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Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed is the glass-half-empty follow-up to his Pulitzer
Prize-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel. While Guns, Germs, and Steel explained the geographic and environmental reasons
why some human populations have flourished, Collapse uses the same factors to examine why ancient societies, including
the Anasazi of the American Southwest and the Viking colonies of Greenland, as well as modern ones such as Rwanda, have
fallen apart. Not every collapse has an environmental origin, but an eco-meltdown is often the main catalyst, he argues,
particularly when combined with society's response to (or disregard for) the coming disaster. Still, right from the
outset of Collapse, the author makes clear that this is not a mere environmentalist's diatribe. He begins by setting the
book's main question in the small communities of present-day Montana as they face a decline in living standards and a
depletion of natural resources. Once-vital mines now leak toxins into the soil, while prion diseases infect some deer
and elk and older hydroelectric dams have become decrepit. On all these issues, and particularly with the hot-button
topic of logging and wildfires, Diamond writes with equanimity.
Because he's addressing such significant issues within a vast span of time, Diamond can occasionally speak too
briefly and assume too much, and at times his shorthand remarks may cause careful readers to raise an eyebrow. But in
general, Diamond provides fine and well-reasoned historical examples, making the case that many times, economic and
environmental concerns are one and the same. With Collapse, Diamond hopes to jog our collective memory to keep us from
falling for false analogies or forgetting prior experiences, and thereby save us from potential devastations to come.
While it might seem a stretch to use medieval Greenland and the Maya to convince a skeptic about the seriousness of
global warming, it's exactly this type of cross-referencing that makes Collapse so compelling. --Jennifer Buckendorff