I have a crush on Jared Diamond, and have since I read Guns, Germs, and Steel. He writes wonderful, erudite prose - some of the only recently published prose that dares to break the 12th grade reading level.
How does he manage to float such complex yet readable sentences? He's got the skill of an acrobatist, not only in his enunciation but in his approach to a topic. How does he manage to enter into the viewpoint of every one of multiple contrasting viewpoints? I don't know, but he treats his interview subjects with a tact and respect bordering on the inhuman. And he's got a wry humor that leaks out between the words like sweet, treacly magic.
In Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Diamond turns his eye on the ways societies end. He examines five societies which collapsed catastrophically: Norse Greenland, Easter Island, the Anasazi, the Maya, and the Pitcairn Islands. He sifts through all the archaelogical evidence we have about the way these societies lived before, during, and after their collapse (in most cases, complete elimination of human society). He sorts through the ultimate and proximate reasons for their demise, and how each society reacted to the looming problems. He then examines several societies which were faces with similar problems but survived (Iceland being one example).
All of this examination is done with a conscious eye on the relevance to the modern world. Diamond in fact starts the book off by comparing two very similar large dairy farms; the main point of difference between the two being that one is in Greenland and the owners are all dead, and the other is in modern Montana.
Diamond's analysis of the environmental problems of two of his 'home towns', Montana and Los Angeles, help carry home his message that today we may be facing a confluence of factors great enough in magnitude to potentially bring us down. The fascinating analysis is only the sugar to help us swallow the pill: our current growth rates and consumption levels are unsustainable.
The hook of Collapse is 'What was the Easter Islander who cut down the last tree saying as he did it?' It's a good question, as fundamentally fascinating as more morbid curiousity about personal annihilations, and more relevant.
And finally, a short quote:
Are the parallels between the past and present sufficiently close that the collapse of the Easter Islanders, Henderson Islanders, Anasazi, Maya, and Greenland Norse could offer any lessons for the modern world? At first, a critic, noting the obvious differences, might be tempted to object, "It's ridiculous to suppose that the collapses of all those ancient peoples could have broad relevance today, especially to the modern U.S. Those ancients didn't enjoy the wonders of modern technology, which benefits us and which lets us solve problems be inventing new environment friendly technologies. Those ancients had the misfortune to suffer from effects of climate change. They behaved stupidly and ruined their own environment by doing obviously dumb things, like cutting down their forests, overharvesting wild animal sources of their protein, watching their topsoil erode away, and building cities in dry areas likely to run short of water. They had foolish leaders who didn't have books and so couldn't learn from history, and who embroiled them in expensive and destabilizing wars, cared only about staying in power, and didn't pay attention to problems at home. They got overwhelmed by deperate starving immigrants, as one society after another collapsed, sending floods of economic refugees to tax the resources of the societies that weren't collapsing. In all those respects, we moderns are undamentally different from those primitive ancients, and there is nothing that we could learn from them. Especially we in the U.S., the richest and most powerful country in the world today, with the most productive environment and wisest leaders and strong allies and only weak insignificant enemies - none of those bad things could possibly apply to us."
No, it's true that there are big differences between the situations of those past societies and our modern situation today.