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Read the Book, Skip the Show Volume 58 Number 4, July/August 2005
by Brian Fagan
Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

Judging from its bestseller status, Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (New York: Viking, 2004; $29.95), is destined to become an environmental historian's bible. In it, Diamond, the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel and a professor of geography at UCLA, argues that the past offers a rich comparative database we can turn to as we face our own growing environmental and economic problems. Now the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles has mounted an exhibition (through January 2006) to present this message. While the show excels as an example of shrewd book promotion, it is disappointing as an emotional and educational experience. The lack of signage causes one to focus on what is displayed, but without more context or information--a short guidebook would have helped--the displays are generally unsatisfying.

Visitors are introduced to Diamond through a video in which he points out that the lessons of the past are not necessarily viable solutions for the future, but looking at the way past cultures reacted to--or ignored--their environmental catastrophes can be instructive. Like the book, the show begins at a campground (complete with picnic table, barbecque, and vintage Winnebago) in Montana, a supposedly unspoiled state. In fact, as the exhibit explains, Montana is a degraded environment with exhausted and eroded soils, forest fires, and toxic wastes leaking from more than 20,000 abandoned mines.

The Maya section depicts a rainforest society in which tree clearance and exhausted soils helped trigger social collapse. In the center of a room mantled with Teobert Maler's famous 1895 photographs of Tikal stands a pyramid surrounded by superb Classic Maya ceramic, jade, and obsidian artifacts intended to speak to courtly life, ritual, warfare, and wealth. Yet the signage says nothing about what the Maya experience might teach us about the relationship between a society and its environment. The connection is more explicit in a serene exhibit on Tokugawa-era Japan (A.D. 1603-1868), where we see how a calculated response to environmental strain may have averted catastrophe. As Diamond explains in his book, an insatiable demand for timber caused rapid deforestation, and rulers took far-reaching measures to stimulate tree planting and self-sustaining forest management. Their efforts ushered in a long period of stability and prosperity. The exhibit highlights a beautifully crafted interior of a Japanese house and rare examples of jikatasho, or farming almanacs, which document the Tokugawa concern for a healthy environment.

The last two sections of the exhibit cover present-day Australia and Los Angeles, and it is here that the show dies. The Australia section includes recordings of authorities speaking from two large wall screens on the country's ecological woes--nutrient-depleted soils and salinated water among them--while the Los Angeles part is an immersive "futuristic newsroom" in which experts discuss the city's pressures--trade, water, population, traffic congestion, and so on. But the overly familiar talking heads and rather simplistic conclusions bored me.

Diamond spends 250 pages of his book on ancient and historical societies, yet only the Maya and Tokugawa make it into this exhibition. It would have been infinitely richer had Chaco Canyon or some other ancient example been included, offering another dimension to the ecological equation.

Brian Fagan is emeritus professor of anthropology, University of California, Santa Barbara, and author of The Long Summer.

Click here for ARCHAEOLOGY's list of current exhibitions.

© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America