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Panicking about societal collapse? Plunder the bookshelves

Panicking about societal collapse? Plunder the bookshelves

As civilization seems to be lurching towards a cliff edge, historical case studies are giving way to big data in authors’ search for understanding.
Four Moais, the typical large monolithic human figures statues, on Easter Island

Monuments to resilience or collapse? The 800-year-old statues of Easter Island.Credit: Andia/Universal Images Group via Getty

In case you missed it, the end is nigh. Ever since Jared Diamond published his hugely popular 2005 work Collapse, books on the same theme have been arriving with the frequency of palace coups in the late Roman Empire. Clearly, their authors are responding to a universal preoccupation with climate change, as well as to growing financial and political instability and a sense that civilization is lurching towards a cliff edge. Mention is also made of how big-data tools are shedding new light on historical questions. But do these books have anything useful to share? Any actionable points besides that on my coffee mug: “Now panic and freak out”?

The newest is Before the Collapse. In it, energy specialist Ugo Bardi urges us not to resist collapse, which is how the Universe tries “to get rid of the old to make space for the new”. Similarly, Diamond’s 2019 book Upheaval suggested that a collapse is an opportunity for self-appraisal, after which a society can use its ingenuity to find solutions. Both writers seem to accept that collapse is inevitable, but they take very different approaches to analysing it. Diamond zooms in to glean lessons from historical case studies; Bardi zooms out to view societies as complex dynamic systems that behave cyclically. Numerous books published in the past few decades chart how research has shifted from Diamond’s approach to Bardi’s.

THE BOOKS

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed Jared Diamond Viking (2005)

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