DIAMOND Jared, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Penguin Books , 2005
(608 pages, 14.5€)
Jared Diamond is a professor of geography at the University of California, Los Angeles. He began his scientific career in physiology and expanded into evolutionary biology and biogeography.
He has published more than six hundred articles and several books including the bestseller “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” (Pulitzer Prize). He received many awards such as the National Medal of Science.
When discussing environmental issues, it is common to put in opposition the human kind and the rest of nature: when it comes to other living beings than humans, our species is described as disruptive, and protecting the environment necessarily has a negative impact on our wellbeing by depriving us of some liberty, when most of the positive outcomes would benefit other species. In line with this approach, protecting the environment is often perceived as a cost center for our economy (pollution avoidance costs) and not as a profit center (preservation of an asset that will bring back money).
The book by Diamond has the merit to break this incorrect bias. Based on an impressive collection of scholar work spanning mining in the US in the 20th century to religion of Vikings in Greenland, as well as Mayas’ diet, Diamond demonstrates slowly but surely that environmental carelessness in the past – either conscious or not – have later costed a lot in human lives, including in some cases described in details, leading to the collapse of entire societies.
Had this book only covered historical facts, it wouldn’t have been less interesting. But the objective of Diamond is obviously to go further and act as a whistle-blower regarding our own future. He somehow joins forces with all those who consider that environmental assets are essential to the development of human societies, including the GDP growth we so much focus on these days. If the environmental assets are too damaged, growth is followed by a slowdown, potentially even a fast one that leads to collapse. Diamond highlights the fact that for many societies that he studied, the collapse occurred shortly after their apparent apogee (the biggest statues, the most beautiful temples…), which casts doubts on the idea that when all goes well, troubles are far away.
Although I didn’t identify any obvious mistakes on topics I know best, it is obvious that such a colossal work contains some inaccuracy. To me, they do not weaken the core message, nuanced, documented, and therefore even more worrying.