Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Book Review: Collapse

I purchased this book wanting to read about what made some civilisations succeed and others fail from a historical perspective. The book met that expectation. What was surprising was the fact that Jared Diamond's work is clearly focused on the interrelation between the environment and the success or failure of each of the civilisations which he considers.

As an academic text, it is an impressive work. As a wake up call on the significance of environmental issues to us today, it had a far greater impact on me than watching "An Inconvenient Truth" (which I also regard highly). The massive amounts of detail given are presented alongside the human story in a manner which makes for compulsive reading rather than the more common problem with lengthy works on technical subjects of dryness. As an example, the story of the establishment and ultimate failure of the Norse settlements in Greenland is precisely attributed to a number of factors (some man made, others not) which conveys the importance of environmental factors in the demise. At the same time Diamond presents a chilling depiction of what the final years of the settlements may have been like.

The book is not all historical. Diamond also considers a number of modern successful societies such as parts of the United States, Australia and Haiti/Dominican Republic. His review of some of the major extraction industries (mining, oil, fishing and forestry) made very interesting reading from both an environmental as well as economic perspective.

The issues raised in the book have a direct relevance to personal finance. Just to take the subject of water as an example, the effects of the environmental changes we are witnessing on the supply of water (both quantity and quality) are explained in a manner which makes it clear that not all sources of water are created equal. Some are more vulnerable that others which has implications for those looking to invest in land (whether for farming, lifestyle or other purposes).

Very highly recommended.


Anonymous said...

As an expert about the Norse in Greenland, I am uncomfortable when reviewers “highly recommend” the book Collapse.

Diamond did not "dig" very deep to find a society that would match his all ready formed conclusions.

The Norse in Greenland faced two great ecological challenges. The Norse felt the hunger caused by over grazing their pasture lands. Many of them left to "the other side" (of Davis Strait--America).

Those who stayed lived mostly on food from the sea. When the Little Ice age closed that option for those remaining they too walked on the ice to "the other side."

In both cases they decided, as a group. and left while they still had options. As a society they were successful, but as Algonquin speaking tribes in North America and not as Norse in Greenland.

Where in the world of the 1300s, dominated by Popes, Kings, Khans, and other dictators, were there groups of people who could decide their own reaction to changing ecological conditions? Probably only in Iceland and Greenland, where the democratic “Althing” was the governing body.

The Vikings (Old Norse) succeeded against over whelming odds. They occupied 1/3 of North America when their cousins the English and the French landed on their shores.

So one of the rare civilizations in the 1300s with democratic government overcame two major ecological disasters by taking the best option available—moving. That survival of a democratic group under great stress is the story Diamond should have written about. If he had found that story, I would have highly recommended him, but I have difficulty recommending an author who did not do adequate homework. Did he do better homework on the other topics?


traineeinvestor said...

Hi thanks for the comments. I don't have the knowledge to debate the history of the Norse in Greenland, but do appreciate your views. As a person who enjoys reading history (without claiming any expertise), it actually sounds quite interesting. If you could direct me towards any useful websites or books on the subject I would be greatful.

I do feel I have the background to address your queries on some of the other sections in the book:

1. China: his comments are consistent with my first hand experiences and other readings. The only thing that took me by surprise was the claim that the PRC government's reforestation program is adding to the environmental damage;

2. Australia: his comments are all consistent with my understandings of a country with which I have a high degree of familiarity. His explanation about the fragility of the soil and marine environments gave a technical backing to what has happened (and continues to happen) to the Australian environment;

3. The oil, mining, forestry and fishing industries: although I do not work in these sectors (except occasionally on an indirect basis), I have spent a lot of time looking into them for investment purposes Much of what Diamond has written is consistent with my previous research into these industries. Obviously, these industries have their apologists and lobbyists who dispute some of the statements made but, in general, I believe Diamond has got this one right.

I'm not really in a position to express views on the other sections in the book (beyond those which any reader with some general knowledge could express).