Collapse, in full entitled "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed" is a work by anthropologist/scientist Jared Diamond, detailing the myriad social and environmental factors that have caused societies, at various points in history, to fail or survive. It was published in 2005 and is something of a Magnum Opus. The book is wide in scope, deep in insight, and the result of deep research. It will probably become a classic of social science.
The book is presented as a series of case studies, in places as diverse as Iceland, Greenland, Easter Island, Haiti, Rwanda and Hamilton, Montana. In each case, Diamond looks at the various factors that led to changes, and sometimes a catastrophic collapse, in the societies. Some of these changes were environmental: (climate change, soil exhaust, overfishing), some were internal and political (usually having to do with a society being too conservative to adjust to changing circumstances) and some were external and political (such as a foreign invasion). The interplay of these factors is describes in some detail.
The book had two major problems for me. The first is probably inevitable: given the great amount of information about both social and natural science, there is a great deal that the reader needs to take on faith. Although science can tell us a lot, many of the results about, say, climate change in 14th century Greenland are probably the result of conjecture, and are not a matter of total consensus amongst the experts. And if that is the case in the physical sciences, the case in the social sciences is even more so. This brings up a second problem, which is that the sociological picture that Diamond paints is somewhat deterministic, and also could be seen as lacking in a humanistic, democratic view of human societies.
But for all the problems, I think it is a valuable book, and one that changed my thinking, because it had a central thesis that seemed to combine some different schools of thought. In Marxist sociology, a societies ideologies and power structures are shaped by its means of production. However, in post-modernism, the means of production themselves are viewed as just the products of cultural definition. What Jared Diamond has done is shown that both of these views are true, and that they can sometimes feed on each other disastrously. For example, the culture of the Norse in Greenland was shaped by the fact that they tried to continue an economy based on cattle. But this was itself a culturally defined pursuit: from an objective standpoint, the raising of cattle was not an efficient use of resources. In this case, the culture was shaped by the need to raise cattle, but the need to raise cattle was shaped by the culture. A similar case could be made for the use of automobile and air travel in the contemporary United States. And also, just as none of the Greenland Norse would say that they believed in eating beef because it gave them a sense of cultural prestige, air travel in the United States is often treated to be an "obvious" necessity, rather than a cultural artifact. And it is this lens that the book gave to me that I consider to be the most valuable thing about it.