Thursday, April 06, 2006

Collapse by Jared Diamond

Book Cover: Collapse

I just finished reading Jared Diamond's Collapse : How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. I haven't been reading many current books lately, but I found this in my local library. (Unfortunately, it was in the "Adult Fiction" section, so no one else was likely to find it.) I first encountered Diamond's popular writing in The American Museum of Natural History's slick monthly, "Natural History," in the 1980's. Although I was often familiar with his subject matter (evolution, ecology, biogeography), he frequently delighted me with his unusual perspective. He made me think about things differently. I've consistently liked his books, as well.

Collapse : How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed has been much reviewed since its 2005 publication. Metacritic's collection includes some positive and some negative reviews. I thought a quick search might turn up some interesting links, but for the most part, the links were rather uninformative. Environmentalists think the book is too moderate, too critical of aboriginal peoples and too optimistic, and political conservatives feel it is too politically correct and environmentally alarmist. I found David Brin's essay interesting: A Glass Half Empty: Jared Diamond's COLLAPSE Shows Santayana was Right About that Little History Thing.

My graduate career started at a time when palynology was showing some new things about paleontology and archaeology. Whereas I grew up thinking aboriginal peoples had lived in harmony with their environments, it was becoming more obvious that extinction and habitat degradation always followed human colonization. Desertification followed the development of agriculture in Mesopotamia and the Near East, and Northern Europe had been steadily losing species for 5000 years. We primates are a messy bunch, and big groups of people make big messes. Jared Diamond puts a braver face on the future of our environment than I do. Perhaps he's whistling in the dark, but I hope he's right.

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