past. But they are surely a minor reason, and most of the examples he chooses are abnormal ones: Easter Island is an exception, not the rule. Jared Diamond writes exceptionally well and this book is a splendid read; but ultimately, he is no Gibbon.

This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 10. Click here to subscribe

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