Civilizations Choose to Fail or Succeed is not alarmist but it is deeply
alarming. Diamond writes of hope and optimism about the future of Earth while
examining a variety of societies that have collapsed. His writing is cogent and
engaging, making this book all the more alarming. He goes beyond a presentation
of facts and figures to explain how societies collapsed and what the leaders and
populace might have been facing, and thinking. This makes for a balanced,
sobering thought about whether we will repeat these mistakes, knowing that even
with our modern technologies we might very well behave similarly as
Our consumption in First World societies is totally unsustainable, according to Jared Diamond whose Collapse: How Civilizations Choose to Fail or Succeed discusses how we affect our environment by the way we live on Earth and ultimately decide our fate.
Diamond, professor of geography at UCLA, is not an alarmist, but his discussion of societies of the past that collapsed and those today that are under stress, such as China and Rwanda, lays out in alarming detail just how inextricably we are connected to one another, even if we don’t recognize it. The Earth is a self-contained and isolated unit, Diamond says. “We are tightly and irreversibly connected to overseas countries,” he writes, and he shows us how.
Those of us in the U.S., western Europe and Japan consume 32 times more resources, such as fossil fuels, and generate 32 times more waste than inhabitants of the developing world, he says. We are depleting resources faster than they can regenerate. We’re using trees faster than they can be replaced, consuming water faster than it can re-generate, and altering the natural environment in ways that are limiting the capacity of the biosphere to replace that which we’re consuming.
And we’re exporting our toxic waste to those places that will receive it as part of their economic quest to achieve a First World lifestyle like ours. That’s even more unsustainable.
Diamond also documents how some societies such as Tokugawa Japan in the period from 1603 to 1867, have succeeded in changing behavior that threatened to cause collapse and he offers these as examples that we, too, can pull out of the downward direction we’re currently in. He says it’s not too late and he’s cautiously optimistic that we can come to understand our need to change.
I take hope in his hope. I confess to being more of the consuming society than I want to be. And I tend to be more pessimistic than he. But our choices are becoming clear, and anyone with a concern for the short-term future would, I hope, choose to change. Doing that, however, won’t be easy.
At root, this is an issue about how each of us lives on a daily basis. In a society that has been led to see life as a journey of endless consumption, we’re caught in a system that has altered our values and our perspective about what constitutes a meaningful life. If we now must decide to do with fewer things, not more, can we make that transition? This is a fundamental question of values that remains to be tested. In the Christian community, the evangelical coalition on global warming is one positive step in the right direction, but the easy acceptance by Christians of the consumer culture and the marriage of capitalism with Christian faith, must inevitably lead to some deep, quick soul-searching, I think. I’m not convinced we’re up to it. But, according to Diamond, our future hangs on the decision.