First I had read the Guardian interview with the author, which was good, and made watching the above worthwhile. But when David Wallace-Wells conducts such an interview, it is something altogether more compelling. He knows how to word a title alarmingly. My reading list just got 320 pages longer:
Jared Diamond’s new book, Upheaval, addresses itself to a world very obviously in crisis, and tries to lift some lessons for what do about it from the distant past. In that way, it’s not so different from all the other books that have made the UCLA geographer a sort of don of “big think” history and a perennial favorite of people like Steven Pinker and Bill Gates.
Diamond’s life as a public intellectual began with his 1991 book The Third Chimpanzee, a work of evolutionary psychology, but really took off with Guns, Germs, and Steel, published in 1997, which offered a three-word explanation for the rise of the West to the status of global empire in the modern era — and, even published right at the “end of history,” got no little flak from critics who saw in it both geographic determinism and what they might today call a whiff of Western supremacy. In 2005, he published Collapse, a series of case studies about what made ancient civilizations fall into disarray in the face of environmental challenges — a doorstopper that has become a kind of touchstone work for understanding the crisis of climate change today. In The World Until Yesterday, published in 2012, he asked what we can learn from traditional societies; and in his new book, he asks what we can learn from ones more like our own that have faced upheaval but nevertheless endured.
I obviously want to talk about your new book, but I thought it might be useful to start by asking you how you saw it in the context of your life’s work.
Sure. Here’s my answer, and I think you’ll find it banal and more disappointing than what you might have hoped for. People often ask me what’s the relation between your books and the answer is there is none. Really, each book is what I was most interested in and felt most at hand when I finished my previous book.
Well, it may be a narrative that suggests itself to me because I’m thinking of Guns, Germs and Steel, Collapse, and this new one, Upheaval, but for me it’s interesting to note that each of them arrived when they did in a particular cultural, intellectual moment. That begins with Guns, Germs and Steel — it’s obviously a quite nuanced historical survey, but it was also read coming out when it did, as a kind of explanation for Western dominance of the planet …
I would say you’re giving me more credit than I deserve. But one-third of the credit that you give me I do deserve. And that’s for Collapse. Guns, Germs and Steel, I don’t see it as triumphalist at all.
No, I don’t either. I don’t mean to say that. But it met the moment of Western triumphalism in our culture, I think.
The fact is that you and I are speaking English. We’re not speaking Algonquin and there are reasons for that. I don’t see that as a triumph of the English language. I see it as the fact of how history turned out, and that’s what Guns, Germs and Steel is about.
If you don’t mind dwelling on Collapse for a second … Has your view of these issues changed at all over the intervening years? I mean, when you think about how societies have faced environmental challenges, how adaptable they are and how resilient they might be, do you find yourself having the same views that you had a decade and a half ago?
Yes. My views are the same because I think the story that I saw in 2005, it’s still true today. It still is the case that there are many past societies that destroyed themselves by environmental damage. Since I wrote the book, more cases have come out. There have been studies of the environmental collapse of Cahokia, outside St. Louis. Cahokia was the most populous Native American society in North America. And I when I wrote Collapse it wasn’t known why Cahokia had collapsed, but subsequently we’ve learned that there was a very good study about the role of climate changes and flooding on the Mississippi River in ruining Cahokia. So that book, yes, it was related to what was going on. But the story today, nothing has changed. Past societies have destroyed themselves. In the past 14 years it has not been undone that past societies destroyed themselves.