Lev Grossman: When Things Fall Apart

From TIME.com: The author of Guns, Germs, and Steel asks, Why do some civilizations die out while others survive?

There are no trees more than 10 ft. tall on Easter Island. That’s not its most famous mystery–there’s the little matter of those giant brooding statues–but it is kind of weird. Easter Island is less forested than any other island in Polynesia. What happened to the trees? And what, for that matter, caused the islanders themselves to die off almost completely?

Most people would leave questions like those as rhetorical and quietly tiptoe away, but Jared Diamond asks and relentlessly answers them in : How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (Viking; 575 pages). Diamond, a professor of geography (surely an endangered species itself) at the University of California, Los Angeles, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1998 for the best-selling Guns, Germs, and Steel, his attempt to understand how Western nations rose to political and technological pre-eminence (the title gives you a pretty good hint). In Collapse, he’s a little like the title character in Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax: he perches on the smoking ruins of extinct societies and calmly explains how they fell–and why, in almost every case, they never even saw it coming.

…… Collapse also surveys modern societies that appear to Diamond to be at risk. Among them are China, where 300,000 people a year die from air pollution, and Montana, which is grappling with the economic and environmental ravages of logging and mining. There are success stories too, such as Iceland, which bounced back from severe environmental damage (in an environment that was no picnic to begin with) through tough-minded communal decision making.


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