PW: Your Pulitzer Prize—winning Guns, Germs, and Steel explored civilization's roots in the natural environment. Collapse examines societies that crumbled because they destroyed those foundations. Why the shift in emphasis?
Jared Diamond: This is a subject that I've been interested in for 40 years, for the usual romantic reasons. When I first saw pictures of Easter Island statues or [ancient] Mayan cities, I was turned on by the mystery—why did these people build these monuments, how did they maintain this civilization and why did these civilizations collapse? After I finished Guns, Germs, and Steel, there had been enough recent archeological studies to make clear that many of these mystery collapses involved a component of environmental damage. It was the most exciting thing in large-scale comparative history that I could think of.
You look at the cataclysmic downfalls of Easter Islanders, the ancient Mayans, the Anasazi of the American Southwest and the Greenland Norse, among others. Are there common environmental themes?
Two recurring problems are deforestation and soil erosion, which led to the loss of firewood and building materials, crop failures, the disappearance of animals that people hunted for food and then to starvation, warfare—in extreme cases, cannibalism. But these patterns are complicated by factors like political structures, trade relations and climate change.
Are there regions that are vulnerable to collapse today?
Absolutely. Haiti has been in the news because of 2,000 people getting killed by floods [after a hurricane]. The reason is that Haiti is almost totally deforested. In the [adjoining] Dominican Republic, with something like a quarter of the land still covered by forests, they did not have those catastrophic floods and mud slides. Haitians suffer from the worst deforestation, soil erosion and water problems in the world. Indonesia and the Philippines are two big countries that are at major risk. China and Australia also have big problems.
You taught the material in the book in a course for UCLA undergraduates. Did that help you synthesize it for a general audience?
Absolutely, because I had to think about how to present it clearly and in an interesting and succinct way. The students are very smart and motivated, and they asked me questions that I just hadn't thought of, like, "Why on earth did the Easter Islanders do these things? Didn't they see they were deforesting the landscape?" If I were given $10 million tomorrow, I would go on teaching because I learn so much from it.
Collapse also surveys many looming present-day environmental catastrophes. Will readers come away with a feeling of despair?
In the last chapter, I conclude with what I see as signs of hope, along with signs for concern. There's also a section on simple things that individuals can do. You can vote; there are big differences in candidates' environmental policies. You can clean up your local environment, you can be a green consumer, you can give money in a leveraged way. I hope people will come away from my book feeling that there are environmental problems, but we can solve them.
Any more world-historical conundrums in line for future books?
I'm interested in why some countries in the modern world are rich and others are poor. Why is Finland, which at first sight doesn't seem to have much going for it, one of the richest countries? Why is Zambia, a country with such great mineral wealth, so poor? I'm interested in questions of organization, the relative advantages of centralized versus fragmented societies. So, yeah, there are still big questions of world history that I'd like to tackle.