The Shape of the Future

E M Risse


"Collapse," an Appreciation


Jared Diamond's master work surveys the collapse of unsustainable societies from the ancient Mayans to the Greenland Norse. There are lessons there for 21st century Virginians.


Jared Diamond, the author of the Pulitzer Prize winning book "Guns, Germs and Steel," published a new book in January 2005. In the terms that booksellers like to use, "Guns, Germs and Steel" was a BLOCKBUSTER in sales and in content. A rare combination. Diamonds’ new book is titled "Collapse, How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed." "Collapse" is every bit as important as "Guns."


Full disclosure: This is not a “book review” in the usual meaning of the term. If you want to read a thoughtful  review of "Collapse," check out the one by Robert D. Kaplan in The Washington Post “Book World,” Jan. 9, 2005.


This column is an introduction to the book by one who was prone to be sympathetic to the author’s perspectives because of his previous work. While we read "Collapse" with a critical eye, it would not be fair to put this off as an unbiased “review.” On the other hand, this is not a paean of unabashed praise. We cite a significant flaw of the book and note what some readers are likely to say is wrong with the book. We hope the net result will be that each of you will read the book and come to your own conclusions about the book and the future. We expect you will learn a good deal.


Few potential readers would be more prone than I to find "Collapse" a great book. "Guns, Germs and Steel" is sometimes referred to as presenting a Unified Field Theory of Geography/History/Archeology/Anthropology. Those who have read my book, "The Shape of the Future," know that Diamond’s insights on the evolution of contemporary civilization articulated in "Guns, Germs and Steel" are extremely useful in understanding human settlement patterns and in creating sustainable New Urban Regions.  (See End Note One.)


Two Parts of an Enormous Canvas Depicting the Evolution and Future Prospects of Civilization


"Guns, Germs and Steel" outlines how over the last 13,000 years contemporary global society came to be distributed and organized. (It is not a coincidence that this is the same 13,000-year time period over which urban settlement patterns emerged and evolved.) The book, which won the Pulitzer prize,  represents a massive intellectual effort. It should be among the important volumes one masters on the way to being able to say one has an “education.”


It is unfair to try to summarize "Guns, Germs and Steel," but here is an attempt: The book explains why people speak Spanish in the Andes and not “Incan” on the Iberian Peninsula. It is often cited as the most expansive documentation of the importance of location and spacial distribution in human activity. (See End Note Two.)


"Guns, Germs and Steel" focused on events long ago and far away. That is one of the reasons Diamond’s first major work has had such an impact. It is clear, powerful and deals with times, places and relationships that few had considered and even fewer could dispute.


"Collapse" is about where contemporary global society is headed if we do not change our ways in fundamental ways. It primarily examines the last 1,500 years and assesses the trajectory of contemporary society.

"Collapse" documents what citizens need to understand and do “today” if society in anything like its current form is to be around “tomorrow.” For this reason the book will engender debate, unease and, unfortunately, denial.

In spite of the 575 pages, the book is not exhaustive. Diamond’s examples are selective. He does not start with the first urban culture in the Western Hemisphere–the 5,000 year old “cities” in the Norte Chico region of Peru–but with more recent societies such as the classic Maya urban centers on the Yucatan Peninsula and the smaller Anasazi settlements in the South Western United States. These are societies where most of the evidence has not been erased by later human activities.


Diamond focuses on places where there is good science from which to draw well vetted conclusions. One can determine if, for instance, cannibalism was a factor in the final collapse–it often was as in the Anasazi and the Greenland Norse societies. As you might guess, Diamond rejects the silly “noble and gentle savage, guardian of the environment” stereotype.


Comparative insular studies in the Southwestern Pacific provide a wealth of solid information. Where there is disagreement among scientists, Diamond states the major contentions and outlines why he supports one or another conclusion. In many cases the point Diamond wants to make is as valid for either theory.


"Collapse," while documenting historical societies on remote Pacific islands and in Norse Greenland, also focuses on places that are more easily understandable, such as 16th Century Germany and 17th century Japan as well as contemporary Australia, Montana, Iceland, the New Guinea Highlands (where he spent many years doing research) and places like Haiti, Rwanda. But the focus is always on what these places and events mean for contemporary, First World, urban societies–that means you and me.


The direct and indirect impact of deforestation and loss of top soil play a key roll in many collapse scenarios. Diamond could have revisited the extensive historical work on North Africa and the Near East but instead addresses the issues in Haiti and the Dominican Republic where maps and public records document the impact of differing policies and where air photos make the current status painfully evident.


Deforestation, top soil loss and failure to adjust to climate change are recurrent themes. In most cases population pressure was a key factor. After a period of growth and prosperity, the natural systems could no longer support an expanded population.

As the subtitle suggests the book details how past societies “choose” to fail or succeed, collapse or to avoid collapse–not how outside forces cause collapses.

Diamond does not go over the ground covered by "Guns, Germs and Steel," which described societies overwhelmed not by choices they made but by outside forces. The Inca and Aztec empires were wiped out, for instance, by disease and superior military technology of the Spanish invaders.


Starting at Home


Diamond provides details on the current status of places on the edge like Rwanda and Somalia but also seemingly stable and safe places like my home subregion in western Montana. It came as a surprise that the author would start a worldwide survey of the collapse of societies with a detailed look at the place where I grew up and went to college.


His first long chapter focuses on the Bitterroot Valley of Montana where my aunt and uncle farmed after World War II. This it the place my father, literary on the back of an 4x9 business envelope, figured out he could not make a living farming. (See End Note Three.)


Diamond’s first experience in Montana was a few years after we moved there. In his first chapter there is hardly a page that does not mention people and places I know and conditions with which I am familiar. (See “Fire and Flood,” Nov. 3, 2003.)


Living in California, Montana, Hawaii, Georgia, Massachusetts, North Carolina, New York, Maryland and Virginia, working in all those places and many more, plus travel in Scandinavia, Europe and the Caribbean, I have crossed Diamond’s path many times.  There is even Greenland sketch in "The Shape of the Future." (See End Note Four.)

As a person who has done things, built places and traveled to learn, I find that Diamond’s perceptions and perspectives ring true.

I am sure that there are those who study specific things in depth who will say: “Based on 30 years of study of the Xerkel Peoples of West Nowhere my findings differ ....” That is not the point. The point is the big picture. Covering as much territory as he does, Diamond will miss some things and misstate some facts.


The majority who will disagree with Diamond make their living from Business As Usual. They hope that Diamond goes away like Vance Packard and that few citizens come to see the future of contemporary global society as he does. That way they can continue to make money from Business As Usual.


One of the phrases that readers of our columns have become familiar with is The Fallacy of Composition: What is good for one, may not be good for all. This is a term that has currency in the field of economics (and in the field of exonomics). Diamond examines the same individual/society relationship–private interests and public responsibilities–with the use of the term “Rational Thinking.” This is a oxymoronish phrase from the field of psychology. (If one can benefit from an action at the expense of others and not get caught in the short run, it is “rational” to make that choice.) Diamond also uses the phrase “The Tragedy of the Commons,” which is familiar in resource conservation circles.

All these approaches mean that maximizing individual interests in the short term does not yield long-term sustainability for the society.

Diamond documents that those who took advantage of their position of control and leverage at the top of the economic chain to the detriment of society as a whole have had the privilege of being the last to die after seeing their children and parents die and be eaten in the last phases of collapse.


A Few Highlights


The views of several Western Montana “come heres” quoted in the first chapter captures in their own words the clash of values and priorities that afflict doomed historic societies when resources became scarce. The same logic can be heard at land-use control public hearings and in the posts on the Bacons Rebellion blog.


Diamond points out that if one lists the world's political trouble spots -- a map identifies Haiti, Rwanda, Burundi, Madagascar, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Mongolia, Philippines, Indonesia, Solomon Islands and we might add Kenya, Sudan, Ethiopia, Niger and others -- they also are the environmental trouble spots as well. Since Diamond completed writing "Collapse," the media have provided a steady diet of “further examples.”


The author’s population prospect is frightening. While the threat of wild population growth is dimming, the cohort of young men with nothing to do in those trouble spots is growing rapidly due to the baby boom of a decade ago.  Further, if those in the Third World were to achieve current First World consumption levels, the demand for resources would be the equivalent of a 12X increase in world population. And it is hard to keep them “down on the farm” – witness China to which Diamond devotes a chapter.


Diamond does a very good job of evaluating the reasons why some resource industries are becoming better citizens and others worse. His portrait of the mining, oil, timber and fishing industries is worth the price of the book.


The One Shortcoming


The one shortcoming of the book is not its content but its the presentation. It is hard to understand how a book that 16 people read all or part of (including three named editors and two agents) could have signed off on such a poorly organized and presented volume. The maps are useful but simple. The photos are instructive but are all in one place, not related to the text. More and better images could have been selected. This is a world-class book, how about some color?


The real problem, however, is that the text is a typographical wasteland. There are headings listed at the start of the 16 long chapters but there is no graphic help in navigating the pages, subsections, or sections within the chapters. The only guide is that the small print at the top of the right page changes as one goes from section to section.  But that is not helpful when the section changes on the left hand page. Our copy is now adorned with hand-written headings in addition to the usual marginal notes.


There is a longish introductory description of the structure of the book with a “pig in the python” analogy that only becomes understandable after reading the book. Perhaps the worst problem is that important concluding observations on the roles an individual can play is buried in the “further reading” appendage at the back of the book. There is, thankfully, an index.


Someone may have warned Diamond about some of these problems. A few are “explained” in the text. It would have been better for an editor to add typographical interest and guideposts throughout the book. We have a theory on how this happens but that is another story. (See End Note 5.)


The Core Value of Diamond's Work


There are many important and useful observations in Diamond's work but two seem especially relevant to the readers of Bacons Rebellion.




  • rroviding a five point framework for evaluating the success and collapse of societies,

  • previewing the fate of 20 past societies in detail with reference to many others,

  • reviewing the current status of about the same number of contemporary subregions, regions and nation-states,

  • outlining in detail the twelve critical issues facing contemporary global society,

  • dissecting the 11 sound-bite responses by Business As Usual advocates to the potential of collapse of First World societies,

  • and documenting that global interconnectedness leverages collapse, making the First World “well-to-dos” not much different from the Greenland Norse with the privilege of being the last to die after watching their parents and children,

Diamond comes down to two choices that have been critical in tipping the outcome towards success or failure:

long-term planning and willingness to reconsider core values. Both of these should be of interest to readers of Bacons Rebellion.


Long Term Planning


The failure to plan for the long term and to provide a wide margin for unexpected events seems like a reasonable thing for a society to do. Diamond documents that time after time a problem was noted but the future was not planned for, the result was collapse. When we recently pointed out on the Bacons Rebellion blog that it would be in the best interest of the military to plan for the consequences of moving employees to Ft. Belvoir so the impact would not damage their own interests at Fort A.P. Hill, a civilian employee of the military suggested that long-term planning for sustainable human settlement patterns was “a joke.”


Reconsidering Core Values


The willingness to reconsider core values in the light of changing circumstances, including what is best for society as whole for the long term, also seems like an easy call.   Those who follow the media coverage of the recent national election and of the current election campaign in Virginia know that to even question “core values” makes one a public enemy suspected of terrorism.


The issues central to the “Culture Wars” (aka, guns, gays, god) are the ones that candidates focus on. The death penalty, stem cell research, the right to bear arms under any circumstances and the uncritical acceptance of the prevailing pattern of growth are favorite themes. The Greenland Norse would understand the importance of upholding core values, but they are not around anymore.


Where to From Here?


You need to read all 575 pages for yourself. A brief overview does not convey the power of Diamond’s evidence. Even his 12 core measures of contemporary societies health require at least a paragraph to explain why each is critical to fat, self-satisfied First World citizens. Remarkably, Diamond makes a clear connection between the shaman on Easter Island, the kings on the Mayan Peninsula and the Norse on Greenland and the “come-heres” in Western Montana who say about the same things as those who did not like our column on West Virginia. (See “Take Me Home Congested, Non-urban Roads,” April 11, 2005.)


When you are done, however, you will be left with a question: What can I do? All of the big-picture issues are nice, but what it comes down to what is in your head.   There are a lot of things you can do to make the world a better place:

  • Work to fundamentally change governance structure (e.g. PROPERTY DYNAMICS)

  • Support the evolution of functional human settlement patterns (e.g. PROPERTY DYNAMICS)

  • Support the creation of affordable and accessible housing

  • Start a resource and energy conservation awareness program in your neighborhood elementary school

  • Start a reforestation project

  • Participate in a roadside or stream valley cleanup

These are good but what is most important is what goes on inside your head and the heads of your family members. You must overcome the siren call to consumption and understand the Fallacy of Composition and avoid the “Rational Thinking” that leads to the Tragedy of the Commons. A careful reading of "Collapse" is a good start.


-- August 8, 2005



End Notes


(1) It is obvious from the text and end notes in our book the impact "Guns, Germs and Steel" had on our own effort to articulate a Unified Field Theory of Human Settlement Patterns. Of the 146 books listed in APPENDIX THREE – READINGS, no book other than perhaps "Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge" by Edward O. Wilson had more influence on the formation of the ideas presented in The Shape of the Future. In spite of the detail and overlap of Diamond's new book, we did not identify a need to revise what we say in "The Shape of the Future."


(2) "Guns, Germs and Steel" explains why the east-west orientation of Eurasia led to the establishment and advance of what we call civilization. It examines the transition from hunter-gatherer bands to the domestication of plants and animals (agriculture), the rise of barter, trade and commerce, the evolution of governance, the agglomeration of urban places and the transition from craft to technology and science. It documents why the north-south orientation of Africa where homo sapiens first walked upright and the Americas where homo sapiens arrived 50,000 years ago and built the first “city” 5,000 years ago where overridden by Europeans in the 15th through 20th centuries. The recent National Geographic/PBS series on "Guns, Germs and Steel" has gotten very good reviews.


(3) After selling a farm in the Santa Ynez Valley near Santa Barbara, Calif., and working for Boeing during the Second World War, my aunt and uncle traveled across the country from the valleys of western Oregon to the Piedmont of Virginia looking for a place to invest their war-time savings and the proceeds from the sale of their California land. They choose the Bitterroot Valley in western Montana. After the war my father and mother were forced to sell their farm in the same California Valley and, following a less thorough search, made the same decision on the best location to farm. However, the numbers did not work for the very reason I found when working on Agricultural Preservation in New York State two decades later. Simply stated the problem was (and is) this: Scattered urban land uses had driven up the price of attractive land to the point it was not profitable to start a farm. Ironically, one of the places my family bid on near Darby in the Bitterroot Valley was purchased by the Ford dealer from Santa Barbara for a summer farm.


Our family settled just outside of Glacier National Park which turned out to be a much better choice for us. After a decade, my aunt and uncle move back to the Puget Sound New Urban Region and put in another long stint at Boeing.


(4) Experience stabilizing a sugar-mill ruin with local labor over a 20-year period on a small Caribbean island and traveling extensively in the Caribbean, including Haiti during the last years of Papa Doc’s rule, provides insight into a number of issues raised by Diamond. Haiti and the Dominican Republic ,which share the island of Hispaniola, are places where we photographed environmental degradation. We observed the of logging of old growth forests in Dominica and the long-term impact of clear-cutting whole islands for sugar cane, cotton and indigo, as well as natural and planned reforestation process on islands from Trinidad to Hispaniola.


(5) The theory is that if someone wins a Pulitzer and makes a lot of money on a book, no one will point out the problems. We found a similar problem in the later books of the revered scholar and Librarian of Congress Daniel J. Boorstin. There is an inverse problem for the fledgling author: Everyone thinks they are an editor and they want the work reworked in the style they like and for the book to focus on the issues that they understand.   













Ed Risse and his wife Linda live inside the "Clear Edge" of the "urban enclave" known as Warrenton, a municipality in the Countryside near the edge of the Washington-Baltimore "New Urban Region."


Mr. Risse, the principal of

SYNERGY/Planning, Inc., can be contacted at


Read his profile here.