The coming Collapse

Ever worried about China''s environmental impact? A new book by Jared Diamond will add to your fears.

This is a book that demands a Chinese translation. Collapse by Jared Diamond is a very important book indeed, and given the ongoing debate in China about a new 'environmentally-minded' growth policy, it will have real resonance for senior decision makers in the world's most populous country.

Many people will be familiar with Diamond's last book, Guns, Germs and Steel, which was one of the most successful popular-science books of the last decade. That book sought to explain why some societies had evolved faster than others. The polymathic Diamond wrote an incisive analysis that debunked ideas of racial inferiority, and instead explained development over the last 20,000 years in terms of geographical and climate advantages. That is to say it was not because certain races were innately 'better' than others that they had advanced their civilizations faster, but rather that they enjoyed a better agricultural climate, had more suitable livestock and so forth.

If you have not read Guns, Germs and Steel, it is certainly worth adding to your Summer reading list.

Collapse takes the opposite tack to Guns, Germs and Steel and seeks to explain why certain societies did not succeed ie collapsed. In the first half of the book Diamond analyses the plight of the Easter Islanders, the Mayans, the Greenland Norse and the Anasazi and looks at why their societies first rose and after a few centuries just collapsed. In each case the population fell to zero and all that remained were relics, statues and the odd building.

In each of the cases, Diamond explains why a fragile environment - and deforestation in particular - led to the population's eventual demise. Combinations of climate change, degradation of soils, and poor decision making suddenly saw the land unable to support the human population in a sustainable way.

To take the example of the Anasazi in the US Southwest, this society flourished for 600 years, then extinguished itself in less than 50 between 1150 and 1200. The Chaco Canyon - where they resided - would remain totally unoccupied by humans for a further 600 years before the era of the modern US.

As Diamond points out: "The Anasazi did survive in the Chaco Canyon for about 600 years, considerably longer than the duration of European occupation anywhere in the New World since Columbus's arrival in 1492... That should make us modern Americans hesitate to be too confident yet about the sustainability of our First World economy, especially when we reflect how quickly Chaco collapsed after its peak in the decade 1110-1120, and how implausible the risk of collapse would have seemed to Chacoans of that decade."

The book then analyses more contemporary economic and environmental issues facing society - posing exactly this premise that if we make poor decisions and abuse the environment, we too risk collapse. For example, there is a big chapter on Montana and Diamond's first hand experiences of its environmental issues. There is also an excellent chapter on Australia.

Not to be entirely bleak, the book also looks at successes - ie situations where a society has reversed its potential demise by making sensible decisions. For example, he looks at how Tokugawa Japan faced up to its environmental crisis, and reforested the country with great discipline and success.

Even more interesting is the comparison of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, sitting on two sides of the same island. The former is an environmental and political disaster, while the latter has spent the last 50 years making wise environmental decisions that have made it a more sustainable society. What makes the Dominican Republic an even more interesting case study is that its dictator leader, Balaguer was evil on the one hand (he imprisoned and tortured dissidents), and yet was probably the most committed environmentalist ever to attain power in the 20th century (which he did between the ages of 60 and 94).

The book, of course, would not be complete without a chapter on China. His analysis of China's environmental degradation in recent decades makes for painful reading, although he does give China's leaders credit for taking proactive measures to contain its population growth. However, balanced against that is the falling size of households, which means 126 million new households will be added by 2015 (consuming scarce water, electricity and so forth).

Indeed, the central theme of the book is the trade-off between economics, and environmental sustainability. Societies face collapse (for example, Rwanda in recent times) when their population's consumption exceeds the local environment's ability to sustain it.

Likewise, he talks about the Philippines as another society that has allowed its population to outrun its environment's ability to sustain it. Diamond's book in fact came up during a recent dinner discussion with a senior filipino banker and some points the banker made only hammered home the truth of Diamond's points. The Philippines is a country whose population is increasing at 2.5% per year due to inadequate birth control (the Catholic church does not encourage it) and as a result about 40% of the country's 85.5 million people are considered poor. What is more amazing is the speed with which the population has exploded.

According to the website ( it was around 10 million in 1918, 30 million in 1963, and will be 93.7 million in 2010. It is clear that the country's resources cannot sustain a population of this size in a fashion that leads to rises in living standards and that is why the government has a stated goal to 'export' one million filipinos per year to work overseas.

Diamond points out that countries whose populations hit the limits of their land's environmental abilities to sustain it, inevitably see social, political and economic problems. Thus, when you look at the political instability of the Philippines, the root cause is very simple: a country that could comfortably sustain a 60 million population and be stable, has half as many people again, and is unstable. The only answer to the Philippines economic and social problems is population control.

Clearly, the whole world - thanks to globalization - faces agonizing issues. Bigger populations consume more, and our planet can only sustain so much consumption.

Diamond notes: "The global consequences of everybody aspiring to the lifestyle currently enjoyed by First World citizens are well illustrated by China, because it combines the world's largest population with the fastest growing,... If China's per-capita consumption rates do rise to First World levels, and even if nothing else in the world changed - eg even if production and population rates everywhere else remained unchanged - then that production/ consumption rate increase alone would translate into an increase in total world production/consumption of 94% in the case of base metals (steel, aluminium, copper and lead).

"In other words, China's achievement of First World standards will approximately double the entire world's human resource use and environmental impact. But it is doubtful whether even the world's current human resource use and impact can be sustained. Something has to give way. That is the strongest reason why China's problems automatically become the world's problems."

This is an excellent book. It combines thorough research with Diamond's own brilliant insights, anecdotes and experiences. If there is one criticism of the book, it is that it occasionally makes heavy reading and is more 'academic' in style than Guns, Germs and Steel. At times it requires a certain amount of readerly discipline so as not to 'tune out'; but that discipline is well repaid.

Less a criticism, but just a plain fact, the book will probably depress you, even though it does offer some elements of hope that we can deal with our problems.

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed and Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies are available from
Share our publication on social media
Share our publication on social media