Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed
By Jared Diamond

(First published in The Massachusetts Sierran, Spring 2005, Volume 11, Number 1)

Consider the pig. In Polyneisa, pork has always been the dish that made a meal into a feast, the animal that advertised its owner’s wealth. Yet four centuries ago the people of the small Polynesian island of Tikopia gave up the pig. They did so because it takes ten pounds of vegetables to produce a pound of pork. On a small island (pop. c. 1200,) the choice was between feeding more people or producing pork for chiefly feasts, and the Tikopians chose to support a larger population on a less opulent diet.

Intriguingly, the same century that the Tikopeans gave up eating pork, the Japanese gave up both beef and pork, as well as the use of horses for transport. Like the Tikopeans, they lived on an island that could support more people if they ate vegetables and used human porters in place of horses.

Now consider the Norse settlements in Greenland, which, though largely forgotten today, flourished for almost 400 years with a population of 5,000 Vikings – none of whom ate fish. No one understands why. Given that Icelanders and Norwegians are notoriously fond of fish, the refusal of Greenlanders to eat them is inexplicable. Their inability to establish the kind of friendly relations with the Inuit who colonized Greenland from the west some centuries after the Norse colonized it from the east is easier to understand, even though making friends might have enabled the Norse to emulate Inuit success at hunting bowhead whales from buoyant umiaqs, and the Inuit to learn the art of iron smelting. After all, two peoples competing for the same hunting grounds do not necessarily see friendship as a goal. And certainly no one can have expected the Norse to foresee that Greenland’s fragile soils would erode faster than Norwegian soils. So, after four centuries of success, the Greenland Norse appear to have starved to death on an island surrounded by fish. Diamond likes to divide everything into numbered parts; his complex, sprawling new book, Collapse; How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, is divided into three. The first part is a series of fascinating stories about entire societies that collapsed, with environmental mismanagement playing the crucial role. The second part consists of stuff-you-already-knew about the ways our generation is destroying the environment worldwide, via mining, deforestation, soil erosion and the other usual suspects. Third are sections on Paths to Success and Why Do Some Societies Make Disastrous Decisions. Here, Diamond is groping toward a comprehensive theory of why some societies collapse while others continue.

Diamond concludes that Tikopia was able to make wise choices because it was highly homogeneous but not highly stratified. By Polynesian standards – there were islands where commoners had to prostrate themselves when a chief went past – Tikopian chiefs were scarcely elevated above the common herd, they hoed their own fields and ate no better than commoners.

Greenland went hungry partly because of the extreme privilege of the Bishop, who not only occupied the richest farmland but directed resources that could have been used in food procurement toward the hunt for walrus tusks to purchase such luxuries as silk vestments and communion wine.

Japan, on the other hand, was able to make great strides during the Tokugawa period (1600-1867) not only toward stabilizing its population, but in maintaining soil fertility, preventing erosion, and largely halting deforestation. Like Tikopia, Japan was highly homogeneous. Unlike Tikopia it was highly stratified. If Tikopia became sustainable by cooperation, Japan became sustainable by fiat. The Shogun told the bureaucrats, who told the village heads, who told the peasants what they would and would not do.

Norse Greenland, however, did not fail because it mismanaged its resources, but because it was defeated in war. The Inuit in their eastward expansion across the Arctic has already wiped out the less technologically welladapted Dorset people. They then took on and wiped out the Norse, who starved to death not because they made bad ecological choices but because they were unable to defend themselves from the Inuit.

Diamond fails to see that what Tikopia, Iceland, and Japan have in common is not only that they were islands, but that for many centuries they were free of war. War is one of the great demographic correctors. Deaths in battle and, more importantly, death by the disease and famine that follow armies have regularly reduced populations to more sustainable levels. With no invasions causing population to fall, and no likely way to expand their resource base by conquering somebody else, these three islands chose to husband their resources. Easter Island, by contrast, collapsed because the several tribes preferred to use their energies in efforts to conquer one another, rather than to focus on sustainability.

But even here, the picture is not simple. On Tikopia, one of the ways that population was kept within numbers the island could support, was to choose a weak clan and exterminate all of its members, leaving more resources for everybody else. Human societies are far more complex than the bird populations that were the subject of Diamond’s early research, and far harder to make general rules about.

The one clear lesson that emerges is that no problem can be solved unless it is first taken seriously. In this fascinating and fundamentally optimistic exploration of history on a global scale, Diamond succeeds in persuading the reader that almost every problem hasa solution, once the problem is taken seriously. While Collapse is not a paradigm- shifting tour de force on the level of Guns, Germs, and Steel, it is a lively read that may help reshape our notions of how societies can make wise choices.

Diana Muir is working on a new book on the role of overpopulation in history.