COLLAPSE: HOW SOCIETIES CHOOSE TO FAIL OR SUCCEED. By Jared Diamond. Viking. 592 pages. $29.95.
Judging from the book that resulted, it must have been a fascinating class.
While Roman historian Edward Gibbon was content to chronicle the rise and fall of just one empire, Diamond uses the first 400 pages of his book to dart around the world, moving from ancient Easter Island to medieval Greenland to modern Montana.
The results are subtle, multifaceted histories of more than a dozen civilizations.
"U.S. southwestern prehistory has been a graveyard for single-factor explanations," he writes in his chapter on the Anasazi.
Throughout most of the book, he rejects sole causes for societal disasters. Taking a multidisciplinary approach, he looks at the environmental, climatic, cultural, and political factors that help to determine whether a society will flop or prosper. Both terms, he admits, are relative.
The Norse survived in Greenland for more than 400 years. No one is sure when the last Scandinavians finally died or were forced out by a combination of cold, Inuit hostility, and cultural blindness.
The "failed" Anasazi occupied the now-desolate Chaco Canyon for 600 years.
Maintaining a maximum population of about 1,200, people have lived "successfully" on Tikopia, a tiny island in the South Pacific, for 3,000 years.
Matching people to limited resources has come at a high cost. Population control measures have included group suicides and burial of live infants.
In a book characterized by good writing, several chapters stand out, including the first. That's where he examines the ecology, economics, and politics of modern Montana.
Montana is Texas with glaciers, a giant state blessed with mineral and timber riches and physical beauty. Bedeviled by low rainfall and short growing seasons, farmers and ranchers have always had to struggle to make their livings.
Efforts to extract copper, gold, and other minerals from the ground have left poisoned streams and lunar-like landscapes.
In recent years the state has been the site of a clash of civilizations. Wealthy Californians and easterners have acquired huge swaths of range and rivers.
Living on giant ranches, they can cut themselves off from the long-established inhabitants, jetting in for a weekend or a week of riding and trout fishing.
While they provide some jobs, these newcomers have raised land and housing prices, making it even harder for young Montanans to earn a living in their home state.
Montana is one of several fragile environments that interest Diamond. Fertile soils, stable ground cover, and even small trees may take 5,000 years to develop in a place like Iceland or Easter Island. That natural balance can be ruined in a decade.
Diamond packs the book with plenty of examples of how hubris, racism, and misplaced belief in cultural superiority lead to disaster.
Medieval Norse settlers in Greenland were near some the best fishing areas in the world. Their neighbors, the Inuit, became some of the best fishermen. Yet the Greenlanders ultimately had to abandon their settlements or starve.
As the climate grew cooler and their non-native crops failed, it became impossible for them to feed themselves or their animals. Yet seeing themselves as advanced Europeans, they refused to believe that they could learn anything from the "skraelings," an Old Norse word meaning "wretches," who lived near them.
The fatal result was that they made no use of an obvious and abundant protein source. "Every archeologist who comes to excavate in Greenland refuses initially to believe the incredible claim that the Greenland Norse didn't eat fish," Diamond writes.
Collapse is not without its flaws. He would have done better to have ended his book before tacking on 100 pages of "Practical Lessons."
Those lessons can be summed up in two sentences:
Failed civilizations almost always cut down too many trees.
There are too many people already.
Diamond, for all his academic degrees and Pulitzer Prize for Guns, Germs and Steel, turns out to be as much a tree worshipper as any ancient Druid. While no proponent of single causes, he finds the destruction of forests as the most common thread linking civilizations that failed.
Why do we chop down trees? Because there are already too darn many of us. Chemical fertilizers, nuclear power, fish farming, plant breeding, irrigation, antibiotics, and pesticides all just delay the day of reckoning.
"Our world society is presently on a non-sustainable course," he writes. Just a few pages later, things have gotten worse: "even the world's present population is living at a non-sustainable level."
So much for signs of progress during an admittedly checkered century that has, nevertheless, seen increased longevity, falling infant mortality, improved nutrition, rising educational levels, and expanded political and economic freedoms.
Diamond even has kind words for Paul Ehrlich, the modern Malthusian who wrongly predicted that billions would die of mass starvation during the past 30 years. Ehrlich's predictions are the equivalent of a worried neighbor calling in false alarms, Diamond says, and no real harm has been done.
But, at the least, you should stop trusting the neighbor. Ehrlich, however, keeps winning environmental prizes. And, of course, firefighters answering false alarms may not be available to battle real blazes. Diamond ends on a happier thought. Modern mass communications and economic interconnections mean that local problems have worldwide consequences and can generate worldwide responses.
Thanks to the efforts of ecologists, biologists, climatologists, and historians - all of whose work Diamond credits and draws on in his case studies - we have "the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of distant peoples and past peoples." That still leaves the question:
Will we choose to do so?
Len Barcousky is a staff writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.