Scientists, archaeologists, and others have begun examining the claims of Jared Diamond's best-selling Collapse, and some are finding that many of his claims do not hold up to serious scrutiny.
For example, Diamond claims that the collapse of the Rapa Nui on Easter Island provides "the clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by overexploiting its own resources." Yet Diamond's account is contradicted by the available archaeological evidence, as documented in this article by Terry L. Hunt from The American Scientist. (Link via Daniel Drezner) Whereas Diamond blames deforestation and population growth, Hunt finds that newly introduced diseases, invasive species (rats) and conflict with Europeans had a greater impact.
Using Rapa Nui as an example of "ecocide," as Diamond has called it, makes for a compelling narrative, but the reality of the island's tragic history is no less meaningful. . . .
I believe that the world faces today an unprecedented global environmental crisis, and I see the usefulness of historical examples of the pitfalls of environmental destruction. So it was with some unease that I concluded that Rapa Nui does not provide such a model. But as a scientist I cannot ignore the problems with the accepted narrative of the island's prehistory. Mistakes or exaggerations in arguments for protecting the environment only lead to oversimplified answers and hurt the cause of environmentalism. We will end up wondering why our simple answers were not enough to make a difference in confronting today's problems.
Hunt is hardly the only one to raise questions about Diamond's accounts and his underlying thesis. In 2005, the interdisciplnary journal Energy and Environment devoted a special issue to essays critiquing Diamond's work. Several of the papers are available here. Among other things, the various authors fault Diamond for failing to give sufficient attention to the role of instituions in economic development and environmental performance (a criticism that can also be made of his earlier book, Guns, Germs, and Steel). For those interested in Diamond's thesis, the various papers are worth a look.