Collapse by Jared Diamond

September 9, 2022

There’s a lot to learn from socities whose choices directly lead to success or extinction.

Reading this book reminded me of something basic and obvious that’s easy to forget: the U.S. as a society is only in its infancy.

We can look back at long-gone societies and think of them as primitive, extinct because they didn’t have the technology and insight we do now. It turns out that’s grossly shortsighted, as this book thoroughly and carefully illuminates. Past societies, some long-gone and some still with us, successfully navigated issues we deal with right now over hundreds and thousands of years. And though the author may not have said it directly, it’s clear that some of them pivoted and did a lot better than we generally are with all our wonders and modern marvels.

This was a sobering and sometimes alarming read that challenged a lot of my flimsy ideas about ecology, environmentalism, business and politics, and the urgent necessity of archaeology. I especially appreciate the author’s level-headed, observational, and carefully-formulated arguments and anecdotes. I never got a sense of myopia or heavy bias, even when it came down to personal observations and storytelling:

On some properties I have seen oil companies and logging companies being destructive, and I have said so; on other properties I have seen them being careful, and that was what I said. My view is that, if environmentalists aren’t willing to engage with big businesses, which are among the most powerful forces in the modern world, it won’t be possible to solve the world’s environmental problems. Thus, I am writing this book from a middle-of-the-road perspective, with experience of both environmental problems and of business realities.

Many of the explorations of past societies were gripping chapters, like murder mysteries where the killer was also the victim and the search for answers was enthralling.

Even though we’re hopelessly doomed, I’d strongly recommend reading this if you’d like a more nuanced picture of where we are now as humans than you’d get from a Twitter thread.