by Jared Diamond

  • History
  • Ashto = 3/10
  • Jonesy = 9/10

Collapse – by Jared Diamond

Perhaps we can still learn from the past, but only if we think carefully about its lessons. Collapse by Jarred Diamond presents a 5 point framework of possible contributing collapse to societies.


Collapse Summary

Lurking behind the mystery of ancient ruins is the mystery with the nagging thought:  might such a fate eventually befall our own wealthy society? Will tourists someday stare mystified at the New York skyscrapers, much as we stare at the jungle overgrown ruins of Maya cities?

Perhaps we can still learn from the past, but only if we think carefully about its lessons. Collapse by Jarred Diamond presents a 5 point framework of possible contributing collapse to societies:

1 – Environmental damage:

Could be exceptional imprudence of the people and exceptional fragility in aspects of the environment, or both.

2 – Climate change:

Today we refer to human induced. But in the past it was natural climate change, including the advance and retreat of continental ice sheets during ice ages from about 1400-1800 AD, or the global cooling from the enormous volcanic eruption of Indonesia’s Mt Tambora on 1815.

3 – Hostile neighbors:

Relationships might be intermittently or chronically hostile. A society may be able to hold off its enemies as long as it is strong, only to succumb in a moment of weakness. The proximate cause is the conquest, but the ultimate cause that leads to the collapse is the temporary weakening

4 – Decreasing support by friendly neighbors:

Either depend on imports of essential trade goods. If your partner comes weak for any reason, then they no longer can supply the essential goods

5 – The response of the society

Different societies respond differently to similar problems. Deforestation for example has arose in many cultures – some went down, some developed sustainable management practices

Easter Island

For all the collapsed civilisations explored in the book, Easter Island is probably the most chilling. The parallels between Easter Island and the modern world are obvious. Thanks to globalization, international trade, jet planes and the internet, all countries on Earth share the same resources like the clans that occupied Easter.  

Today on the island you will see 15 toppled statues, which re-erecting by 1994 means a crane capable of lifting 55 tonnes. Even with that modern machinery, the task is challenging.   

The statues increased in size with the generations across all tribes on the island, as if to proclaim “all right, so you can erect a statue 30 feet high, but look at me, I can put this 12 ton pukao on top of my statue, you try to top that you little wimp!”.  

The whole operation of constructing statues and platforms must have been enormously expensive of food resources, for whose accumulation, transport and delivery the chiefs commissioning the statues must have arranged. It not only required a lot of food, but also of thick long rope, made in fibrous tree bark, by wich 50 to 500 people could drag the statues, and also lots of big strong trees to obtain the timber needed for the sleds, canoe ladders and lever. 

Through several methods of recovering remains of vanished plants show that in the last few decades, for hundreds and thousands of years before human arrival,  Easter was not at all a barren wasteland, but a subtropical forest of tall trees and wooden bushes. Of the 21 vanished species, two of htem grew to 100 and 50 feet tall, and were presumably how they dragged their statues. 

Deforestation must have begun some time after human arrival by AD900, and must have been completed by 1722. The picture of Easter must be the most extreme example of forest destruction in the Pacific, and amongst the most extreme in the world – the whole forest is gone and all of its tree species extinct. 

Immediate consequences for the islanders were losses of raw materials, losses of wild caught foods and decreased crop yields. Raw materials lost or else available only in decreased amounts included everything made from native plants and birds, wood, rope, bark, feathers. Lack of large timber would have brought the end of transport and erection of large statues, and also to the construction of seagoing canoes. 

In 1650 Easter’s inhabitants were reduced to burning herbs, grasses and sugarcane scrapes and other crop wastes for fuel. There would have been fierce competition for the remaining wooden shrubs, among people trying to obtain thatching and small pieces of wood for houses, wood for implements and bark cloth. Without seagoing canoes they couldn’t get the fish that were in the diet of those around at 1500. After 1680 the survivors adapted as best they could. Cannibalism underwent explosive growth after 1650, chickens accounted for less than 0.1% of animal bones  

You got to think “what did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it? 

Like modern loggers, did he say “jobs, not trees!”. Or “technology will solve our problems, never fear, we’ll find a substitute for wood!”. Or “we don’t have proof that there aren’t palm trees elsewhere on Easter, we need more research, your proposed ban on logging is premature and driven by fear mongering”. Similar questions arise for every society that has inadvertently damaged its environment. 

Easter’s isolation makes it the clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by overexploiting its own resources. 

In the 5 point framework, it was human environmental impacts, especially deforestation and destruction of bird populations, and political, social and religious factors behind the impacts, like a focus on statue construction and competition between clans and chiefs driving the erection of bigger statues requiring more wood rope and food.


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