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Review - Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive - Jared Diamond


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This is a good book on a fascinating topic - but there are a couple of issues to clear up first. The most trivial is the subtitle, which is a little unfair: it's a bit like saying "how car drivers choose to crash or survive" - the word "choose" is unfair and, frankly, sensationalist. However, we might blame the publisher for the subtitle.

More significant is whether or not this is popular science, a question of two halves in this case. Is it science? Well, sociology, as the old BT (UK telephone) ad used to say is "an ology", so that's good. But it doesn't seem much more of a science than geography or history, neither of which would normally come in this category. If we're generous and allow sociology the position of a science, is this popular science? It's definitely borderline. One of the clear dividing lines that identify a pure academic, rather than popular, book is the tendency to use many, many examples in too much detail, where one would make the point, and by the time you've got through all Jared Diamond's examples of societies (large and small) that have succeeded, failed or balance on a knife edge, it's all getting a bit samey. There certainly is a popular science book in here, but it's only about 2/3 of the length of this book (which wouldn't be a bad thing - yet again this book is simply too long).

What seems like a lot of negatives up front - and that's what has pulled the rating down to three stars - but this book does have a lot that's good going for it. Diamond writes well in a fairly chatty style, and any one of his sections - particularly the Montana one he begins with, and in which his heart is clearly most strongly present - makes good reading, it's just the whole thing that will incline you to start skipping.

His thesis is also spot on. Through short-sightedness, and simple desire for personal enhancement, humans are quite capable of destroying their own societies, or destroying the environment to the extent that the society is no longer viable. We are also subject to natural forces and other inputs that can make what seems a stable society fragile. Diamond takes a good, scientific middle line, pointing out that it is much too simplistic to blame big business for everything, but that equally we need some sense of ecological responsibility, and to be aware of the natural forces that can devastate our societies rather than simply ignoring them and hoping that they will go away. Although this is, in many ways, a disaster book, he ends by offering us hope - as long as we are prepared to listen. If you are interested in the subject, this is a must-have book. For the general popular science reader, it's a closer balance between the benefits and the negatives.

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Reviewed by Jo Reed


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