"To the crew of the Nostromo, a word of warning..."
--preview to Alien (1979)
Jared Diamond is a Pulitzer Prize-winning professor of geography and physiology at UCLA. Best known for Guns, Germs and Steel, a survey of prehistoric history designed to answer the question: why did some societies succeed and conquer other, less successful societies (or more concretely, why did the Spaniards sail across the Atlantic and conquer the Incas, rather than the other way around?). The answers to this question fascinate; Chaos highly recommends this work.
Diamond's current book is Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, in which he examines several societies, past and present, under varying circumstances, as to why each succeeded or failed. Diamond finds that several factors are usually present in the collapse of societies, among them:
1. Environmental damage
2. climate change
4. changes in trading partners
5. political, social and economic responses to the first four.
Diamond notes in particular that societies have collapsed at the height of their dominance, as he puts it, in a an effective synopsis of Collapse, "peak power usually means peak population, peak needs, and hence peak vulnerability."
Not content with an historical analysis, Diamond reviews the environmental conditions of several countries (China, Japan, Australia) and regions (Montana, Rwanda) through the prism of societal collapse. (The environmental roots of the Rwandan genocide in particular make compelling reading). Although it is apparent that Diamond sees population overshoot as the precondition of the environmental devastation that he describes, the work overall has a discongruently hopeful tone. A more pessimistic reader may believe Diamond's examples of hopeful progress are creeping incrementalism, instead of necessarily drastic action. (Even the author refers to a race between environmental destruction and human enlightenment, with the outcome far from certain). Further, regional solutions are unlikely to succeed in the present global interconnectedness and indeed, global collapse is possible.
Chaos views Diamond's work in Collapse as the backdrop or landscape to an upcoming series of posts on the effects of entropy in the coming century, in particular the twin towers of uncertainty in the economy, the impending retirement of the baby boomers, peak oil, and global warming. Chaos observes that Diamond has elucidated a theory and a theme, universal across time and place, which can serve both as an organizing principle and an admonition to American exceptionalism. Is the Imperial Nation, now at the height of dominance, also at peak vulnerability? Stay tuned, there's more.