Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

Summary of Selected Societies from Jared Diamond’s Collapse

Below, I’ll summarize how a few representative societies responded to Diamond’s five contributing factors to the collapse of societies: environmental damage, change in the climate, relations with neighbors, trade partners, and response to environmental problems.

Montana: Bitterroot Valley

Montana’s Bitterroot Valley is located in southwestern Montana.  The area was formerly covered in forest.  Logging and inadequate forest management have led to a number of problems.  Areas that have been deforested have caused an increase in erosion and soil infertility.  Montana’s mild climate and short growing season mean that trees take decades to recover from clear-cutting.  For several decades, any forest fires that started were controlled or extinguished.  In several areas, the undergrowth (it’s fuel load) has become so dense that any fires started now spread quickly and reach the canopy.  In other areas, loggers left behind piles of branches and leaves ripe for burning.  Forestry experts are realizing that forest fires were common long before humans settled the area and served a useful purpose to thin out the forest and add nutrients to the soil.  According to Diamond, Congress has not appropriated the funds for the Forest Service to begin the process of thinning out the forest with controlled burns but is instead forced to spend millions of dollars fighting the resulting fires–even as much as $1.5 billion fighting a large fire that burned over 10,000 acres in the summer of 2000.

Mining also contributed to environmental problems.  Due to low productivity, many mines have been abandoned, leaving toxic chemicals and environmental hazards to leech into ground-water or run-off into streams.

Due to it’s scenic views and beautiful natural ambiance, Montana’s Bitterroot Valley has become a popular destination for “Hollywood Elite” and other retirees to build large summer homes and hunting cabins.  This has had mixed results: one one hand, some marginally-productive agricultural land has been taken out of active farming and returned to grassland for hunting and fishing.  On the other hand, large gated communities of expensive homes are populated by people uninterested in becoming a part of the community.  The influx of outsiders has led to rising prices (especially of land), depriving farmers of opportunities to expand their operations.  In addition, over half of Montana’s income comes from outside the state–the Bitterroot Valley does not have the resources to support today’s population.

Easter Island

Easter Island, located 2000 miles off the coast of Chile, had a society that flourished and grew for many years, isolated from contact with the rest of the world.  Famous for it’s almost 400 huge stone statues (ahu), the island was large enough to support several small tribes of natives for many years.  Though it has a mild climate and fertile soils, it has below-average rainfall compared to the rest of Polynesia, does not support very many species of fish, and often has winds that prevent crops from reaching full maturity.  Despite these difficulties, the island supported societies that were able to devote resources to carving huge stone statues from the volcanic quarry (ranging in weight from 10 to 270 tons and height from 15 to 70 feet tall) and transporting them around the island.

As the Easter Island population grew, more and more land was cleared and devoted to agriculture.  The inadequate rainfall and windy conditions mean trees are slow-growing.   Trees were also used for building structures, transporting the ahu statues, and building boats for fishing.  Mismanagement of these resources meant that island was essentially completely deforested.  I think this is a very good analogy for the current situation humanity finds itself in: we are so heavily dependent on petroleum and fossil fuels, and we can see that these resources are quickly running out.  However, we refuse to change our way of life to live in a more sustainable manner.  Clearly, the Easter Islanders recognized the problem long before they chopped down the last tree.  Yet, they were apparently not willing to make changes that could have saved their societies.

Evidence suggests that their society devolved into competitiveness and a “civil war” of sorts.  When the island was first “discovered” by Europeans, every one of the ahu statues were toppled, likely by competing tribes and their religious/”military” leaders.  Unfortunately, European contact essentially spelled the end for the Easter Island natives, as they were taken as slaves in large numbers and were susceptible to European diseases.

Anasazi & Neighbors (of New Mexico and Arizona)

Seet Keel in Northeastern Arizona, part of the Navajo National Monument.  Note the logs used as ceiling supports (right photo).

Keet Seel Keet Seel 2

Anasazi Ruins in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico:





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The Anasazi and several other native tribes lived for thousands of years in what is now Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, and Mexico.  They survived in the arid climate through agriculture, living close to dependable sources of water.  They planted multiple fields in surrounding areas, and harvested those that received sufficient rainfall to be productive.  These civilizations experimented with irrigation, but often found that cutting ditches and canals led to massive erosion when a sudden heavy rain fell.

These societies built their dwellings from stone and timber from nearby trees.  Many of the areas where these societies existed are completely barren today, but examination of packrat middens has found that pine trees at one time were numerous.  As their populations grew, they had to go farther and farther to find suitable trees for building–sometimes as much as 50 miles away.  Eventually, they stripped the land of trees and had to move entire villages, as they became accustomed to doing once every few generations.

Eventually, environmental problems led to greatly reduced crop production and an elimination of timber supplies in Chaco canyon.  Despite this, their population continued to increase, as the area was considered a cultural center, and surrounding areas imported goods and supplies.  However, this complex society did not survive long, as warfare and years of drought led to cannibalism and abandonment of the Chaco canyon.


After reports on several societies comes the “PRACTICAL LESSONS” section.  Here are Jared Diamond’s reasons why societies often make disastrous decisions:

1. Failure to anticipate

When foxes and rabbits were introduced to Australia, colonists probably had no idea that these two alien species could be such a destructive and destabilizing force.  In hindsight, we have the benefit of their experience and written history, but many societies did not.  The Anasazi did not have a written language, so may not have a historical record of the big droughts which happened every century or so.  However, even those who have the benefit of written history and experience must be careful not to repeat past mistakes.

2. Failure to perceive a problem

Soil nutrients are invisible, so many societies historically were unaware of the impact of their agricultural practices.  Historically, societies failed to manage resources when the “managers” of that resource are stationed far away–an issue for the Viking Norse in Greenland.  One of the primary causes of blindness toward problems is that of slow trends.  When the change from year to year is small or gradual, we often fail to notice important changes.  It is worse when the gradual change is masked by wider natural fluctuations, as is the case today with climate change.  In the past, the Greenlanders failed to notice their climate was getting colder, and the Mayans and Anasazi had trouble recognizing the fact that their climate was becoming drier.  The same likely happened as the Easter Island inhabitants cut down trees, gradually thinning the forest until there was nothing left.

3. Rational bad behavior

One of the more common failures, societies often respond to problems in an unhelpful way. Frequently, people have  exhibited selfishness in the face of a mounting problem.  In Montana, a few fisherman who like to fish for Pike introduced the species into several Montana lakes and rivers, where they proceeded to eat most of the trout–an ecological disaster as well as a huge impediment to the many people who make a living as trout fishermen.  “Tragedy of the commons” occurs all the time in shared resources as well, when each individual fails to realize their own impact on a shared resource.  When those involved in an industry have no long-term stake in preserving a resource, that resource has often been abused and destroyed.  These actions make sense for the perpetrators, but are harmful to society as a whole.

4. Disastrous values

Throughout history, there have been times when a society acted completely irrationally.  Societies often cling to bad policies when they correlate with some deeply-held cultural or religious value.  The Greenland Norse became Christians, but then devoted their land’s scarce lumber to building extravagant churches and spent their limited money importing stained-glass windows and sending tithes to Rome to pay for the crusades–irrational acts when you are barely raising enough food to keep you and your livestock alive through the winter.  Australian settlers from Britain brought with them a high tradition of raising sheep for wool and hunting rabbits, traditions which have damaged the continent.  Rwanda’s tradition of large families made sense when child mortality was high, but has now resulted in a population explosion.  Many societies choose to die holding on to their values rather than compromise and live.

5. Other irrational behaviors

Often, problems are dismissed because of the person or group involved in bringing the problem to light.  Impoverished countries usually fail to think long-term, because their residents are concerned about what they will eat tomorrow.  Term-limited politicians often take a short-term view of success.  Our social inclinations make humans likely to go along with the crowd, especially when decisions become emotionally charged.  And, sometimes, denial is to blame for irrational behavior.  There is no shortage of reasons for some of the ridiculous action (or inaction) perpetrated by society.

6. Unsuccessful solutions

Often, problems have been beyond society’s ability to solve, due to the solution’s high cost or the failure to recognize the problem in time to do something about it.  Sometimes, proposed solutions only worsen the problem.  By fighting and containing Montana’s forest fires, the forest service was actually ensuring that future fires would be completely devastating because of  the proliferation of undergrowth.  Societies throughout history have not found a way to live self-sufficiently on Greenland or in the desert of the American Southwest.  Ultimately, procrastination has led to many problems being destined for  failure.

What does it mean for us today?

Jared Diamond’s list of today’s most serious environmental problems:

  1. Destruction of natural habitats
  2. Overfishing (and aquaculture, in several respects, does not help the problem)
  3. Loss of biodiversity through extinction
  4. Soil damage, erosion, and loss
  5. Fossil fuels are becoming scarce
  6. Freshwater is being over-utilized and aquifer levels are dropping
  7. Over-utilization of Earth’s photosynthetic capacity
  8. Release of toxic chemicals (mercury, hormones, pesticides, herbicides) into the environment
  9. Alien (non-native) species
  10. Damage to ozone layer and release of greenhouse gases
  11. World population is growing to unsustainable levels
  12. Humanity’s impact on the environment is huge, and it is impossible for Earth to support third-world nations at the standard of living currently enjoyed by the first-world.

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