Notes on Jared Diamond's 'Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed'

This page gives some notes on Jared Diamond's 'Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed', read in 2005. For reviews see especially those in The New Yorker and The Guardian.



Opens with "Prologue: A Tale of Two Farms", in which Diamond contrasts the successful Huls family farm in today's Montana with the temporarily successful Gandar farm in Viking Greenland.

  1. Under Montana's Big Sky.
  2. Twilight at Easter [Island].
  3. The Last People Alive: Pitcairn and Henderson Islands.
  4. The Ancient Ones: The Anasazi and Their Neighbors.
  5. The Maya Collapses.
  6. The Viking Prelude and Fugues. [Orkneys, Shetlands, Faroes, Iceland, Vinland].
  7. Norse Greenland's Flowering.
  8. Norse Greenland's End.
  9. Opposite Paths to Success [including why Japan succeeded].
  10. Malthus in Africa: Rawanda's Genocide.
  11. One Island, Two Peoples, Two Histories: The Dominican Republic and Haiti.
  12. China, Lurching Giant.
  13. 'Mining' Australia.
  14. Why do Some Societies Make Disastrous Decisions?
  15. Big Business and the Environment: Different Conditions, Different outcomes.
  16. The World as a Polder: What Does it all Mean to us Today?

Societies Studied

What is Collapse versus Success?


Diamond writes: "By collapsed, I mean a drastic decrease in human population size and/or political/economic/social complexity, over a considerable area, for an extended time. The phenomenon of collapses is thus an extreme form of several milder types of decline, and it becomes arbitrary to decide how drastic the decline of a society must be before it qualifies to be labeled as a collapse." [p.3]

This decline is often abrupt.

"Greenland Norse society collapsed completely: its thousands of inhabitants starved to death, were killed in civil unrest or war against an enemy, or emigrated, until nobody remained alive." [p.2]

Diamond identifies eight categories for the processes by which "past societies have undermined themselves by damaging their environments" [p.6]:

  1. Deforestation and habitat destruction.
  2. Effects of introduced species on native species.
  3. Human population growth.
  4. Increased per capita impact of people.
  5. Over-hunting.
  6. Over-fishing.
  7. Soil problems: erosion, salination, and soil fertility losses.
  8. Water management problems.

He reports that today we face an four additional environmental factors:

  1. Build-up of toxic chemicals in the environment.
  2. Energy shortages.
  3. Full human use of the Earth's photosynthetic capability.
  4. Human-caused climate change.

The "resistance to the idea that past peoples (some of them known to be ancestral to peoples currently alive today and vocal) did things that contributed to their own decline" [p.8] is romantic but incorrect.

Environmental damage, however, is not the only cause of some societies becoming too fragile to survive. Diamond ends up with five sets of factors:

  1. Climate change: rise or fall of temperature, of precipitation, or of month-to-month or year-to-year variability in these factors.
  2. Environmental damage: what people inflict on the environment. Outcome depends on the environment's fragility (susceptibility to damage) compared with its resilience (potential to recover from damage).
  3. Friendly trade partners cease to give support. What, for example, would be the result if the 1973 oil embargo had extended for a decade?
  4. Hostile neighbors. "Collapses for ecological or other reasons often masquerade as military defeats."
  5. Society's response to its environmental problems. "For instance, problems of deforestation arose for many past societies, among which Highland New Guinea, Japan, Tikopia, and Tonga developed successful forest management and continued to prosper, while Easter Island, Mangareva, and Norse Greenland failed to develop successful forest management and collapsed as a result." [My emphasis added.]

Full Disclosure

Diamond gives his professional background to support his claim that he is "writing this book from a middle-of-the-road perspective, with experience of both environmental problems and of business realities". [pp. 15-19.]