For the inhabitants of first world countries, who live in well-serviced modern cities, with supermarkets stocked full of food and service stations gushing petrol, it’s reasonable to think of the economy as functioning within specific civilized parameters. Urban city dwellers don’t think of the natural world that gives us this magical world of cheap energy and plentiful food.
With the dramatically titled Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, Jared Diamond extensively shows how any severe thinking about economic development, growth, and capitalism’s plans for future expansion needs to be modeled on what the environment can sustain.
Currently, when politicians and economists think of growing the economy, they look at benchmarks like productivity, research and development, investment, and so on. It is simply assumed that economic growth will continue apace and that somehow all the globe’s inhabitants will be able to consume and pollute at current first-world levels. Collapse shows the absurdity of this thinking.
Two Modern Examples of Environmental Peril
Two modern economies present very striking examples of the problems the world faces:
China’s economic expansion poses challenges not just for its environment, which is under enormous pressure and may ultimately not be able to cope, but also for the world.
- China’s increased demands for energy and resources will put pressure on commodity prices (especially oil) and contribute immensely to greenhouse gases.
Australia has an exceptionally fragile environment, with the world’s most nutrient-poor soil for growing food.
- Australia’s water systems are also under immense pressure, and its atmosphere has been degraded through its pastoral industry.
The upside of this glum picture, Diamond says, is that Australia has an educated population and a reasonably honest and responsive political system that is now becoming more aware of these environmental challenges.
Societies in the Past That Collapsed Due to Environmental Stresses
While Collapse spends half of its 500 pages looking at contemporary environmental problems, and the economies they threaten to collapse, the first half of the book gives a curious survey of past societies that collapsed due to over-exploitation of the environment.
Fascinating case studies include Easter Island, the Henderson Islands, the Maya, and the Norse in Greenland.
A Cautious Optimist
Collapse is a beautiful book that gives a detailed and informed portrait of how the environment feeds into the economy, something city-dwelling first world consumers don’t pay much attention to. Jared Diamond highlights the necessity of paying attention to the costs that environmental exploitation will ultimately cause the economy, and by extension, the people who depend on it.
While Jared Diamond says he is a cautious optimist, he sees the future as being one of the reduced living standards. Collapse is a book for realists who understand that all economic activity depends on the health of the environment. Thoughtless exploitation without calculating these costs can only result in unpleasant surprises down the track.