Monday, August 15, 2005


I finished Collapse by Jared Diamond. Diamond reviews a number of past societies that went into decline or were destroyed because of environmental damage or climate change: Easter Island, Mangareva, Henderson Island and Pitcairn Island, the Anasazi, the Maya, and the Greenland Vikings. He also looks at some societies which managed to do a better job of dealing with their environmental problems (Japan, Iceland, Tikopia, the Netherlands) and some places that currently have fragile environments (Montana, Australia, Haiti, Rwanda). Of course the most important question is what this all means for the future of Los Angeles, where Jared Diamond and I live.

My favorite chapters were the ones on Easter Island (in a nutshell, they cut down all the trees, so they couldn't make canoes to hunt porpoise with, and their vegetable fields eroded, and then they ate all the birds, and then they ate each other) and on the Greenland Norse (climate change killed off their livestock and blocked their contact with the Scandinavians back home; also the native Americans kicked their asses, which is why they failed to colonize Vinland).

Chapter One is on Montana. Before starting the book, I read a review that made it sound as if Diamond were really sounding the death knell for Montana as a state on the verge of collapse. In fact he rather pulls his punches, or hedges his bets, saying that of course Montana is not about to collapse, it just has problems (mine tailings poisoning the water, climate change reducing agricultural production), and if even lovely and pristine Montana has environmental problems, think how much worse off the other 49 states must be...

I enjoyed Collapse, but as in Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond is a trifle long-winded, subscribing to the "tell them what you're going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you told them, then re-iterate how this ties into what you told them in chapter thirteen, then explain how this foreshadows what you will tell them in chapter fifteen" school of pedagogy.

I wonder if a repetitive style is key to writing a blockbuster work of popular science that will be made into a mini-series, like GG&S or like Dava Sobel's Longitude. I started reading Longitude the year it hit the bestseller lists, but I couldn't finish it; it was so repetitive it drove me nuts. Jared Diamond is not quite that bad.


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