Collapse details how and why various societies collapsed, and how a few societies succeeded and thrived, when faced with similar problems. It is a highly-researched, wide-ranging, and engrossing presentation of the evolution of societies and the interconnected environmental issues.
For purposes of this book, the word "collapse" indicates either a vast, rapid and dramatic decrease of population and standard of living, or in some cases total disappearance and extinction of a population.
Jared Diamond, after an introduction discussing stress and survival in modern Montana, and amidst a matrix of fascinating discussion and querying throughout the book, examines a number of diverse societies that have collapsed in the last 1,000 years: these include Easter Island, Pitcairn and neighboring islands, the Anasazi Native Americans, the Mayans, the Vikings and Greenland, New Zealand, Rwanda, Dominican Republic as compared with Haiti, China, and Australia! Quite a selection and range for one book, yet he manages to cover in depth the specific issues relating to the health at a deep level of each of these societies: degree of forestation, abundance (or lack) or local food resources and their preservation (or lack thereof), climate, hostile or supportive neighbors, and social practices and social engineering attempted in each of the societies he examines.
The book is an eye-opener, full of newly gathered and, from my laymen's perspective, never before encountered information about widely differing parts of the world and degrees of modernity. Yet throughout Jared Diamond traces common threads that led societies to their collapse or in a few cases he discusses for contrast (Japan, for one, with its careful protection of forest land in one of the more crowded countries of the world) the avoidance of that collapse.
Finally, the author probes what we can learn from all the gathered experiences, and why those societies failed to foresee and avoid disaster. The question he raises is whether, in today's world with its many pressures on the environment, food, and forests, we are on the verge of similar missteps, leading to similar disasters. He examines where blind spots arise, with the hope that by knowing those blind spots we can avoid them. To give one example, he describes how the "tragedy of the commons" (a concept dating from Aristotle) causes people and nations to each attempt to capture as much as possible of a shared but finite resource, potentially leading to disaster. Each person or nation calculates "If I don't do this, someone else will grab it anyway and I will be in a weakened position". Thus, fisheries and whale populations become threatened as each nation or fisherman attempts to grab as large a share of the common resource as possible, fearing that if they back down, others will not and they will lose what is due them and what in fact is essential, in some measured amount, for economic health and survival.
Collapse is full of such insights and applications to today's world, and gathers enough well-thought-out and discussed information to please and reward everyone ranging from a concerned non-expert individual through fellow sociologists, anthropologists, and other professionals.
It is not a common occurrence to find a book that can inform and stimulate such a wide audience.