Monday, February 07, 2005

MY LATEST BORROW from Barnes & Noble (one of the perks that make up for the low pay) is Jared Diamond's Collapse. The book's premise is that empires and nations fail -- collapse, in other words -- as a result of choices made in response to the physical environment. Diamond's previous book, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, explored the opposite question of how particular societies achieve dominance over others.

Jared Diamond is an environmental scientist with degrees in biochemistry and physiology; and his professional interests and experience are quite wide-ranging. He has studied birds in New Guinea; the behavior of chimpanzees, and the differences between human and animal sexual behavior. In researching and writing Collapse, Diamond employed the same comparative method he uses in the field: He compares societies to each other by examining five factors -- environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbors, friendly trade partners, and the society's response to its environmental problems -- that he feels help determine whether any particular society will experience an environmental collapse. Why, for example, did the Norse people vanish from history while the Inuit people survived, when both peoples lived on the same piece of land -- Greenland? Diamond says it's because they made different choices, over long periods of time, to changes in their physical environment.

Diamond examines the Mayans, Easter Islanders, Polynesian society on Pitcairn and Henderson Islands, and Norse Greenland as instances of ancient societies that collapsed. Then he looks at five modern societies, which he chooses from the Third World (Rwanda, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti), a First World wannabe (China), and a solidly First World country (Australia). Some of these met disaster; some are survivors so far.

But before going back in time to civilizations long gone, Diamond starts out with right now in the American West -- the state of Montana, which is struggling with a number of environmental issues that have affected and continue to affect its viability for the people who live there. Diamond has a special feeling for Montana, and a rather deep knowledge of its problems, because he has a family connection to the state going back to 1956, when he was a teenager; and since 1998, he has spent summers there with his wife and sons.

And this is where I am right now in the book. I plan to blog each chapter as I read it.

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