Collapse by Jared Diamond
Or to give the full title Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. This is a book I bought in 2005 but somehow I've never bothered to read it. I think it's because at the same time I bought one of his other books, Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, and I gave up reading that book after about 200 pages because the man just would not get past writing about plants and agriculture. But as my pile of unread books started to get smaller I took another look at this book. I had previously read the chapter about Iceland in the book and found it interesting Some of the things he pointed out in the chapter about Iceland were pretty obvious, but I guess I'm not the audience Diamond had in mind when he wrote that chapter.
As for the rest of the book, it's well written and interesting. There are plenty of cases where you tend to think that the people of the societies Diamond writes about weren't really thinking at all. A lot of the time I was thinking "How could they do that?" Later in the book Diamond explains how people can behave in a way that's wrong in hindsight.
Of course some of the societies written about collapsed through no fault of their own (Henderson Island and Pitcairn Island spring to mind here).
There were some things I found a bit surprising in the book. I had no idea Australia was as fragile as Diamond claims it to be. In fact he claims has the most fragile environment of any First World country apart from Iceland. Considering where I am I think I have a small idea about how fragile that is.
Many of the chapters talk about societies that have failed, however the entire book is not about collapsed societies. A few of them are societies that have faced difficulties or are facing difficulties. In those chapters Diamond takes a look at what they did or are doing to work their way out of the difficulties they found themselves in.
The most interesting part of the book was for me the chapters spent on Greenland, and how the society of the Norse (being Icelandic I really have to say that they were Icelandic) failed there. Almost nothing about that gets taught at school here, you only learn that the settlements lasted for some years and then they were all gone and nobody knows why. With that in mind most of the information there was new to me and I found it interesting. What I found sad about it was that the people in Greenland had plenty of chances to save themselves, but the chances involved abandoning some if not all of their cultural values as European Christians and they didn't do it. In effect they chose to live and die as European Christians.
In the last section of the book Diamond focuses on twelve problems that face the world today. He lists them and talks about what's contributing to the problems. After reading about all that you get the feeling that the people on Earth are in deep trouble. Yet Diamond claims the problems he's listed are problems that can be overcome, and really must be overcome if humans are to live on this planet for much longer. So he ends the book on a cautiously optimistic note.