The Real Paul Jones

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Gladwell’s Diamond

Malcolm Gladwell is concerned about how things change. So is Jared Diamond. Diamond is best know for his Pulitzer prize winning “Guns, Germs and Steel” in which he describes the factors that he believes have made certain civilizations triumph over others. Gladwell is perhaps most well known for his “Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Difference” best seller in which he, without complete attribution, brings together a variety of theories and stories about the mysterious tendency of humans to begin to act more like lemmings for better (as in less crime if there are less broken windows) or worse (as in tatooing going mainstream).
The week in the New Yorker, long Gladwell’s homebase, Gladwell reviews Diamond’s latest book, “Collapse: how societies choose to fail or succeed.
I don’t have the Diamond book as yet so I’m relying on Gladwell to tell you that the civilizations that “choose” to fail usually fail by failing in their relationship to the earth. Easter Islanders completely deforest their island and it’s bye bye civilization from then on. The Norse settlers of Greenland deforest, over graze, remove sod so as to build their homes, refuse to eat fish (as near as anyone can tell), won’t learn from the locals and so all starve to death in one very bad winter. These civilizations and others (Mayas, Rwandans, etc) through their unattentative relationship with the earth create first an environmental crisis that they don’t understand that then precipitates a social crisis and collapse.
The collapse is obviously a tipping point or perhaps even a blink — to borrow from Gladwell’s newest book, “Blink: the power of thinking without thinking.” To be fair to Gladwell, “Blink” is about intuition which it seems that the civilizations in “Collapse” seem to have chosen to ignore or just do without.
I know that we’re all responsible etc, but really do societies that have no idea of crop rotation or of how to prevent erosion really “choose to fail” or are they selected out of the gene pool like the winners of the Darwin Awards. Does death of a civilization constitute a collapse, a tipping point, or a paradigm shift? Or are all of these approaches far too simplistic to be instructive, to prevent our own collapse?
I do plan to read both “Collapse” and “Blink” in the next few months and will report back. Feel free of course to comment here in the meantime.


  1. I think there’s a lot of evidence that we do know that our way of life is causing great, perhaps catastrophic, environmental damage. We know this, yet we elect political leadership that chooses to ignore it. Bill Moyers, one of our great Cassandras, put it this way:

    I see the future looking back at me from those photographs [of his grandchildren] and I say, ‘Father, forgive us, for we know not what we do.’ And then I am stopped short by the thought: ‘That’s not right. We do know what we are doing. We are stealing their future. Betraying their trust. Despoiling their world.’

  2. Coming back to the discussion now that authimage has become more friendly, I didn’t say that the contemporary analysis of our problems and of our choosing to ignore our problems wasn’t valid, but that Diamond’s assigning “choice” to unwilled ignorance in the case of the ancient Norse was just not sensible. I do wonder what was going on in the mind of the person who cut down the last tree on Easter Island. Alas only the Lorax knows and I can’t seem to find him.

  3. I’ve read Diamond’s Guns Germs and Steel (which I always want to call Lawyers Guns and Money), and The Third Chimpanzee, & I think he’s brilliant. Thanks for letting us know about Collapse; I’ll be buying myself a late Christmas present soon!

    I agree that unwilled ignorance is not equal to choice. But I’d argue that in an era when we can actually study the environment and collect evidence about our effect on it, there’s really no excuse for willful ignorance. Wilful ignorance *is* choosing to fail.

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