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How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

By Jared Diamond
  • Read in 19 minutes
  • Contains 12 key ideas
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Collapse by Jared Diamond

Collapse explains how societies fall. It explains the reasons behind the disintegration of once mighty civilizations like the Mayans in Central America or the Vikings in Greenland. Their stories provide us with harsh lessons on the possible consequences of our own environmental and societal mismanagement.

Key idea 1 of 12

Societies can collapse if they overconsume their natural resources.

Long-vanished societies have left their traces across the globe, from the pyramids of Egypt to the Incan temples of South America. One of the most famous examples of these ancient legacies are the Moai stone statues on Easter Island.

There are over 800 Moai, and some are up to ten meters tall. When European explorers first reached the island in 1722 they were awestruck by the Moai's size and number. Yet they couldn’t work out how they got there. They could only find 2,000 half-starved indigenous people who could never have achieved such feats.

What the Europeans couldn’t have known was that centuries earlier, Easter Island played host to a vibrant and prosperous society. A rich subtropical forest had covered the island, supporting a wide variety of birds and animals. Along with fish in the surrounding seas, the rich flora and fauna provided enough to feed a population of 30,000. It was this community that erected the Moai as monuments to their gods.

So what had happened to them?

The Moai builders' world declined because its people committed ecocide; they overused and exhausted their vital resources. First, the island’s jungles were systematically cut down to help with the construction and transportation of the Moai from quarries to places of worship. The process continued until there were no jungles left. By the time the Europeans arrived, there was not a single tree on the island over three meters high.

Unfortunately, as the trees disappeared so did the island's birds and animals. The loss of the jungles also affected the islanders' ability to fish, because as the number of trees dwindled there was no timber left to make fishing boats. Finally, without nutrients from the trees, the islanders' crops started to fail.

Deprived of its major sources of food, Easter Island’s society soon collapsed into the wretched state the Europeans encountered.

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