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  Sierra Magazine
  May/June 2005
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  FEATURES:
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Interview: Jared Diamond
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"Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed"
Looking to history for today's survival strategies. interview by Pat Joseph

Jared Diamond: America is no longer "the land of infinite plenty."

His last book made him a literary superstar. Guns, Germs, and Steel has sold 1.5 million copies and even now — six years after its debut — continues to sell briskly. His current book, Collapse, rose to the number-two spot on the New York Times best-seller list.

Yet geographer Jared Diamond's work is not the usual stuff of popular literature. The author himself described the Pulitzer-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel as "a short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years." It set out to explain why history unfolded differently on different continents — why, for example, Europeans enslaved Africans and not vice versa. The answers, he argued convincingly, are rooted not in racial differences, but largely in environmental ones.

In many ways, Collapse reads like a companion to Guns, but the seeds were planted earlier. In the prologue to his 1992 book, The Third Chimpanzee, Diamond wrote, "Our problems...have been growing for a long time with our growing power and numbers, and are now steeply accelerating. We can convince ourselves of the inevitable outcome of our current shortsighted practices just by examining the many past societies that destroyed themselves by destroying their own resource base, despite having less potent means of self-destruction than ours." That is the point of departure for Collapse: What lessons can we learn from failed civilizations?

In San Francisco just hours before he appeared onstage at a sold-out lecture hall, Diamond, a slight man in his late 60s, sat chomping a large apple as he politely fielded my questions. He would answer each question thoroughly, then take another bite. Chomp. Question, answer, chomp. Question, answer, chomp. By the end of the interview, as in his books, he had gotten down to the heart of the matter — the well-gnawed core.

Sierra: Your new book, Collapse, has a provocative subtitle: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Why would any society choose to fail?

Jared Diamond: No society literally chooses to fail, but societies make choices that may ultimately lead to success or failure. Take the Greenland Norse. Greenland is a very challenging environment, and yet we know the Norse could have succeeded because there were other people there — the Inuit — who did succeed. The Inuit made choices and the Norse made other choices, and those choices spelled the difference between survival and death.

Sierra: You say in your book that a society's core values often spell its ruin.

Diamond: Yes, the most difficult values to jettison are those that have helped you in the past. You're inclined to cling to them. The Greenland Norse had a problem maintaining their European dairying society, a week's ship journey from Europe. As European Christians, they also despised the Inuit as pagans. Now, they could have survived if they had worked out the same trading relations with the Inuit that the Danes did in the 1700s, but the Norse held values that would not allow them to deal with these pagans and certainly would not let them eat fish and hunt ringed seals the way these pagans did. So here is a case where the values that sustained them for 450 years ultimately killed them. The United States faces similar agonizing reappraisals today.

Sierra: Which values do Americans need to reexamine?

Diamond: I can think of two prime examples. One is the consumerist idea of infinite resources. The United States has long thought of itself as the land of infinite plenty, and historically we did have abundant resources. But now we are gradually exhausting our fisheries, our topsoil, our water. On top of that, we're coming to the end of world resources.

The other value is isolationism. The United States used to be effectively isolated by the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. There was no country strong enough to be a threat to us, so George Washington's farewell address appropriately warned against "entangling alliances." But now, particularly after September 11, it's clear that isolationism no longer works. We can't wait until each of several dozen already fragile countries blows up and then intervene at the cost of billions per country.

Sierra: In looking at the possible collapse of modern society, you've faced a criticism so often leveled against environmentalists — that we're alarmists. How do you respond?

Diamond: Environmental problems, in particular, are difficult to predict. In some cases, they turn out to be worse than prophesied. Some turn out better. In the cases where they turned out better, it may be because the initial information or assumptions were wrong. But it is often the case that the initial information was correct, but that people took action.

Take air quality in the United States today: It's about 30 percent better than it was 25 years ago, even though there are now more people driving more cars. Does that mean that environmentalists were alarmist 25 years ago? No. It means that the country reacted appropriately to their alarms and made changes, with the result that air quality is now improved. But it's an important charge, based on something that I think is regularly misunderstood — namely, the role of false alarms.

Sierra: In the wake of the tsunami disaster, one of the big concerns with setting up warning systems is that false alarms could be damaging. To send everyone in a mad rush for the hills without reason would be a bad mistake.

Diamond: I read that a false alarm of a tsunami in Hawaii would cost about $68 million. So it's a complicated question: Given the damage that a tsunami would cause, but also given the damage of a false alarm, where do you set your level of warning? It is not the case that any false alarm at all would invalidate a tsunami warning system. You have to figure out where to set your level. And it's the same way with environmental issues. You don't want too many false alarms, but they do prove that the system is functioning. That's something that the Chicken Little critics just don't understand.

Sierra: Your book is an attempt to draw lessons from the mistakes of past civilizations. But most Americans feel that technology has changed the game, that it will save us from the vulnerabilities of the past. Do you share that optimism?

Diamond: Technology causes problems as well as solves problems. Nobody has figured out a way to ensure that, as of tomorrow, technology won't create problems. Technology simply means increased power, which is why we have the global problems we face today: because there are more people with greater per capita impact.

Sierra: In Collapse, you write that the world now finds itself in an "exponentially accelerating horse race" between environmental damage and environmental countermeasures. What gives you hope that the race may turn out well?

Diamond: Well, the main thing that gives me hope is the media. We have radio, TV, magazines, and books, so we have the possibility of learning from societies that are remote from us, like Somalia. We turn on the TV and see what blew up in Iraq or we see conditions in Afghanistan. Also, we've got archaeologists. The Maya didn't have archaeologists. We have at least the potential to learn from past societies. No other society in the world's history has had that opportunity.


Pat Joseph is the current-affairs editor for sierraclub.org.

More Information: Diamond's ideas will be featured in an exhibit at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (May 2005–January 2006); see nhm.org/exhibitions/collapse.


Photo courtesy K. David Bishop; used with permission.

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