Jared Diamond


  • 77-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 16 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by a professional writer with degrees in philosophy and economics
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Collapse Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 77-page guide for “Collapse” by Jared Diamond includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 16 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like The Five Causes of Collapse and Collapsed Societies as Warnings.

Plot Summary

Following his best-selling, Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997), geologist and anthropologist Jared Diamond published a companion book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, in 2006. Where Guns, Germs, and Steel described how various environments around the world helped or hindered human civilization, Collapse explains how environmental abuse ruined many past societies and how it threatens civilizations today. An updated edition, released in 2011 by Penguin Books, is the subject of this study guide.

Collapse discusses five major causes for the failure of cultures with degraded environments: human ecological impacts, changes in climate, hostile neighbors, friendly neighbors who back away, and a society’s unwillingness to adapt to changing circumstances. Especially destructive is deforestation, which causes soil erosion, flooding, loss of wood products, and crop failures.

Through detailed examples, Diamond shows how some civilizations, misunderstanding or ignoring the environmental warnings all around them, suffered catastrophic failure, while other peoples, similarly stressed, made wiser decisions and survived. Societies often reached their greatest heights just before ecological catastrophe, causing mass starvation and collapse.

These examples can teach the modern world, which suffers from some of the worst environmental degradation in history, how to navigate similar difficulties, restore the regional ecosystems, and escape the deadly fate of their ancestors.

Part 1, “Modern Montana,” consists of a single chapter that examines a relatively pristine region in present-day America and takes its pulse for signs of environmental danger.

Part 2, “Past Societies,” examines several ancient cultures that, stressed by ecological abuse, failed utterly, along with a handful of societies that recovered from environmental dislocations.

In the South Pacific, the Easter Island society, obsessed with competitive monument-building, cut down all its trees, causing a catastrophe and the disappearance of that civilization. Further west, Pitcairn, Henderson, and Mangareva Islands became so degraded that their residents suffered a failure of trade, the collapse of their ecosystems, and total extinction on Pitcairn and Henderson. A combination of overpopulation, ecological burdens, and a shift in weather patterns combined disastrously for the Anasazi of the American Southwest.

Major societies can suffer environmental catastrophes as well. The Mayan civilization, undermined by deforestation, over-farming, a change in rainfall patterns, and wasteful warfare, collapsed suddenly, and the population shrank to a small fraction of its former millions.

The Vikings established several colonies in the North Atlantic; all suffered environmental degradation, some disastrously. The Orkney, Shetland, and Faeroe Island settlements, along with a larger colony on Iceland, misunderstood and misused the forests and soils of those places but learned how to survive, and their descendants live there today. Two Greenland colonies, on the other hand, misapplied Norse agriculture to the cold and fragile land, refused to learn from the neighboring Inuit people how to fish the abundant coastal seas, starved, and died out entirely.

Diamond also relates how two societies in the Western Pacific, Tikopia and Japan, resolved environmental stresses in opposite ways—Tikopia using bottom-up community solutions, and Japan employing top-down management—with good results that continue to this day.

Part 3, “Modern Societies,” considers four present-day nations at risk of, or already in, collapse. Overpopulation and over-farming led recently to a civil war in which a million Rwandans were slaughtered. Different social histories and incentives caused two nations, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, to treat their halves of a shared island in completely different ways, leading to opposite outcomes: one has sustained itself while the other has suffered a calamity.

China, the largest society examined, struggles with all 12 environmental risk factors laid out by the author, ailments that are spreading to the rest of the world. Australia, a large continent with a small population, suffers from the classic mistakes of deforestation and over-farming that cause soil damage, loss of wood resources and fisheries, and tainted water supplies.

In Part 4, “Practical Lessons,” Diamond sums up the examples left behind by failed societies, and how those warnings can help today’s world cope with similar dangers. He explains why earlier collapses weren’t foreseen or resolved by those peoples, and warns that similar mistakes dominate thinking today. Diamond then compares the good and bad approaches that oil and mining companies have taken to cope with environmental damage caused by their activities. He also considers the differences between today’s environmental problems and those of past societies, and how modern globalization changes the stakes.

The revised 2011 edition contains a new Afterword, “Angkor’s Rise and Fall,” which explains the collapse of the most powerful empire in Southeast Asia during the 1300s. The 615-page book also contains 42 photographs, 32 pages of annotated bibliography, and an index.

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