Book Review: "Collapse"

January 7, 2013

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by scientist and geographer Jared Diamond was not a book I intended to read, but it was sitting around the house after being lent to us by a friend, so I picked it up to read on the plane. Collapse describes how different factors have contributed, to different degrees, to the collapse of various human societies across time and around the world, with a focus on the role played by environmental degradation. Diamond is better known for his bestseller *Guns, Germs, and Steel, *and has a journalistic rather than academic style, addressed to educated laymen. While I wasn’t very impressed with his writing style or his overly pedantic presentation of the material (“Now we will discuss X, then we will discuss Y”…“As we saw in X, we will now see in Y,” etc), I was interested enough in the topic to make it through all 500+ pages of the book. In short, Diamond lays out how human impact on the environment, especially deforestation, has been an important factor in societal collapse (defined as “a drastic decrease in human population size and/or political/economic/social complexity, over a considerable area, for an extended time” pp3); how some societies have been able to cope with environmental damage to avoid collapse; and how this history is relevant to contemporary societies now, as we as a species continue to deforest and otherwise destroy our planet at an alarming rate. If you weren’t already convinced that environmental damage can have and has had an immense impact on human survival, this is the book for you. Societies he discusses range from the ancient Maya, Vikings, and Pacific Islanders to medieval Japan and modern Australia, Rwanda, the Dominican Republic/Haiti, and Montana. (Much too much of the book focuses on the Vikings, in my opinion. You can skip most of that part.) The author tries to be optimistic at the end by pointing out how some societies have made good decisions that resulted in their continued survival to the present day, and how these decisions are within our capacity to make now, if we can get our collective act together. But he does not pretend that this will be easy.

Which brings me to the concealed purpose of this post: my New Year’s resolutions. I’ve never been really interested in making resolutions in the past, but maybe I just didn’t have challenging enough goals. This past year, I couldn’t help but notice how more and more of my school as well as leisure reading have converged on environmental concerns. From reading about urban composting to discovering that even I can compost here in NYC, to timely reminders from Michael Pollan, to my registration for the LEED Green Associate exam, I have been surrounded with reminders that I should be doing more to reduce my own consumption of energy and resources and to give something back. Initially I considered whether I could try some kind of anti-consumption pledge, deciding not to buy any durable goods for myself in 2013; but I realized that I’m much too addicted to my First World lifestyle to go cold turkey (what if I need new clothes for work? what if I need another lamp when we move? what if there’s a great new print out by my favorite artist? etc). So here are my resolutions for 2013:

  1. Don’t buy things I don’t need, especially durable goods. My first victory: deciding not to buy a new doormat after ours was stolen this week (the perils of living in NYC). Our building already has an entry mat - we don’t need one just for our door.
  2. Start composting. After discovering that compost is collected at the weekly Greenmarket two blocks from my house, how can I not do this?
  3. Cook more at home and bring my lunch more. This is both a health & environment goal, since the alternative is more takeout, which is generally higher in calories and produces more packaging waste.
  4. Ask for no utensils, napkins, etc when I do get takeout. I have my own forks, I don’t need little flimsy plastic ones!
  5. Eat less meat and processed foods. A perpetual goal. Meat production takes a huge amount of energy and petroleum. (See: An Omnivore’s Dilemma and this article)
  6. Remember to be energy & water conscious. Who needs long showers? And why not take the stairs more, while you’re at it?Living in New York City means that we already do a lot of energy-conscious things that are difficult for most Americans. We don’t own a car, but use public transit instead. We don’t have many (any) large energy-intensive appliances, like a washing machine, dryer, dishwasher, even TV or hair dryer. We live in an apartment building, which means major savings on energy use for heating, and New York City is one of the most energy-efficient places to live, period. We’ve switched to using vinegar as a cleaning solution instead of chemicals. And of course, we use CFLs instead of regular light bulbs, turn off electronics when we aren’t using them, etc. But we both travel often by air and probably use more than our fair share of petroleum that way. And we’ve discovered that trying to buy local food at the aforementioned Greenmarket is both inconvenient and more expensive, so we rarely shop there. My resolutions above are some of the ways I think I can start working toward a more sustainable lifestyle, given my situation.

Jared Diamond sums up our modern dilemma precisely:

“They [past difficult decisions to give up long-held beliefs in the face of changing conditions] may inspire modern First-World citizens with the courage to make the most fundamental reappraisal now facing us: how much of our traditional consumer values and First World living standard can we afford to retain? I already mentioned the seeming political impossibility of inducing First World citizens to lower their [environmental] impact on the world. But the alternative, of continuing our current impact, is more impossible.” (524)

What are your New Year’s resolutions? Or rather, what will you do to help save the planet this year?