Guns, Germs, and Steel/Collapse- Book Reviews

Diamond, Jared. 2005. Collapse. Penguin Group, New York. 525 pp.

Diamond, Jared. 1999. Guns, Germs, and Steel. W. W. Norton and Company, New York. 441 pp.


A major factor contributing to a society’s success or failure is its response to environmental problems. While some of these problems are determined geographically and escalate independently of human intervention, often people must make decisions during environmentally unstable times. How do these decisions affect a society as a whole? Is it possible for people to know they are making the right decisions? Jared Diamond addresses these questions in two of his books, Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse.

Diamond presents an excellent case for geographic determinism throughout Guns, Germs, and Steel. Some societies were blessed with an ideal location and climate which caused them to domesticate plants and animals faster and easier. For example, Cortes and Pizarro both had the advantage of technology that, according to Diamond, existed because they were both from a more suitable geographic location. However, Cortes and Pizarro were not successful just because they were from an environmentally friendly area. A determining factor in a society’s success is the ability to make decisions that will benefit future generations. These decisions may certainly be influenced by biogeography, but certain choices stand alone and can make or break a society. Diamond addresses this very issue in Collapse.

Humans respond to ecological problems in different ways. Some responses and decisions cause a society to flourish while others lead a society in a downward spiral toward disaster. Decisions such as these are usually based on a number of different factors. For example, leaders are influenced by personal beliefs, religious beliefs, and the population’s beliefs. In societies that do not have any form of central leadership, the people in the society are influenced by these same factors. Some people may feel strongly about long-term issues and others want to fix small problems immediately. Some leaders are concerned with their people’s happiness and well-being, yet others are selfish and greedy. As mentioned above, these decisions almost certainly affect biogeography. If a society chooses to clear forests to build houses, it may take into account how much wildlife would be destroyed in the process and how that action would affect the area as a whole. Another society clearing the land may not care about the loss of wildlife as long as it is benefited financially from the houses. This is just one example of how decision-making is often determined by a society’s priorities.

Guns, Germs, and Steel explains the events that unfolded at Cajamarca in 1532 (Diamond 1999). This event clearly shows how decisions benefited a society. The Spaniards, being so close to the Fertile Crescent, had advantages because they benefited from food surpluses, domesticated plants and animals, and were writing by this time. This was only possible because of decisions made by the early Europeans (Diamond 1999). Pizarro took advantage of the technology afforded to Spain. Pizarro and the rest of the Spaniards had steel swords, lances, daggers, armor, a few guns, and horses – technological developments that enabled them to defeat the Incas. The Europeans could have responded to the environment in ways that would have harmed the society, but instead they had a vision in mind for the future. It was not that the Incas made bad decisions; they just did not have the opportunities that the Spaniards had. This ties in nicely with Diamond’s point that biogeographical factors are already determined for a society.

Diamond states five factors that contribute to a society’s downfall in Collapse. The first four factors that could contribute are environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbors, and friendly trade partners (Diamond 2005). According to Diamond, the last factor – a society’s response to environmental problems – always plays a role (Diamond 2005). These first four factors are sometimes out of a society’s control. The Incas did not have a clue that the Spaniards would come and not be friendly. The Anasazi people had no idea that their climate would change. The Easter Islanders could not have predicted that having no trees would be detrimental. How a society deals with environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbors, or friendly trade partners always proves significant. These responses could then cause one or all of the remaining factors. For example, if a society is experiencing a shortage of trees (environmental problem) and decides to do nothing about it, the climate could be altered and friendly trade partners could turn into hostile neighbors. If this particular society decides to do something about the shortage of trees, the climate may not change and once hostile neighbors could become friendly. This sounds like a simple concept, but these responses must sometimes be quick and well thought out to be successful.

All societies and the individuals that comprise these societies have certain core values that they consider to be important parts of their decision-making process. These core values may include religious beliefs or convictions, traditional opinions, or cultural beliefs. These three are often blended together. On page 409-410 of Collapse, Diamond explains this as “the challenge of deciding which of a society’s deeply held core values are compatible with the society’s survival, and which ones instead have to be given up.”

The Vikings in Greenland clearly show what happens to a society when poor choices are made. A series of mistakes led to the downfall and eventual collapse of their society. The Vikings started raiding other countries in AD 793, which led to an accumulation of wealth (Diamond 2005). When Eric the Red landed in Greenland in the AD 980’s, he found a land with a mild climate and green landscape; however, in time the Vikings destroyed the environment. As soon as they arrived they began clearing forests and causing soil erosion. They also stripped massive amounts of turf to insulate their houses (Diamond 2005). The Vikings also brought cows and sheep with them from Europe, but they soon found that the cows could not survive the cold weather. When times got tough, they went hungry because they refused to eat fish, an abundant food source in Greenland (Diamond 2005). The Vikings failed to learn from the native Inuit living on the island. A friendship with the Inuit could have led to a friendly trading system with the Inuit. They could have learned how to build long canoes to hunt and kill fish, seals, and whales. The Inuit may have taught them to use blubber as a fuel source. The Vikings did not understand which core values to abandon to survive in Greenland. They were a proud people who valued independent living. This pride turned into stubbornness and ended up blinding them. The Vikings were unable to make choices that would lead their society to success.

The parallels of the modern condition of Australia and the past failures of Greenland are striking. Australia is currently using some of its resources faster than they can be replaced. In Collapse Diamond states, “At present rates, Australia’s forests and fisheries will disappear long before its coal and iron reserves, which is ironic in view of the fact that the former are renewable but the latter are not.” Just like the Vikings in Greenland, this situation seems illogical. The people in Australia continue to destroy the environment when they are already the most unproductive continent. Diamond states that the soils in Australia have the lowest nutrient levels on average which leads to the lowest plant growth rates (Diamond 2005). To be fair, Australia is unfortunate in that the climate is undesirable and rainfall levels are very low. However, bad choices led to today’s low productivity.

The British settled Australia so that they could have a place to put all of the jailed, impoverished people. They were afraid that these people would rebel if they were kept close to Britain. The British were only concerned about themselves, as were the Vikings; neither of these groups cared about the future of the islands they were settling. The British also introduced rabbits and foxes into Australia, which still causes problems today with the vegetation. They, like the Vikings, were too concerned with making this new place seem more like their native land. They introduced species that did not belong, and the Australians are still fighting the effects of these bad decisions.

Even though biogeography plays a part in the advancements and failures of societies, human decisions also play a significant role. Long-term vision is the key to establishing a healthy society that will thrive. Societies must be willing to let go of old habits if it is in the interest of future generations. The histories of the Vikings in Greenland and the British in Australia show what happens when societies hold on to core values and familiar habits. There are similar patterns developing in the U.S. Exotic species, global warming, fertilizer and chemical runoff are just a few examples of environmental problems. Educational programs must be organized so that people will recognize these problems and make decisions that will influence the future environment in a positive light. Adults need to recognize examples of past failures so that the same mistakes are not repeated. Parents must share these concerns with their children. Apathy, ignorance and stubbornness can and will ruin this country if environmental problems are not taken seriously.