Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, by Jared Diamond

Western Kingbird, San Antonio NM, April 15, 2010

In Collapse Jared Diamond uses geographic and environmental factors and a society's response to them to examine why ancient societies like the Viking colonies of Greenland and the Anasazi of the American Southwest fell apart and applies his conclusions to the stresses modern societies are facing.

From Prologue: A Tale of Two Farms, page 6, paperback edition:

Those past collapses tended to follow somewhat similar courses constituting variations on a theme. Population growth forced people to adopt intensified means of agricultural production (such as irrigation, double-cropping, or terracing), and to expand farming from the prime lands first chosen onto more marginal land, in order to feed the growing number of hungry mouths. Unsustainable practices led to environmental damage of one or more of the eight types just listed, resulting in agriculturally marginal lands having to be abandoned again. Consequences for society included food shortages, starvation, wars among too many people fighting for too few resources, and overthrows of governing elites by disillusioned masses. Eventually, population decreased through starvation, war, or disease, and society lost some of the political, economic, and cultural complexity that it had developed at its peak. Writers find it tempting to draw analogies between those trajectories of human societies and the trajectories of individual human lives - to talk of a society's birth, growth, peak, senescence, and death - and to assume that the long period of senescence that most of us traverse between our peak years and our deaths also applies to societies. But that metaphor proves erroneous for many past societies (and for the modern Soviet Union): the declined rapidly after reaching peak numbers and power, and those rapid declines must have come as a surprise and shock to their citizens. It the worst cases of complete collapse, everybody in the society emigrated or died. Obviously, though, this grim trajectory is not one that all past societies followed unvaryingly to completion: different societies collapsed to different degrees and in somewhat different ways, while some societies didn't collapse at all.

From Chapter 16: The World as a Polder: What Does It All Mean to Us Today?, page 486, paperback edition:

It seems to me that the most serious environmental problems facing past and present societies fall into a dozen groups. Eight of the 12 were significant already in the past, while four (numbers 5, 7, 8, and 10: energy, the photosynthetic ceiling, toxic chemicals, and atmospheric changes) became serious only recently. The first four of the 12 consist of destruction or losses of natural resources; the three after that consist of harmful things that we produce or move around; and the last two are population issues. Let's begin with the natural resources that we are destroying or losing: natural habitats, wild food sources, biological diversity, and soil.