The subtitle of Collapse, “How societies choose to fail or succeed” is a very good synopsis of the ideas presented, essentially a belief in free will. It soberly approaches the topic of societal collapses of both ancient times and more recent times. He first presents evidence of what role the environment plays in setting limits to growth and technological capability. This was the main theme of Diamonds previous book “Guns, Germs, and Steel” (I would recommend reading that first, and before reading either of these read Malcolm Gladwell’s newest book Outliers).
While Collapse uses a lot of those ideas of ultimate causes, or the overall reasons of why a certain region is predisposed to quick deforestation or other depletion of valuable resources, he begins to approach the topic of human decision making. Diamond states at the beginning of the book that just because he is discussing environmental factors that push societies toward collapse and self destructive behaviour, that does not make genocide or war morally acceptable. On the contrary it is exactly our Moral Sense that gives us the ability to state that genocide is an unacceptable behaviour for solving over population, no matter how often it is seen in nature. Having a moral sense makes us responsible to correctly manage the world around us, especially in light of the knowledge of what can happen and has happened in the past when resources are not correctly managed.
Two approaches toward group decision making are looked at, a bottom-up approach and a top-down approach. It was personally insightful to me to see the two approaches presented with equal weight, especially Diamonds presentation of the important role big business has in being environmentally sustainable. It feels like this is the even mannered approach to social change that is relevant to our present situation. We have the freedom to “act locally” by becoming more aware of what we consume, while having more support of leaders who can pull us in the same direction toward sustainability.
Lastly I found it appropriate that Diamond metions the Prisoners Dilemma to discribe the challenge of group cooperation. The concept works like this, mutual cooperation will be most benificial for everyone while if the other side defects from cooperation before you do, then they get more short term reward. For instance farmers in certain regions can avoid soil erosion if all of them manage lower heard stocks allowing vegetation and grass to keep pace and regenerate sustainably, but one selfish farmer who over stocks and over grazes will make more of a short term profit. What keeps any one then from not defecting and being the one to come out on top? Hopefully these stories of past collapses of the Norse chiefs and Mayan rulers will help us realize as Diamond succinctly states, that acting in that selfish manner will only allow us “the privilidge of being the last to starve.”