14 Jun 2008

Thoughts on Diamond's 'Collapse'

A few days ago I mentioned I’d picked up Jared Diamond’s book Collapse as my travel reading. Due to a few long airport delays (thanks, Delta), I’m now more than halfway through.

Rather than holding my thoughts until the end, I’ll be blunt: so far, I’m tremendously impressed. It’s a much more engaging read than Guns, Germs, and Steel, perhaps because it’s focused more narrowly, and the style is a little less academic. It is at times a downright chilling book.

Diamond’s discussion of the fate of the Easter Islanders is often mentioned in summaries and descriptions of the book, maybe because it’s in the first chapter. However, he spends far more time talking about the fate of Norse Greenland, and from the perspective of a modern American, it’s an easier story to relate to.

There’s a certain horror-movie quality to reading about the downfall of societies, especially ones who arguably doomed themselves or contributed to their own demise. Except instead of “don’t go in the basement!” it’s “don’t cut down those trees!” or “don’t try to graze sheep there!” But we know, of course, what’s going to happen.

You would have to be particularly thick to read Collapse and not draw substantial parallels to the fragility of our current society – not least of all because Diamond sometimes goes out of his way to explicitly make the point. Recently, the New York Times Sunday Book Review asked a number of prominent authors for books that they’d like to see the current crop of Presidential candidates reading. Personally I’d be happy if any of them picked up Collapse.

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