Collapse: How Authors Choose to Fail or Suceed

The latest number of Reviews in Anthropology has a long review article by “Joseph Tainter”: entitled “Collapse, Sustainability, and the Environment: How Authors Choose to Fail or Succeed”: I am not an expert on anthropogenic climate change by any means, but I am someone who gets asked about Jared Diamond all the time, so I found it an extremely useful and evenhanded evaluation not just of Collapse but of other books written in a similar vein.

To be honest I’ve never gotten very far into Collapse — it isn’t as lucid as Guns, Germs, and Steel and doesn’t feature New Guinea (my area of research) nearly as prominently. Tainter’s analysis of the book, though, seems to jive more or less with what the emerging scholarly consensus on GG&S: as a popularization of other people’s work it is quite good, the bits that are Diamond’s own contribution are flawed and wrong, and Diamond does as much as possible (short of straight up plagiarism) to take credit for the work of other scholars who he popularizes.

I don’t have the strong emotional reaction to Diamond’s work that other people do, so it is refreshing to see an article which can point out the flaws of Diamond’s work in a relatively disinterested way. I highly recommend the article to others — I imagine it is ‘teachable’ as well.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

One thought on “Collapse: How Authors Choose to Fail or Suceed

  1. Yes, Tainter’s paper is a very nice essay and does a good job on Diamond and other recent books about collapse. But one of the more interesting aspects of his paper is pointing out that even when archaeologists write for each other, in the academic literature, their works may be used (and mis-used) by popular writers to score points in contemporary political debates. This may be nothing new to cultural anthropologists, but we archaeologists are not used to this kind of thing. It makes one think about issues of phrasing and framing, even in technical scholarly works.

    BTW, if someone wants more information on just what Tainter thinks about ancient collapses (he keeps his own opinions to a minimum in the ARA paper), see:

    Tainter, Joseph A.
    2006 Archaeology of Overshoot and Collapse. Annual Review of Anthropology 35:59-74.

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