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How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed


15 min read
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What's inside?

Prosperity one century, cannibalism the next. National societal failure comes quickly.

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Editorial Rating



  • Innovative


In this fascinating, surprising study, Pulitzer Prize winner Jared Diamond examines how and why some societies fail while others thrive. Diamond makes this history of failed societies into a page-turner, while resisting the urge to oversimplify. He unflinchingly examines cannibalism and mass murder in the hellish downfalls of Easter Island and Rwanda. Yet, he also outlines hope-inspiring successes in New Guinea, Japan and the Dominican Republic. This fat tome is quite engrossing, though in spots Diamond shows an academic’s weakness for repetition and caveats. Even so, this compelling classic deservedly has spent a long time on the bestseller lists. getAbstract recommends it to anyone who hopes to understand how human societies have gone wrong – and right.


From Deforestation to Mass Murder

With global climate change looming, questioning society’s future seems reasonable. Can the planet’s natural resources survive the ever-growing strain people place on them? Can a billion Chinese enjoy U.S.-type prosperity without sending the global ecology into a tailspin? Examining the successes and failures of societies that already faced these challenges is a logical step toward answering those questions. Throughout history, some societies have succeeded and others have failed. Why do some thrive while others collapse? Natural resources are the most common thread.

Societies in resource-rich environments can survive indefinitely, but societies in harsher climes are vulnerable to failure, particularly if they make poor decisions. Details differ, but the broad sweep of societal collapses follow a similar arc. A confident populace multiplies as food and other resources seem plentiful. Then comes a crucial moment, when natural resources grow meager and no longer support everyone in society. Strife, starvation and even cannibalism and mass murder follow. Historians find that ecological collapses often look like military defeats, but that...

About the Author

Jared Diamond teaches geography at UCLA. His previous book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, won the Pulitzer Prize. He also has won the National Medal of Science and many other awards, and has written more than 200 articles for Discover, Nature and other magazines.

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