I enjoyed reading this book, even though it got a bit repetitive and depressing at times. I’ve never read “Guns Germs & Steel,” despite receiving it as a present (TWICE). Do I get points for that? Anyway, this book is very readable, quite well written and extremely well organized. I felt like I was reading a power point presentation at times, but in a good way. I never felt lost or disoriented. Kudos to Diamond; his outlines must be sharp as tacks.
My favorite chapters were the ones about Easter Island and Greenland, which coincidentally were the two societies in which the author himself seemed to find the most intriguing. I also really liked the chapters about the modern day collapse of societies like Rwanda and Haiti. (In Haiti’s case, I still don’t really get how they “chose” to fail–uh, like, how is it a “choice” to be colonized and deforested by the French?). I liked how when things were getting monotonous with yet another analysis of the region’s soil, the author would throw in the occasional unexpected and fascinating random fact, like how archaeologists use petrified cave rat poo to learn lessons about past extinct cultures. I also liked the random personal life interjections Mr. Diamond would occasionally include, like how he supports to Boston Red Sox’s Dominican Republic pitcher.
Overall, I don’t know yet if I share Mr. Diamond’s “cautious optimism” about human population explosion, deforestation, rapidly decreasing natural resources, etc. I feel like the dad character from Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom” would be super into this book. To be honest, this was the kind of book that I had to keep putting down and walking away from because there were just some tough truths to read in there. I didn’t finish the big businesses chapter because I couldn’t take it, but I did manage t make it through the chapter that was about WHY people decide to do things that are basically biologically suicidal . Or as one of Mr. Diamond’s undergraduate students apparently put it, what did the inhabitants of Easter Island think as they were cutting down the very last tree? Anyway, this book made me really, really glad that I’m selling my car.
The other thing that was interesting about this book to me was the tension between environment vs. individual decisions. At what point is it kind of like oh, this society is doomed to fail because the soil really sucks, and at what point is it about the individual’s choices? Like, did the Viking colonies in Greenland collapse because the Vikings stubbornly insisted on keeping cows and not eating fish (?! pretty unbelievable right?!). Diamond seems to insist that it’s a combination of the two factors (individual decisions and environment), but in the Vikings’ defense, I can’t imagine a worst place in the world with a more inhospitable environment to live in other than Greenland.
This individual-versus-environment question was a big reason for why the Greenland chapter was so interesting to me. I haven’t read GG&S, but that book to me seems to be more about emphasizing how the ENVIRONMENT determines your situation, whereas this book had more of an emphasis on individual choices. What is this implying about postmodernism, I wonder? That we’re all caught up in this crazy messed up system we didn’t choose, but on a tiny individual scale our actions still matter? Is that really true, or is that just a comforting illusion, to pretend like our teeny tiny individual choices can really make a difference? I wonder…