Collapse begins by telling the story of modern-day Montana’s small towns changing and collapsing. The farms have shuttered, the youth are moving away, and the rich are using the farmland to build mansions in the beautiful valley. This greatly impacts the demographics, economy, and daily life of the people who originally carved out a living by farming, mining, and logging. This is done so that the author can show how real, micro-level problems develop and affect the people living in modern society. Since we cannot get this “micro view” of past collapsed civilizations, this is helpful for perspective’s sake, but some readers might view it as casting doom and gloom on America’s small towns. This is not the case. It is clear that the author has a deep love of Montana and is friends with many of the people there (the book is even dedicated to Montanans).
Collapse was published in 2005, but as it is a history/science book, there have probably been some scientific advances and discoveries since its publication. It is easy to see parallels between modern society and those that have fallen in the past, and in some cases, the book is nearly prophetic in what it suggested would happen after the book was published. All of the environmental and societal issues are presented in a sympathetic but factual way. After setting the stage with Montana’s current problems, the author discusses collapsed island civilizations, native North and South Americans civilizations, as well as Norse civilizations, then the book moves to more modern societies in Rwanda, the Dominican Republic, Hati, China, and Australia. The final part reflects on the causes and cures for civilizations that have or are in danger of collapsing.
You could go into this book with very little environmental knowledge and not knowing much about the histories of these people and regions. For each civilization, the author explains the geography and issues with each settlement, how the people lived/live, what factors led or are leading to their downfall, and ultimately what happened to the settlers or what was left of the land after the humans died or left. The text is accompanied by detailed maps and a few photos of the regions, people, and artifacts from the civilizations analyzed in the text. Particularly in the long chapters on Greenland and Iceland, the text drags with smaller, inconsequential details that cloud the main point of the chapter. A little more editing might have helped, but the massive amount of detail lets the reader more clearly picture parts of daily life in these past civilizations. I was just surprised that chapters on smaller civilizations sometimes had more detail than modern, more developed societies, like China. The text might be a bit long winded and dry at times, but I read this 542 (not counting the index and bibliography) book very quickly. If this is a topic that interests you, I am sure you will be as hooked as I was.
Other reviewers seem to enjoy the author’s previous book, Guns, Germs, and Steel (which won a Pulitzer Prize) a bit more because it is a little less meandering, so I will certainly pick that one up soon. Although it was a little depressing to read, I learned a lot from this book and would give it 4 out of 5 stars. My biggest takeaway would be this: humans must always be willing to adapt to survive, and greed, a lack of foresight, and prioritizing the wrong things (large monuments, luxury items over needs) will lead to a civilization’s downfall. Luckily, humans are great at adapting, but we just have to be willing to do it.