Readers interested in exploring the histories of the world’s populations through the lens of environmental challenges most likely have already come across Jared Diamond’s 1998 Pulitzer Prize winning title Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. In it, Diamond emphasized the importance of geography and a wide array of environmental factors, in charting the successes and failures of civilizations throughout the world. Informing the course of study are simple questions surrounding the equity of cultures and the power dynamics between agricultural societies, leading readers through an interesting investigation of the past. Recurrent journeys down such scientific avenues as the causes of Pleistocene animal domestication, the development of early ocean-going ship technology, and the impact of humans in the Holocene megafauna extinction event are just some of the diverse topics covered in this work. At the very point in which a reader begins to experience slight discombobulation, Diamond deftly blends topics related to such “simple” questions of equity and societal fate.
With the follow-up work Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Diamond meanders around some of the same pathways explored in the earlier book. However, as the title ominously points out, there is an enhanced focus on the endpoints in a variety of societies, both prehistorical and historical. While again focusing on environmental advantages and disadvantages, as well as conscious choices by settlement inhabitants to thwart early depletion of resources, Diamond weaves together a succinct narrative describing the downfall of Easter Island’s sculpture producing Rapa Nui culture, Greenland’s early Norse inhabitants, and the North American Anasazi culture just to name a few groups of people. Importantly, Diamond juxtaposed these societal endings with a handful of anecdotes from modern cultures that have been embracing the idea of preserving natural resources like timber and fuel, in economically viable ways. While both books are justifiably sobering, Jared Diamond ultimately provides readers with reasons for hope that can be cautiously embraced.