Review of Collapse

The Inlander | February 2, 2005

by Jared Diamond

reviewed by Ted S. McGregor Jr.

When Jared Diamond was testing this material out at UCLA, a student made a simple observation that wound up driving his new book: “What were Easter Islanders saying,” Diamond puts it, “as they cut down the last tree on their island?”

Diamond’s last book, 1997’s Guns, Germs and Steel, won the Pulitzer Prize and entirely changed the explanation for centuries of European domination. Collapse will change people’s minds, too. As the title indicates, it’s not a pretty picture -- but Diamond is “cautiously optimistic” that the fate of many past societies can be avoided.

Relying on mind-boggling advances in archaeology (including the dating of pollen traces), Diamond tours the failures of the world. His groundbreaking research adds up to a very sobering tome of cautionary tales. Will we learn from these peoples’ mistakes, Diamond asks, or simply repeat them?

So what were those Easter Islanders thinking? This case study is the book’s most compelling, as Diamond puts it, because “Polynesian Easter Island was as isolated in the Pacific Ocean as the Earth is today in space.” While resources were drying up, the island’s chiefs were engaged in a game of one-upsmanship involving those funny statues seen on Unexplained Mysteries. The practice of hauling massive stones around used tons of manpower and all their wood. It‘s a chilling example of fiddling while Rome burns, and Diamond blames the leaders: “Throughout recorded history, actions or inactions by self-absorbed kings, chiefs, and politicians have been a regular cause of societal collapse…” (The whole scene reminds him of his own home, Los Angeles, where ever-expanding trophy homes fill the canyons.)

Ultimately, Diamond comes to our current problems, declaring unequivocally that, “Our world society is presently on a non-sustainable course.” Of course, our own leaders have their heads in the sand about this fact, not only in spending beyond our means but in also denying that global warming exists. So don’t count on politicians, Diamond says; change may have to come from the bottom up. The world must learn to live within its means; some dearly held values must be discarded.

Diamond sees a strange disconnect in parents who obsess over providing for college but fail to fathom the world their children will grow up in. That Easter Islander who cut down the last tree? He was probably thinking he’d like to get his work done so he could get home to play with his kids.

The Inlander

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