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Collapse: How societies choose to fail or survive

Book cover

by Jared Diamond, Penguin Books, 2005


This book looks at past societies all over the world and asks why many of them collapsed and why some survived. Diamond bases his fascinating story, which is a good read in its own right, on a five point framework. Societies collapse because they have damaged their environment seriously, because of climate change, because of hostile neighbours, because of loss of friendly trading partners, because of cultural traditions which have influenced their response to environmental difficulties. The author deals with twelve environmental issues as handled in about twenty locations he takes us to. He ends by showing how relevant these expeditions are to us as members of society and to business in particular.

(Reviewed by Edgar Wille in October 2007)

(These book reviews offer a commentary on some aspects of the contribution the authors are making to management thinking. Neither Ashridge nor the reviewers necessarily agree with the authors’ views and the authors of the books are not responsible for any errors that may have crept in.

We aim to give enough information to enable readers to decide whether a book fits their particular concerns and, if so, to buy it. There is no substitute for reading the whole book and our reviews are no replacement for this. They can give only a broad indication of the value of a book and inevitably miss much of its richness and depth of argument. Nevertheless, we aim to open a window on to some of the benefits awaiting readers of management literature.)

Why business people should read this book

This is a book about a dozen or so societies that collapsed in past millennia under the pressure of external forces and their own lack of perception. It also tells of several who more recently have faced threats and may survive through reacting positively.

It is relevant today because the whole world is threatened with forces which could bring about the collapse of civilization as we know it, where books on management would be useless, even if there were any companies still to be managed. Without being overly pessimistic, this book is an implicit call to be among the survivors, by taking action now, whether as individual companies or as part of worldwide alliances.

Every day the media remind us, with varying degrees of panic, of the threats posed by climate change, environmental degradation, world poverty, energy shortage, resource depletion, together with the ever present conflicts of interest these create, issuing in wars and terrorism. We are told of steps we can take urgently to avoid the worse consequences, but we don’t show great enthusiasm for taking them. Our consumer society would have to tone down its inexhaustible craving for more and more things, new and old, which will use up more and more of earth’s resources. And we often prefer to look the other way and hope that everything will turn out better with a bit of technological innovation.

But that is just the point. This book by Jared Diamond is a clarion call to take drastic steps while there is time, and before we join the ranks of civilisations that have failed in the past. Even if the half way bad outcomes become reality, the business which sustains manufacturing, service, trade and commerce will face failure on a big scale. Those only will survive who, having seen the signs of the times, have responded by changed mindsets, new paradigms, technological inventiveness and a readiness to undertake revolutionary innovation. Business as usual is not an option. Companies “built to last” will only last if they cease to depend on what moved them from ”good to great ”.

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Imaginative redesign of business

Consumerism which fuels economic growth will not be an option; a new definition of growth will be called for, one which still permits a satisfying, and even happy, life for most people, but with new definitions of what is satisfying and a new sense of meaning in life. This involves redesigning the whole concept of what, as companies, we are there to do, if we are to still be around. We cannot just jog along – perhaps we never could, but we progressed by inventing new wants, which people did not need, and did not even want, until we created demand by our slick marketing methods and made people come to think of these new wants as needs.

Unparalleled imagination is needed to open up new trains of thought, to create new opportunities for people which will not over use Earth’s resources, fatally increase the emission of greenhouse gases and wreck any hope of peaceful coexistence between nations. What Tom Peters calls “Re-imagination” will be called for on a scale which will make him look like a mild reformer. The debate between incremental improvement and revolutionary change will have to be settled in favour of the latter. And it will start in the minds, particularly of leaders and managers of business, and indeed of everyone who can envision a new world in their part of human activity. It cannot be left to politicians, though they have a responsibility for the infrastructure and the big picture.

It is business which alone has the power to introduce into the market place, where we all indicate our choices, the products and services which will enable us all – and our children and grandchildren and beyond - to survive in a society which after some pain we may come to welcome as providing the harmony and peace which in our hearts we would prefer to the mad rush which threatens to engulf us.

This book then is a must for those in business and industry upon whom the responsibility falls to ensure the survival and growth of their businesses and the development of a new civilization. This may sound like exaggerated talk, but by the time you have read this book it will appear to be a sober assessment. And I should add that the book ends on an optimistic and positive note.

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A five point framework

In the first chapter Diamond offers us a five point framework for understanding why only some societies proved fragile, and what distinguished those who collapsed from those who didn’t. Why did some societies, faced with extremely difficult environmental problems, solve them and were able to persist for a long time, some still going strong today? Iceland is given as an example.

The five factors which posed threats to survival (not always simultaneously present) were:

  1. environmental damage
  2. climate change
  3. hostile neighbours
  4. loss of friendly trading partners
  5. society’s response, especially to environmental problems.

Looking at these in a little more detail

  • The first factor is the extent and reversibility of damage which depends on the understanding of people. How many trees do they cut down per acre per year? Do they plant the right seedlings that can survive? Do they understand the resilience of a region’s forest, its soils, its fish population? What is the capacity of these factors for recovery from use? Do the inhabitants spot the fragile elements in time and refrain from persisting in them, switching to sustainable products?
  • The second factor, climate change, may not necessarily be due to human behaviour; climate may become hotter or colder, wetter or drier, or the seasons become more or less variable, all depending on natural forces which drive nature. Thus there was a “little ice age” from AD 1400 to 1800 and global cooling after an Indonesian volcanic eruption in 1815, making 1816 a year without a summer as far afield as North America. These were in days when crop failure in one place could not be compensated for by imports from less affected areas, and when dry decades could not be covered partly by storage in good decades. Human factors did enter in, as when profligate water usage in the hot times left water tables low when a dry time came. If society had not partly depleted its environmental resources, it might have survived the resource depletion caused by climate change. The two together spelt disaster.
  • A third factor is that hostile neighbours may become a menace to a society which has been weakened by ecological factors, so that it has to struggle to maintain its livelihood. Then when a neighbour pounces, it has not the strength either to discourage invasion or to resist successfully if it comes. The defeat would not be merely military. The defeat of the Roman Empire by the barbarians was probably due to its economic, political and environmental weakness, which encouraged the barbarians to strike where earlier Roman strength had discouraged it.
  • The fourth factor is the reverse of the third. If friendly neighbours traded with a nation and compensated for aspects which the latter lacked, then there was a synergy which helped both. If however the trading partner weakened in its ability to provide what was needed then the nation needing the friendly trade weakened too. We are familiar with this factor from experiences in connection with the flow of oil. The familiar thought is illustrated that societies cannot survive in complete isolation from the rest of the world.
  • The fifth factor is Society’s response to these other factors. Four examples are given in the book of societies which responded to environmental threats by developing successful forest management and survived. Another five did not manage their forests efficiently and so collapsed.

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Twelve environmental factors

In relation to the way in which many societies undermined themselves by damaging their environments, he subdivides the first of the five factors into 12 specific causes.

  1. deforestation and habitat destruction
  2. soil problems (erosion, salinisation and soil fertility losses)
  3. water management problems
  4. overhunting
  5. overfishing
  6. effects of introduced species on native species
  7. human population growth
  8. increased per capita impact of people

and today

  1. humanly caused climate change
  2. build up of toxic chemicals in the environment
  3. energy shortages
  4. full human utilisation of the earth’s photosynthetic capacity

Jared Diamond then selects examples to illustrate each of the five basic factors, with 12 factors specific to environmental issues. Out of a number of examples he might have discussed he picks out some whose processes were faster and therefore conducive to study. Our review has room for only a limited selection from his selection, but we would urge anybody who wants a fascinating read, irrespective of the seriousness of the issues and the lessons to be learned, to put this book high on their list. I learnt a lot that is not usually covered in history books and gained a sense of world history which is valuable in the context of the globalisation of business and society. He goes into absorbing detail of what made the various societies tick and so enlarges our understanding of human behaviour.

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The South Pacific

Diamond tells exciting stories, largely reconstructed from archeological artefacts and pollen counts, of what happened to various islands in the South West and Central Pacific Ocean. I cannot give them equal attention here, but in the book itself none of the stories fails to be quite riveting. The same is true of all the locations he visits anywhere in the world.

The Easter Island society, composed of Polynesian settlers, seems to have collapsed almost entirely because of humanly caused environmental factors, partly due to what was involved in the erection of their famous stone statues, apparently of their ancestors, some 900 of them. Some of them were 70ft tall, weighing as much as 88 tons, with the stone carved out of rock found in an extinct volcano. Rock platforms had to be erected for them too. It needed a lot of labour and seems to have provided the

  • raison d’etre
  • for the islanders. Each statue required some 500 people for the erection and they all had to be fed.

    They needed a lot of wood for transporting them as far as nine miles and then positioning them. They originally had a plentiful supply of a special kind of palm tree for this purpose and for canoes and cremation of their dead. They also cut down much afforested land for gardens which were part of their survival kit. So they completely denuded the island of forests.

    Eventually inequality between a comfortable elite and the rest, who lived a very deprived life, led to civil war and the overthrow of the elite who had led the twelve clans who had successfully coexisted for centuries. They were so isolated that they had no trading partners to make up for their deficiencies, though no hostile attackers either. A population of more than 15000 in the 16th century came down to about 2000 by the 19th. Disease caught from European visitors accentuated the decline.

    Diamond humorously asks what they might have thought as they destroyed forests needed for their spiritual and physical survival. Were they in modern parlance like loggers who cry: “Jobs, not trees!” or politicians declaring “Technology will solve our problems, never fear, we will find a substitute for wood”, or perhaps scientists suggesting “We don’t have proof that there aren’t palms somewhere else on Easter Island, we need more research, your proposed ban on logging is premature and driven by fear mongering”.

    Pitcairn Island and Henderson Island also ran into environmental problems, which were for a time held at bay by support from neighbouring friendly trading partners. These partners themselves eventually experienced environmentally triggered disaster and ceased to support these islanders, who in turn collapsed due essentially to the fourth factor – loss of friendly trading partners.

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    Native American Society

    A very detailed climate change record can be constructed to explain the fate of the Anasazi Native American society, who lived in the South West of what is now the United States and gained an illusion of prosperity by reliance on imports of basic and luxury goods and overuse of their own resources. Their collapse occurred through the interaction of environmental damage associated with too rapid population growth on the one hand, and climate change, on the other, in the form of a long period of drought, calculated by tree ring study. These factors were sufficient to cause the end of their society, without the effect of either hostile invaders or friendly trading partners, though there is evidence of internal strife, accompanied by cannibalism, in the closing decades.

    The Anasazi survived in Chaco Canyon for about six hundred years ending in the thirteenth century AD, but they lived in a fragile and difficult environment, and actions which had helped them to survive, in the end had very long term effects which led to their decline and collapse. In their heyday they would have thought this impossible – a warning against complacency.

    The story of the Maya, the most advanced of Native Americans, up to 14 million of whom inhabited South West Mexico and Guatemala around the end of the first millennium AD, is fascinating and its ruins still draw tourists to the romantic mystery of ancient cities now covered by jungle. Again it is a more protracted case of collapse, brought about by the combined effect of environmental damage, population growth and climate change, and without the support of friendly trading partners. However their collapse was hastened by their constant preoccupation from early days with hostile neighbours, against which their various city states were unable to combine, because they were too preoccupied with survival in face of ecological crises. We have a fairly extensive knowledge of the Maya, because they left a full written record which has been skilfully deciphered.

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    The history of Norse Greenland

    Norse Greenland is well understood because it was a well documented and literate European society, between the 10th and 15th centuries AD. It failed by a combination of all Diamond’s five factors. There was environmental damage, climate change, loss of friendly trading contact with their parent Norway, coupled with rising conflict with the Inuits (Eskimos). Above all there was the political, economic, social and cultural setting of the inhabitants, who clung to norms which had historically worked in Norway but needed significant adaptation to perpetuate their colonisation of such a different environment. The Inuits managed it because they had long adapted themselves to the physical and climatic constraints of their territory.

    The Greenland story illustrates the fact that even in a harsh environment, collapse is not inevitable, but depends on society’s choices – very relevant to our situation today. There is also evidence of variations in the climate of Greenland. Farming with emphasis on livestock was practised on a substantial scale in the good periods, and indeed may become practicable again in a few years time if the warming of the Arctic and Northern areas continues as expected. Cattle, who were kept indoors for nine months of the year and used mainly for milk rather than for meat, were supplemented by goats and hunting. In earlier days there was the export of ivory from walruses as their contribution to mutual trade with their mother country. But the luxury trade did not prove to be long lasting or earn enough to pay for the import of wood. They were always short of lumber, fuel and iron. And the use of turf to line their houses contributed to soil erosion.

    The story is also told of the North Atlantic Vikings of an earlier period, who discovered America long before Christopher Columbus, and failed to create a long term occupation, in contrast with their fellow Vikings who succeeded in the Orkneys, and especially in Iceland which was and still is an outstanding success story.

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    Three success stories

    Tikopia in the Pacific, the New Guinea Highlands and the Japan of the Tokugawa era were all successful, in spite of environmental problems, perhaps not as great as those of Greenland and Iceland. There was no one path to survival, but there had to be a readiness to adapt to the prevailing situation.

    Tikopia was small (1.8 square miles, supporting 1200 people) and so the people could have a close knowledge of each other and engage in cooperation as the evidence of need lay before them all. Isolation was a key factor for the Tikopians. Their small canoes made ocean travel hazardous, though it was seen as a rare and challenging adventure, when it was from time to time necessary to find marriage partners or essential imports from islands in the south west Pacific ranging from the nearest 140 miles away to the more distant Solomon, Bismarck and Samoan archipelagoes. Their normal subsistence could not be sustained by trade with these islands, but key rocks, missing from Tikopia, were imported to make suitable tools essential to survival. And they survived for 300 years and are still there.

    The island had the advantage of a friendly climate (except for cyclones), with steady rainfall and fertile soil, frequently renewed by volcanic dust. Apart from this, generations of them must take the credit for their success. They micro-managed their agriculture for continuous and sustainable food production, instead of the slash and burn methods employed in many areas of the world. Every plant species was used in some way, even grass for mulch in gardens and wild nut and fruit trees, as well as cultivated orchards. Root vegetables abounded and for protein, the sea and an inland lake provided fish and there were ducks as well. Forest occupied only a small part of the territory and most of the land has always been occupied by intensive food growing.

    It was however imperative to control population and this was done by widespread coitus interruptus, abortion by hot stones on the pregnant belly, infanticide, celibacy, (defined as deciding not to have children), suicide including just putting out to sea and not coming back, and by reclaiming areas for habitation. Nowadays the chiefs use their authority to regulate the number of people who may live on the island. The history of the island is punctuated by clear decisions, rather than the usual drift. So all pigs were slaughtered and fishing enhanced, when it was realised that the pigs caused more damage to cultivation than they offered in food value and that meat production used up much more primary vegetation than it offered in nutrition.

    Japan in the Tokugawa period succeeded by having, for 250 years, a well defined hierarchy which was obeyed, creating a system of law and order. Top down forest management, after a period of prodigal overuse which led to a wake-up call, became the basis of Japan’s prosperity. They realised that their isolation from the rest of the world left them to their own resources, and with political stability and ensured leader succession, they were able to think long term.

    Then as to the New Guinea Highlands, people have been living there self-sustainably for thousands of years without significant inputs from other societies. In fact the rest of the world was unaware of their well organised agriculture until they could fly over the region in the 1930s. While primitive in the eyes of Europeans, they had long understood drainage, crop rotation, nitrogen fixing plants, composting and had notable silviculture skills which replaced deforested areas with fast growing trees and, between internecine wars cooperated with each other. They also used methods similar to those of Tikopia in keeping the birth rate down. The influence of Europeans over the last 70 years has not been uniformly beneficial.

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    Rwanda and Burundi

    Rwanda was a third world country which experienced the disaster of genocide where millions died in the conflict between the Hutus and Tutsis. Along with neighbouring Burundi, it was an overpopulated land which collapsed in appalling bloodshed as the Maya had done in the past. The ethnic hostility was the fuse which ignited the dynamite of population growth, environmental damage and climate change. But although it is not a recommended method it did go some way to solving the over population problem.

    After 15 years of peaceful government, civil conflict erupted in the slaughter in the 1990s, which was more indiscriminate than generally recognised. It is this discovery that led scholars to look for reasons, other than Hutu/Tutsi rivalry, for the massacres. It was food shortage, caused by improper agricultural methods, leading to soil erosion and landslides, and above all the method whereby the burgeoning population led to the division and subdivision of farms until they became impossibly small and defeated all attempts at improvement.

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    In the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, the Dominican Republic provides a case of emerging prosperity after desperate times and bad government. It contrasts with the other half of their island home, where Haiti remains poverty stricken and misruled. The reasons for the greater prosperity of the Dominican Republic – five times the per capita income of Haiti – are illustrated. The Dominican Republic is disciplined over the preservation of its forests and has a number of planned nature reserves; to stand at the border between the two countries is to see a distinct difference between their prosperity as exhibited in the scenery. The one has 28% forest cover; the other 1%.

    The heritage of bad government by the previous dictatorship has left Haiti in a worse position and corruption still abounds. Most of the Haitians are subsistence farmers, and one has to recognise that environmental factors, though not without difficulty in the Dominican Republic are more favourable in regard to rainfall, soils and terrain. There is little export trade from Haiti and the population level is double that of Dominican Republic. And the gap between poor and rich is vast, yet in the nineteenth century Haiti was by far the more prosperous. There is a difference between the two peoples in their histories, attitudes, self definition, and institutions, and especially in the character of their recent leaders. Environmental problems do constrain countries, but societies’ responses, expressed in their leaders, also make a difference, for better or worse.

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    Don’t forget China

    China suffers from heavy doses of all twelve of the types of environmental problems. It is so huge, with such a large population, that its environmental and economic effect on the world is far reaching. We have considered China in several other reviews. Especially germane to Diamond’s theme is by Mark Hertsgaard.

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    Australia is a First World country experiencing the most severe ecological. problems, due to its fragile environment. It is having to consider the most radical structuring of its economy and society in order to solve its problems without sacrificing everything that makes for a civilised life. The basis of Australian prosperity has been mining of various kinds. And the problem of mining is that resources that do not renew themselves with time, are being exploited, whereas forests, fisheries and soil are renewable if properly managed. The latter will be exhausted much more quickly than mining products which also have bad effects on the environment, both in getting them out of the ground and then in using them. All of the five factors which are the basis of the analysis in this book have long been in play in Australia and are causing a reappraisal of their core values to identify which of them still serve the country well in today’s world.

    Nevertheless Australia is at a disadvantage because of its own geography. Australia is the most unproductive continent. Its soils on average are lowest in nutrients, it has the lowest plant growth rates and the lowest agricultural productivity. Their soils have not been renewed by volcanic dust, by glacial movement, or geological uplift as is the case for many other parts of the world. This means higher fuel and fertiliser costs and the cost of food production is such that often countries such as Brazil and Canada can export to Australia more cheaply than the country itself can offer.

    The rainfall over much of the country is not predictable; it makes growing crops more expensive in the short run and increases soil erosion in the long run. There is also the “tyranny of distance”, which makes transport costs for export to Europe and America expensive, making only products with low bulk and high value economical to export. There are historical roots to the Australian problems. The British, when sending their poverty afflicted convicts there, were concerned with 19th century jail space in Britain, not with the ease with which they would make a living. They were also inhibited by the traditions and creatures they brought from Britain. Sheep were good but multiplied disproportionately to the economy; rabbits and foxes were a disaster, as were the neglect of native Australian plant life in favour of familiar British species. Vegetation which fitted the climate was often decimated.

    A further disadvantage was that the original land values were based on more productive British values. This over-capitalisation through the years has contributed to overstocking and overgrazing of the land and still affects the farming economy. The salinisation of soil is another major issue, where bad management on your farm may spoil the farm of a neighbour as an underground river of salty water – more salty than the ocean – infects it.

    Climate change faces Australia as well as the rest of the world. It is breaking down the pattern of reliable winter rains, essential to the wheat growing industry; yet the running of the agriculture industry itself produces more CO2 then motor vehicles do. And the methane from cattle’s digestion systems is 20 times more potent than carbon emissions. Is elimination of cattle a serious answer?

    All these circumstances mean that government and business in Australia have to work out anew their identity. Are they more linked with Asia than with Britain and Europe and what are the implications of this? These are the kind of issues that businesses everywhere in the world have to face when assessing the effect of the threats to the status quo appearing from so many sources. Our business may have been “built to last” and may have moved from “good to great” – but true greatness may lie in innovation which turns everything we have ever believed about how to do business on to its head. Destructive innovation may be the only way.

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    Current self interest versus long term benefit to the community

    The last section of the book seeks to extract lessons for today from the stories that have been told.

    Many of the examples in this book has been of societies which ended up destroying themselves. How could they fail to have seen the dangers which in retrospect seem so obvious? Was it their own fault or were they the victims of circumstances over which they had no control? How much of the environmental damage was unintentional and imperceptible? How much of it was carried out by people who could see the likely consequences, but chose to close their eyes to them? Did some members of each community follow courses of action that were just in their current self interest – seemingly good for themselves, but bad for the rest of their society? It was the author’s students who asked him the question “What did the islander who cut down the last palm tree say as he was doing it?”

    The decisions which led to disaster contained individual decisions, but essentially they were group decisions, which Diamond places in four categories.

    First, some such decisions are by groups doing disastrous things because they couldn’t anticipate problems of a type of which they had no prior experience, such as the havoc that rabbits and foxes would wreak as alien species in different territory, or that demand for walrus ivory from Greenland would dry up due to the re-opening of the Asian and African elephant tusk market. Another example of such decision making is drawing from the past an analogy which doesn’t work in a new situation, such as the assumption that World War II would be fought on the same basis as World War I.

    Second, faulty decisions are made when the problem has arrived, but it is invisible to the eyes that need to see it. Loss of nutrients in soil is initially imperceptible and so inappropriate practices continue, or managers distant from where a problem is may not be able to perceive it, unlike the Tikopians on their tiny island. Similarly a slow trend masked by up and down fluctuation may obscure what is happening, as with some kinds of climate change or very gradual landscape changes, as happened in Montana. The term “creeping normalcy” has been to describe this type of phenomenon.

    Third, a frequent type of failed decision making is where the group doesn’t even attempt to solve the problem after it has been perceived. This may be because some people reason that they can advance their own interests, even if it harms others often only in small ways individually, such as large subsidies for uneconomic industries funded by relatively small sums, not specifically identified, from individual taxpayers. The absence of any specific legal prohibition may also enable organisations to get away with certain types of pollution. Special interest groups and lobbying may encourage the acceptance of selfish behaviour, though equally some such groups are formed to fight it. Sometimes the ignoring of a visible problem may be due to rulers who operate on the naked lust for power for themselves in the here and now, regardless of the suffering of others, or the longer term results.

    Religious values and cultural traditions may be so deeply rooted as to prevent action for dealing effectively with a problem, such as Greenland conservatism which held them back from the innovation that was required for survival in a different environment from that in which they had acquired their perspective. The key here is to know which core values must be held to and which can safely be modified. A whole society may also be reluctant to abandon a policy in which they have already invested much. This is called the “sunk cost effect”, such as clinging to the sheep industry in Australia long after it ceased to show signs of being profitable. Particularly in very poor countries people are affected by the very short term; their only concern may be to get by with enough food today.

    Fourth, Diamond gives as his final cause of bad decision making that after a society has avoided the first three failure types and have anticipated, perceived, and tried to solve the problems, they may still be unable to solve them. They may be beyond their present capacities, or a solution may be prohibitively expensive, their efforts may backfire or be too little and too late. The ultimate failure of the Greenland Norse after four centuries was that they were facing an insuperable challenge. Rabbit control in Australia; and leaf spurge control in Montana are examples, as is avoiding calamitous forest fires in many parts of the world, where the undergrowth which feeds the fires has been allowed to multiply to the extent where the cost of removing it is beyond taxpayers’ pockets.

    The success stories in the book are where there were leaders and a communal understanding that took firm action in time, in spite of present disadvantage, such as when the Tikopians destroyed all the pigs on the island.

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    What can business do about it?

    What is the role of modern business in all this? Some businesses are among the greatest offenders in contributing to the destruction of the earth. Some are providing some of the most effective environmental protection. The author examines why some business find it in their interest to belong to the second category. What changes are needed if others are to follow their example?

    There is no doubt that currently modern societies depend on extracting natural resources, some of the most significant of which are non renewable, such as oil and coal. At present we are committed to extracting them; the question is where to do it, in what amounts and by what means. The scope for innovation is immense and so are the difficulties. The capital expense of much of this extraction process is so great that is essentially in the hands of big business, where there is always the danger of putting the interest of the business before that of society as a whole, and even of self deception that sees only the benefits accruing. Equally, business often accuses those who protest against their extractive activity of being one sided in their criticism, not taking a balanced view of all the issues and often enjoying most of the benefits while inveighing against selected disadvantages.

    Diamond argues that instead of all the mutual blaming, the fact is that the interests of big business coincide with those of society more often than is often claimed.

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    Examples from the oil industry

    On the one hand, it is true that what makes money for business may be harmful to society in general, eg in regard to health and living amenities. An example of this is the effect of an Indonesian oil company which ruined the ambience of vast forest areas with its equipment and large areas by wide, wildlife destroying roads, which changed the character and value of whole regions.

    On the other hand, he gives more space to an opposite picture in the New Guinea region where Chevron had built everything with a view to protecting as much of the environment as possible, building pencil thin roads which were hardly visible from the air, and which did not impede the activity of the wildlife essential to preservation and utilisation of the natural resources of the region. He could scarcely see the flares and infrastructure usually associated with oil fields. The oil extraction activities were supported as often as possible by helicopters, instead of roads and long lines of traffic. And on arrival at an oilfield he had all his luggage checked for firearms, hunting equipment, drugs and alcohol and was later rebuked for straying off the narrow road to engage in one of his professional activities of bird watching, which had shown him species more numerous than normal.

    Chevron had obviously decided that their policies would ultimately help them to make more money from their oil operations, and would therefore be viewed with favour by the shareholders. These policies would be likely to avoid expensive environmental disasters, and subsequent clean ups, thus securing the long term benefits from the vast investment involved in oil extraction and processing. Government favour would be more likely to be secured and the motivation of employees was high. Competitive advantage would also be served, not least when bidding for permission to operate, from governments, the public and local landowners.

    New technologies were developed to make such approaches possible, as contrasted with the more primitive dirty ones. This is a pointer to the need for big business to contribute to the overcoming of environmental threats by putting innovation at the heart of their enterprises, by developing new paradigms to inform their activities. Maybe other oil companies should not be viewed with cynicism when they appear to be taking a similar line to Chevron.

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    Other extractive industries

    Diamond also has stories to tell of positive efforts and negative reactions in dealing with environmental problems in other extractive industries.

    He comments on the hard rock (metal) mining industry with its problems of what to do with waste, overburden and polluted water, as being “the prime example of a business whose short term favouring of its own interests over those of the public proved in the long term self-defeating and have been driving the industry into extinction.”

    Diamond gives examples of how some extractive industries, after trying the usual evasive strategies of denial of toxic effects, lobbying and funding citizen support groups, have learned to live with stricter government regulation, taking responsibility for the activities of their supply chains, and becoming resigned to paying more as the price of continued existence, given the state of public opinion. DuPont is quoted as an example of collaboration with public interest groups, to work out buyer’s agreements and supplier’s codes of responsibility that it enforces on all of its Australian titanium suppliers. It will not allow them to give DuPont a bad reputation.

    As to natural extraction industries, a sorry story is told of the logging industry – with the prominence of “rape and run”, bribery, and paying off local people with sums which seem large to them, but which have all been used up in a year or two. The world is faced with its accessible remaining forest being destroyed apart from protected areas where the protection is real. But the best case scenario would have the world meeting its timber needs sustainably from 20% or less of those forests that were well managed and supported by the full force of the law, instead of being subjected to a de facto free for all.

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    Voluntary regulatory schemes

    The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is discussed, with its well audited inspection scheme, including a paper trail from a tree cut down in one location is followed through to the piece of wood sold in a DIY shop many miles away. But the public needs to care enough about the issue to insist on FSC certification of their purchase. Large firms like IKEA, UK’s B&Q and America’s Home Depot support the scheme because they see it as advancing their economic interests.

    The last extractive industry covered in this book is the seafood industry where Unilever teamed up with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to found the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) to offer credible eco-labelling to consumers and to persuade fishermen that it was in their own interests to develop a positive market appeal, which MSC certification would help. In the UK, Sainsbury’s and Marks and Spencer support MSC and other large food companies are joining.

    The principles of MSC, which those joining from the actual fishing industry have to accept, include the requirement that the fishery should maintain its stock’s health for the indefinite future, should yield a sustainable harvest, maintain ecosystem integrity, minimise impacts on marine habitats and on non-targeted species and should comply with prevailing laws. What gets certified is the fish stock and the gear that is used to catch it. The fish are tracked from the boat, via the dock, to the restaurant or store where it is consumed. And increasingly companies are seeing the extra cost as worthwhile from a business point of view.

    When Henry Ford introduced the $5 a day wage for employees, his shareholders sued him for managing the company in a way which would knowingly reduce profits. They lost. There is a lesson there for all businesses.

    Consumers, too, must share the blame for eco-unfriendly behaviour by business. If they just did not buy from such firms, things would soon change. Apart from following ethical principles, sound environmental practices are part of the normal cost of dong business, and changes in public attitudes are essential to secure these changes in businesses’ environment practices.

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    Globalisation: source of pessimism and optimism

    The book closes with a recap of the types of environmental dangers which could lead to collapses of the kinds described in the book. It asks whether the situation is as serious as has been suggested and whether the collapses of the past do really have something to teach us. Diamond reminds us of his 12 environmental threats:

    • Four of the 12 concern the destruction or loss of natural resources
    • Three involve ceilings on natural resources
    • Three consist of harmful things we produce or move around
    • Two are population issues.

    In the second category, his paragraph on photosynthesis is illuminating. Apparently if we go on covering the earth with concrete, roads and buildings we shall be blocking out so much sunlight that the world’s photosynthetic capacity will be largely used up by the middle of the century. Most energy fixed from sunlight will be used for human purposes and little will be left over to support the growth of natural plant communities such as forests.

    Just as he begins the book with a case study of his much loved Montana and the threats it is experiencing, so he ends it with a case study of the Los Angeles area where he lives, when he is not travelling the world.

    Globalisation can be viewed to fuel either optimism or pessimism about the future. Because of globalisation, communities can no longer collapse in isolation as did Easter Island and the Greenland Norse in the past. Any society in turmoil today affects all the others to a greater or smaller degree. One problem exacerbates another or makes its solution more difficult.

    Although twelve environmental problems are presented separately they interact on each other, so that if we get eleven right but neglect one, we shall still be faced with disaster.

    What can I as an individual do about the issues discussed in this book? Diamond answers: I can vote; I can decide to buy or not buy; I can support consumer protest – in a civilized way; I can praise companies who do good things; I can learn more about the supply chains of companies and get to know where the biggest problems are I can talk to other people who vote or buy I can talk about these things to fellow members if I am involved in a church, synagogue, temple or mosque I can invest time and effort in improving my own local environment I can use some of any discretionary money I have to contribute to making some aspect of needed change possible. (And I suppose I could add: I can cover some of these important issues in my business book reviews – because they are important business issues and are likely to become more so.)

    Let Jared Diamond have the last word:

    For the first time in history, we face the risk of a global decline. But we are also the first to enjoy the opportunity of learning quickly from developments anywhere else in the world today, and from what has unfolded in societies at any time in the past. That’s why I wrote this book.

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