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Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive
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Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive [Format Kindle]

Jared Diamond
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Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed is the glass-half-empty follow-up to his Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel. While Guns, Germs, and Steel explained the geographic and environmental reasons why some human populations have flourished, Collapse uses the same factors to examine why ancient societies, including the Anasazi of the American Southwest and the Viking colonies of Greenland, as well as modern ones such as Rwanda, have fallen apart. Not every collapse has an environmental origin, but an eco-meltdown is often the main catalyst, he argues, particularly when combined with society's response to (or disregard for) the coming disaster. Still, right from the outset of Collapse, the author makes clear that this is not a mere environmentalist's diatribe. He begins by setting the book's main question in the small communities of present-day Montana as they face a decline in living standards and a depletion of natural resources. Once-vital mines now leak toxins into the soil, while prion diseases infect some deer and elk and older hydroelectric dams have become decrepit. On all these issues, and particularly with the hot-button topic of logging and wildfires, Diamond writes with equanimity.

Because he's addressing such significant issues within a vast span of time, Diamond can occasionally speak too briefly and assume too much, and at times his shorthand remarks may cause careful readers to raise an eyebrow. But in general, Diamond provides fine and well-reasoned historical examples, making the case that many times, economic and environmental concerns are one and the same. With Collapse, Diamond hopes to jog our collective memory to keep us from falling for false analogies or forgetting prior experiences, and thereby save us from potential devastations to come. While it might seem a stretch to use medieval Greenland and the Maya to convince a skeptic about the seriousness of global warming, it's exactly this type of cross-referencing that makes Collapse so compelling. --Jennifer Buckendorff



A Tale of Two Farms

A few summers ago I visited two dairy farms, Huls Farm and Gardar Farm, which despite being located thousands of miles apart were still remarkably similar in their strengths and vulnerabilities. Both were by far the largest, most prosperous, most technologically advanced farms in their respective districts. In particular, each was centered around a magnificent state-of-the-art barn for sheltering and milking cows. Those structures, both neatly divided into opposite-facing rows of cow stalls, dwarfed all other barns in the district. Both farms let their cows graze outdoors in lush pastures during the summer, produced their own hay to harvest in the late summer for feeding the cows through the winter, and increased their production of summer fodder and winter hay by irrigating their fields. The two farms were similar in area (a few square miles) and in barn size, Huls barn holding somewhat more cows than Gardar barn (200 vs. 165 cows, respectively). The owners of both farms were viewed as leaders of their respective societies. Both owners were deeply religious. Both farms were located in gorgeous natural settings that attract tourists from afar, with backdrops of high snow-capped mountains drained by streams teaming with fish, and sloping down to a famous river (below Huls Farm) or 3ord (below Gardar Farm).

Those were the shared strengths of the two farms. As for their shared vulnerabilities, both lay in districts economically marginal for dairying, because their high northern latitudes meant a short summer growing season in which to produce pasture grass and hay. Because the climate was thus suboptimal even in good years, compared to dairy farms at lower latitudes, both farms were susceptible to being harmed by climate change, with drought or cold being the main concerns in the districts of Huls Farm or Gardar Farm respectively. Both districts lay far from population centers to which they could market their products, so that transportation costs and hazards placed them at a competitive disadvantage compared to more centrally located districts. The economies of both farms were hostage to forces beyond their owners’ control, such as the changing affluence and tastes of their customers and neighbors. On a larger scale, the economies of the countries in which both farms lay rose and fell with the waxing and waning of threats from distant enemy societies.

The biggest difference between Huls Farm and Gardar Farm is in their current status. Huls Farm, a family enterprise owned by five siblings and their spouses in the Bitterroot Valley of the western U.S. state of Montana, is currently prospering, while Ravalli County in which Huls Farm lies boasts one of the highest population growth rates of any American county. Tim, Trudy, and Dan Huls, who are among Huls Farm’s owners, personally took me on a tour of their high-tech new barn, and patiently explained to me the attractions and vicissitudes of dairy farming in Montana. It is inconceivable that the United States in general, and Huls Farm in particular, will collapse in the foreseeable future. But Gardar Farm, the former manor farm of the Norse bishop of southwestern Greenland, was abandoned over 500 years ago. Greenland Norse society collapsed completely: its thousands of inhabitants starved to death, were killed in civil unrest or in war against an enemy, or emigrated, until nobody remained alive. While the strongly built stone walls of Gardar barn and nearby Gardar Cathedral are still standing, so that I was able to count the individual cow stalls, there is no owner to tell me today of Gardar’s former attractions and vicissitudes. Yet when Gardar Farm and Norse Greenland were at their peak, their decline seemed as inconceivable as does the decline of Huls Farm and the U.S. today.

Let me make clear: in drawing these parallels between Huls and Gardar Farms, I am not claiming that Huls Farm and American society are doomed to decline. At present, the truth is quite the opposite: Huls Farm is in the process of expanding, its advanced new technology is being studied for adoption by neighboring farms, and the United States is now the most powerful country in the world. Nor am I claiming that farms or societies in general are prone to collapse: while some have indeed collapsed like Gardar, others have survived uninterruptedly for thousands of years. Instead, my trips to Huls and Gardar Farms, thousands of miles apart but visited during the same summer, vividly brought home to me the conclusion that even the richest, technologically most advanced societies today face growing environmental and economic problems that should not be underestimated. Many of our problems are broadly similar to those that undermined Gardar Farm and Norse Greenland, and that many other past societies also struggled to solve. Some of those past societies failed (like the Greenland Norse), and others succeeded (like the Japanese and Tikopians). The past offers us a rich database from which we can learn, in order that we may keep on succeeding.

Norse Greenland is just one of many past societies that collapsed or vanished, leaving behind monumental ruins such as those that Shelley imagined in his poem “Ozymandias.” By collapse, I mean a drastic decrease in human population size and/or political/economic/social complexity, over a considerable area, for an extended time. The phenomenon of collapses is thus an extreme form of several milder types of decline, and it becomes arbitrary to decide how drastic the decline of a society must be before it qualifies to be labeled as a collapse. Some of those milder types of decline include the normal minor rises and falls of fortune, and minor political/economic/social restructurings, of any individual society; one society’s conquest by a close neighbor, or its decline linked to the neighbor’s rise, without change in the total population size or complexity of the whole region; and the replacement or overthrow of one governing elite by another. By those standards, most people would consider the following past societies to have been famous victims of full- fledged collapses rather than of just minor declines: the Anasazi and Cahokia within the boundaries of the modern U.S., the Maya cities in Central America, Moche and Tiwanaku societies in South America, Mycenean Greece and Minoan Crete in Europe, Great Zimbabwe in Africa, Angkor Wat and the Harappan Indus Valley cities in Asia, and Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean (map, pp. 4–5).

The monumental ruins left behind by those past societies hold a romantic fascination for all of us. We marvel at them when as children we first learn of them through pictures. When we grow up, many of us plan vacations in order to experience them at firsthand as tourists. We feel drawn to their often spectacular and haunting beauty, and also to the mysteries that they pose. The scales of the ruins testify to the former wealth and power of their builders—they boast “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” in Shelley’s words. Yet the builders vanished, abandoning the great structures that they had created at such effort. How could a society that was once so mighty end up collapsing? What were the fates of its individual citizens?—did they move away, and (if so) why, or did they die there in some unpleasant way? Lurking behind this romantic mystery is the nagging thought: might such a fate eventually befall our own wealthy society? Will tourists someday stare mystified at the rusting hulks of New York’s skyscrapers, much as we stare today at the jungle-overgrown ruins of Maya cities?

It has long been suspected that many of those mysterious abandonments were at least partly triggered by ecological problems: people inadvertently destroying the environmental resources on which their societies depended. This suspicion of unintended ecological suicide—ecocide—has been confirmed by discoveries made in recent decades by archaeologists, climatologists, historians, paleontologists, and palynologists (pollen scientists). The processes through which past societies have undermined themselves by damaging their environments fall into eight categories, whose relative importance differs from case to case: deforestation and habitat destruction, soil problems (erosion, salinization, and soil fertility losses), water management problems, overhunting, overfishing, effects of introduced species on native species, human population growth, and increased per-capita impact of people.

Those past collapses tended to follow somewhat similar courses constituting variations on a theme. Population growth forced people to adopt intensified means of agricultural production (such as irrigation, double-cropping, or terracing), and to expand farming from the prime lands first chosen onto more marginal land, in order to feed the growing number of hungry mouths. Unsustainable practices led to environmental damage of one or more of the eight types just listed, resulting in agriculturally marginal lands having to be abandoned again. Consequences for society included food shortages, starvation, wars among too many people fighting for too few resources, and overthrows of governing elites by disillusioned masses. Eventually, population decreased through starvation, war, or disease, and society lost some of the political, economic, and cultural complexity that it had developed at its peak. Writers find it tempting to draw analogies between those trajectories of human societies and the trajectories of individual human lives—to talk of a society’s birth, growth, peak, senescence, and death—and to assume that the long period of senescence that most of us traverse between our peak years and our deaths also applies to societies. But that metaphor proves erroneous for many past societies (and for the modern Soviet Union): they declined rapidly after reaching peak numbers and power, and those rapid declines must have come as a surprise and shock to their citizens. In the worst cases of complete collapse...

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19 internautes sur 20 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Mériterait 6 étoiles 29 janvier 2007
Par Tanya
LE meilleur livre que j'ai lu ces dix dernières années!

Et surtout le plus important. Jared Diamond, un géographe, nous démontre, exemples passés et bien documentés à l'appui, que la planète va dans le mur et comment. Il ose dire que nous sommes trop nombreux sur cette terre et que, même si les habitants du tiers monde ne consommaient pas un gramme de plus et si notre train de vie, à nous les riches, n'augmentait pas, nous courrerions à la catatastrophe.

A faire lire à vos enfants et petits enfants pour les plus âgés, toutes affaires cessantes.

Inutile de dire qu'après avoir lu ce livre, les affaires du microcosme parisien apparaissent pour ce qu'elles sont: des plaisanteries de gamins, sans aucun intérêt.
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28 internautes sur 30 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Deep 11 février 2005
In Collapse, Jared Diamond has successfully examined the thousands of year of human history, by evaluating many of the great civilizations that went extinct due to their inability to recognize the limits of their resources and the strength of the forces of nature. The failures of those ancient and modern societies especially in Africa and Asia, as well the Easter Island and Greenland stemmed from the fact that they were compromised by their environment through disasters that were either natural or induced.
In this well-researched book, Diamond wrote of eco-disasters and the depletion of environmental resources through unsustainable measures as the principal causes of the demise of those societies. Not only that, he mentioned some societies that that have solved their ecological problems and succeeded. Nevertheless, the overriding point Diamond made is that in this age of globalization, societies must take collective actions to avoid the collapse of the world's highly interdependent global economy, since it is fast approaching its unsustainable level. This book is a wake up call for the world to develop sustainable sources of energy that does not compromise the environment. Hydrogen cars, solar energy etc should be things for the immediate tomorrow.
The lesson is clear. Those societies that can adapt their ways of life to be in line with the potentials of their environment last while those societies that abuse their resources ultimate commit suicide, and so fail. Now, for the first time in human history, modern technology, global interdependence and international cooperation have provided us with the means and opportunity to judiciously use our resource and prevent their depletion not only from a small scale, but from a global scale as well. It is only by harnessing this new knowledge to sustain our planet, that we shall avoid the fate of self-destruction, like several great societies before us.
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4 internautes sur 4 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Quelle analyse ! 26 janvier 2009
Un autre livre brillant de Jared Diamond, après "Guns, Germs and Steel" (à lire en premier si possible, car encore plus intéressant).

L'analyse est rigoureuse, la présentation et le style clairs.

Un livre à recommander qui nourrit énormément la réflexion personnelle.
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9 internautes sur 10 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
3.0 étoiles sur 5 Food for thought in plenty 26 avril 2011
Format:Broché|Achat vérifié
Dans "Collapse", Jared Diamond analyse comment par le passé des sociétés humaines ont disparu parce qu'elles avaient détruit leur milieu naturel en exploitant ses ressources au-delà de ce qu'il pouvait supporter. Il cherche à comprendre ce processus pour ne pas répéter leurs erreurs. Il insiste beaucoup sur le rôle clé de la croissance démographique.
Le livre est passionnant et mériterait 5*. Plusieurs remarques m'amènent à lui en donner seulement 3.
Malgré son apparente crédibilité, ses talents de conteur et son aura de prof d'unif, Monsieur Diamond ne fait pas toujours preuve de beaucoup de rigueur ni même de connaissances scientifiques. Parmi ses exemples, il parle longuement de la disparition des Vikings du Groenland dont l'histoire telle qu'il la reconstitue ne cadre pas vraiment avec sa thèse car il les fait disparaître en raison de leur incapacité à puiser les ressources du lieu (la pêche) et à faire évoluer leur mode de vie adapté à la Scandinavie (élevage de vaches) mais non au Grand Nord en plein changements climatiques. Hormis la destruction involontaire des forêts groenlandaises par une population habituée à des arbres se renouvellant plus vite, l'ensemble cadre mal avec sa thèse. Son autre exemple de l'île de Pâques, selon lequel la population était trop dense pour les ressources locales est aussi à prendre avec des pincettes.
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