I have been quite fascinated by Jared Diamond as a teacher of historiography, for many reasons. He is not a historian by training, and his methods and choice of sources are not what most academically trained historians would have chosen or focused on, but his work is undoubtedly historiographically significant.
I have included here part of an extract of an interview he did with NPR.
What led you to this topic, the collapse of societies?
It’s simple. It was the most fascinating as well as the most important subject I could think of, and one that I’d been interested in for decades, just as many people develop a romantic interest in sites of collapsed societies, like the Maya cities overgrown by jungle or the Anasazi skyscrapers in the U.S. desert. So there was this romantic mystery that drew me to it. There was also the puzzle of why some societies collapse and other societies have gone on in the past for thousands of years without collapsing. Then, finally, there was the importance: what we can learn today in facing problems, many of which are essentially the same as the problems that undid past societies. Maybe we don’t have to repeat their mistakes, maybe we can learn. So I did it because I thought it was so fascinating and also so important.
You write in the introduction that when you set out on this project, you thought it would be more narrowly about just environmental damage. Did something change over the course of your research to broaden the scope of the book?
Yes, something changed. Namely, I learned that there is no case of a pure environmental collapse. Easter Island comes closest, but you still have to ask, Why did the Easter Islanders do these foolish things, like cutting down the trees? So there’s still the human element. But in virtually all cases other than Easter Island, there’s not only human environmental impact, but in many cases there’s climate change, and usually there are issues of enemies who try to walk in on a society when the society gets weakened for any reason. There are also issues of friends or trading partners who may be getting weak and collapsing themselves, so that even if you’re managing your own resources okay, you may be done in by your neighbors’ problems. And then there’s the whole human element of how people either respond or fail to respond to these problems. So, in short, the framework got complicated as I learned, and I realized that life is more complicated than my initial naive fantasy.