Iowa Alumni Magazine | December 2005 | Reviews

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive by Jared Diamond

By Mark Kresowik

UI Student Government president and keen environmentalist Mark Kresowik is currently reading Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive (Penguin) by Jared Diamond.

What’s it about?

Collapse is a sequel to Diamond’s earlier Pulitzer Prize-winning book Guns, Germs, and Steel: the Fate of Human Societies, in which he tracks the origins of the world’s cultures and tries to explain why some have gained preeminence. In the follow-up, Diamond looks at cultures that have collapsed and attributes much of their demise to abuse of environmental resources and an inability to perceive and respond to changing circumstances. Citing examples that range from ancient societies like Easter Island, the Mayans, and the Anasazi to modern Rwandans and Montana ranchers, he warns of the dangers of climate change and environmental abuse. While hostile neighbors or decreased support from trading partners were contributing factors, Diamond asserts that the ultimate reason these cultures failed was that the elite refused to recognize or adapt to changing conditions. As we deny global warming and other environmental issues, will the same fate befall us?

Why did it have such an impact on you?

My major at the UI is “Sustainable Systems,” so I study how to meet our quality of life and resource needs without sacrificing the ability of future generations to meet their needs. Diamond’s goal in Collapse is much the same. He concludes that the responsibility for change rests on the public, not just the elite. If we alter our individual habits and demand similar changes from producers and manufacturers, then our culture can adapt and avoid disappearing into oblivion. Since reading Collapse, I bike around town instead of drive, buy long-lasting and energy-efficient goods, and even take cold showers! It takes some sacrifice, but we can all do more to be environmentally responsible.

What would you tell people to encourage them to read it?

Collapse is a book that changes your cultural and self-awareness. After reading it, you might find yourself analyzing your own daily habits, as I did. Diamond calls upon a lifetime of meticulous interdisciplinary research, from anthropology to bird ecology, but maintains a readable tone through personal anecdotes and startlingly acute observations. The topic is perhaps the most important one of all: how to sustain ourselves, as individuals and as a culture. In Collapse, Jared Diamond offers a message of hope that each of us can use and then pass on to future generations.