The ills that have haunted our species since time immemorial — starvation, illness, protection from the elements — are less prevalent than ever before. At the same time we’ve probably never been as disillusioned about the fruits of progress.
Panicking about an imminent apocalyptic disaster, people march on the streets of the most prosperous cities in all of human civilization. They chant about impending extinction of humankind or the planet itself, about an unsustainable way of life, about an invisible gas produced as a by-product of our increasingly affluent lifestyles. Sixteen-year-olds are addressing the World Economic Forum and the UN imploring us to reconsider the irresponsibly disastrous path we’ve entered upon. Elected officials are proposing one fanciful idea after another on topics none of them seem to understand.
More than one commentator has pointed to a crisis of spirituality and how radical environmentalism has filled the void left behind by religion. Moral outrages over plastic and the Amazon are blown entirely out of proportion. Virtue signaling and “taking a stance” are more important than effecting change.
In that light, looking at actual societal collapses is relevant. When podcasts like Paul Cooper’s Fall of Civilization are trending on most platforms and the popular historian Dan Carlin’s forthcoming book The End Is Always Near is making huge waves, it is clearly time to dust off the work of esteemed geographer Jared Diamond — particularly his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, the follow-up to his Pulitzer Prize–winning Guns, Germs, and Steel (which just came out in a 20th-anniversary edition). This year he released Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis, which is a natural continuation of the broad-brushed portrait of the fundamental challenges for human societies that he has been painting for 20 years.
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