Jared Diamond on the Global Climate Crisis and the Case for Hope
The Author of Upheaval in Conversation with Anders Dunker
In The Third Chimpanzee: Human Evolution and Prominence (1991), Diamond examines our close kinship with higher-ranking monkeys and how small genetic variations can make a huge difference. Man’s dominion over Earth and our destructive inclinations are an important subtopic pointing to subsequent books. In Diamond’s best-known work, Guns, Germs and Steel (1997), he uses a global long-term perspective and examines the human relationship to the environment as one of the most important keys to understanding which peoples and cultures came to characterize and dominate the world, and who succeeded in competition with other cultures.
In Diamond’s models, random and particular geographical conditions work together with universal principles of cultural growth, communication, and proliferation. The interaction between the environment and culture is also the theme of his later book Collapse (2005). In The World Until Yesterday (2012), Diamond discusses what the modern world can learn from traditional societies, starting with hunter-gatherer communities. The crisis as a phenomenon and challenge is the theme of Diamond’s latest book, Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis (2019).
Anders Dunker: In our time we can’t talk about the future without considering the fact that we live in a moment of great crisis. Your latest book combines personal crisis with political ones. What inspired your project?
Jared Diamond: Both the global crisis and the crisis I perceive in the American political system. The political crises that I look at are taken from the recent history of countries that I know well, counties where I have lived, and, with one exception, they are countries where I speak the language: Finland, Indonesia, Chile, Germany, and Australia. The exception is the study of the crisis in Japan in the Meiji era. I don’t speak Japanese, although my wife Marie has Japanese relatives, and she has also contributed directly to the perspectives in my book. She is a clinical psychologist and one of her specialties is helping people through personal crisis: relationship breakdowns, the death of a loved one, financial crisis, job crisis, health problems. All these crises send the same signal: they make you realize that the way that you’re approaching life just doesn’t work. As a first step one tends to overgeneralize, thinking “everything in my life is messed up.” So the first challenge for the therapist is making the patient understand: “Your husband or wife walked out on you—so yes you have a relationship problem—but the rest of your life works okay.” The solution is to do what’s called “drawing a fence” to separate what needs to be changed from what is okay.
And then there are the predictors of crisis outcome, because for a therapist dealing with a crisis, there is always the danger that the patient may relapse to the old state, and the worst that can happen is suicide. This is not only devastating to them, but also to the therapist—what worse rejection could there be than that you couldn’t save them? So crisis therapists meet each week to discuss who is dealing with their crisis and who not. They look at the outcome predictors, and the outcome predictors—many of them are what you would think: Are you getting any help from friends? Are there models of others who have dealt with similar crises? Have you dealt with big crises before or is this your first life crisis? Ego strength comes in, self-confidence—things like that. As we talked about these outcome predictors, I realized that the same crisis predictors apply to national crisis.
I study each country, looking at the outcome of that country’s crisis from the perspective of these dozen outcome predictors. For example: Japan in the Meiji era got lots of help from the U.S., France, Britain, Germany. Finland, when it was attacked by the Soviet Union, got no help—none of its allies helped. Sweden permitted some volunteers, but the Swedish government offered minimal help. So that’s just an example of an outcome predictor that differs.
AD: The title of one of your former books is Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. How to differentiate between crisis and collapse? What does a collapse mean on a political or national scale?
JD: A collapse can be seen as a failed response to a crisis. In fact, in the countries that I’ve looked at, none of them have collapsed in response to the particular crisis they were in—but of course for modern Germany and modern Japan, the crisis was the collapse of 1945. Germany has responded reasonably successfully to the disaster of 1945; Japan still has problems but is getting on. The countries that I write about in my book and where I have lived happen to be ones that have not suffered full collapses. I haven’t lived in Afghanistan or in Somalia, but if I had, then I would have had to ask myself what the nature of those collapses is.
AD: But in Collapse, you talked about a series of societies that sort of collapsed for good—in the sense that something irreversible happened. Do you see such a threshold approaching in any of the current crises?
JD: Yes, of course. On a very big scale. The United States has big problems today, but we are in a relatively early stage. So a collapse is not imminent in any way. But across the world, come back thirty years from now—well, I won’t be around—but there is a real chance that First World societies will have collapsed.
AD: So a crisis is a chance to learn—and you can learn from the crises of others or from history—but if we are in an unprecedented crisis, we somehow have to learn from the future and from predictions. Does that make the world crisis entirely different? Do we have to learn from predictions of the future rather than from mistakes of the past?
JD: You can learn from your own crisis, in fact. In the first chapter of my book, I mention that the Chinese sign for “crisis” consists of two written characters. One signifies danger, the other opportunity. So a crisis is a danger and also an opportunity. Winston Churchill had an expression: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” You can learn something from a crisis—you may be able to learn something, but not every country does.
AD: In the TV series Closer to Truth some years ago, the host, Robert Kuhn, asked you about the destiny of mankind from a cosmic perspective: what our future might hold in a thousand, ten thousand, a hundred thousand years. Your answer was that the next fifty years are the only thing that matters. Now you talk about the next thirty years.
JD: Of course! Who cares about a thousand years from now? The only thing to care about is getting through the next thirty years. If we get through the next thirty years, then the chances of a bright future are good. When my wife and I decided to have kids we really discussed whether it was worthwhile, but now one of my two sons has already said he is doubtful if he wants to have children, because he doesn’t like the prospects of the state of the world. This has become a fairly common answer in the United States today. People say they don’t want to have children because they don’t like the prospects.
AD: Culturally, that is a drastic effect of the crisis. But on the other hand, you get the impression that most people tacitly assume that everything will continue as normal, that things will sort themselves out. Do we feel too safe, too confident?
JD: Yes, indeed. The British author and lexicographer Samuel Johnson, as described in the biography by James Boswell, has a sentence: “Believe me, Sir, if a man knows that he is going to be hanged in a fortnight, it wonderfully concentrates the mind.” Similarly, for us, if there is a not an imminent crisis, then we tend to think that things will be okay. It usually takes a big jolt to make people adopt major change. Yet there are cases, there are hopeful cases, of countries that have adopted change without waiting for disaster—and the prime example in Europe is the foundation of the EU, and its predecessors in the fifties: the European Coal Community and then the Steel Community and the Common Market, which were launched by Konrad Adenhauer and other European leaders of the 1950s because they didn’t want to wait for a World War III. They were acting in anticipation of the crisis—but you could also see it differently and say they already had the crisis of World War II.
AD: The opposite effect of such learning and concentration, it seems, is denial. Yet I recall a striking story in Collapse where you describe people reacting very differently to the danger of a dam bursting, depending on how close to the dam they live.
JD: Yes, they become more and more concerned the closer they live to the dam, until you reach those who live right under the dam—and they are not scared at all. They are in denial. Where we are sitting now, there is a dam exactly 1.1 miles up the street, and Marie and I live perfectly happy here. We don’t think about the dam, although visitors occasionally ask us.
AD: So the tendency toward denial competes directly with the impulse to act on imminent danger?
JD: Yes. Denial to a certain extent is healthy. Marie and I decided to live in this house. One can argue about whether that decision was right, but—having made that decision—we don’t think about the dam. One could say that the best thing would be to buy a house somewhere else. The next best thing would be to buy the house and to deny the problem of the dam. The worst decision would be to buy the house and worry day and night.
AD: So denial is the second worst out of the three?
AD: So our situation is created by our own decisions—decisions we could make or not make. In Collapse you list different factors that determine a society’s survival, and the last two are knowledge about our circumstances and our ability to act upon that knowledge. To begin with the first one: Do you see lack of knowledge and understanding as a major impediment? Do we know enough, so that it all depends on our capacity to act on what we know?
JD: Some of us know enough . . . And when we say “our situation” here in the U.S., there are problems in the United States that I am blind to. There are also problems of the U.S. and of the world that I am familiar with, such as the problem of climate change. Thirty years ago, very few Americans took climate change seriously. Thirty years ago, even most climate scientists were not convinced that the climate was getting warmer because there are fluctuations from year to year. If each year was mathematically 0.1 degree warmer than the previous year, after fifteen consecutive years of 0.1 degree ramped up, there wouldn’t be any doubt. But it’s not that way: there are fluctuations from year to year. So the first question was whether the climate was really getting warmer on average, and the next question was whether that was natural or due to human agency.
I remember there was a famous climate scientist called Stephen Schneider, dead now, who was one of the first to talk about climate change, and he was eventually elected to the academy of sciences. But his election was opposed by a famous climate scientist whose name I won’t mention—but it was not the case that this scientist opposed Schneider’s nomination because he was an evil person. It was because he was among those who were not yet convinced that there was a signal behind those fluctuations. Now most Americans, even if not many in our government, are convinced that man-made climate change is real. And then there are still some intelligent people who are not convinced that it is due to human agency, who’d say climate has always changed in the past. The response to that is that the rate of change is a thousand times of what it has been for the last ten thousand—even million—years.
So those are the two reasons why a significant number of Americans are still in denial. Some of them are perfectly nice, intelligent people—but just not convinced.
AD: Thanks to science, we have discovered some global problems that were impossible to perceive in everyday experience, such as the hole in the ozone layer—and we managed to act fairly quickly through the Montreal Agreement, banning CFC gases. Are there further fatal problems unknown to the general public?
JD: The problems of the world are mostly fairly obvious: the first is the use of nuclear weapons, which is quite possible. A second risk is climate change. A third is exhaustion of essential resources, of which phosphate is one. And a fourth would be inequality and the consequences of inequality. If we are to talk about exhaustion of resources, I would talk about fisheries, topsoil, and forests.
AD: Right. I just wanted to emphasize the fact that some of these problems can be very hard to spot and then when you spot them, they can be very hard to communicate convincingly—and then, even if you do, there is a chance that people will go into denial. People’s lives are simply too complicated, they need to survive or simply live their lives.
In a perfect world, science would put the relevant facts on the table, the information would be distributed, and the public would make reasonable choices that would be acted on by the political body. But lots of things interfere in this process. You have identified one in your example from Easter Island. The seemingly senseless act of cutting down the last trees could come about because the decision makers isolated themselves from the consequences of their own actions. This is what happens in class societies—the more exposed members of the society suffer from the decisions of the protected upper classes.
JD: Yes. An example can be seen right here where we are now—we are in a wealthy part of Los Angeles. During the time I have lived in Los Angeles, the city has had one major riot: the Rodney King riots. And just before I moved here, they had the Watts riots. Those were riots illustrating isolated communities. The Rodney King riots in 1993 broke out in Downtown Los Angeles, and lots of people got killed. There was concern in wealthier neighborhoods such as this one, Beverly Hills, that the rioters wouldn’t just burn poor stores in Downtown Los Angeles, that they would spill out to Beverly Hills—and all the police could do was take these yellow strips of plastic police tape and string them across the boulevards, signaling “don’t pass here.” Well, the rioters did not come to Beverly Hills then. But you can bet that if trends continue in the United States, there will be more riots and eventually we’ll have riots where they pass the yellow strips of plastic.
AD: A parallel case would be the water crisis in Cape Town, South Africa. They are really running out of water, and it’s a major city. The affluent areas are drilling their own wells and the water is not distributed evenly—so you get a water war. You could end up with affluent islands that are the only places where you can live—and the rest will be dried out. The problem here is the lack of democracy and justice. Do you think that as climate problems progress, upholding democracy under stress will be the major challenge?
JD: Yes. Climate change has winners and losers. The lottery is not so much whether or not climate change will occur—it is already a fact—but how it will hit you where you are located.
AD: In your book, you mention the Netherlands and how they have a higher degree of environmental consciousness, for the obvious reason that they live under sea level. So, in an ideal democratic process of climate enlightenment, the more you can make people identify with the problem, the more they are ready to act. But on the other hand, you have the argument that democracies have a problem handling these crises, because democracies are too shortsighted, always thinking short term and too concerned with local issues. Do you see any remedy to those problems?
JD: That is a problem with democracy: that the candidates are concerned with winning elections tend to have short horizons. One can react to that by saying that democracy is a terrible form of government and that what we need is a dictatorship, where the dictator knows that he’ll be powerful for the next thirty or so years—like Mussolini from 1922 to 1943. He was in power for some 21 years—he was confident that he would stay in power and could afford to take a long-term perspective. Mussolini is an excellent illustration that, yes, dictators can take a long-term perspective—but no one in human history has found a way to make sure that dictators will make good rather than bad decisions.
AD: Are there any among your historical examples of cultures that have risen to the challenge and made very wise and costly long-term maneuvers to avoid threats that were initially difficult to perceive?
JD: In my book I mention Japan and Iceland and Tikopia as examples, and also New Guinea—places with very long-term successful practices. Iceland was colonized only in 830. It has a really fragile environment because the soils are volcanic. It took the settlers nearly two centuries to realize that what works in Norway doesn’t necessarily work in Iceland. The heavy glacier soils in Norway are nowhere to be found in Iceland. Once they figured that out, they became much more careful as to the number of sheep they would let out on the pastures. With this knowledge they have been able to live and manage their land for centuries and remain one of the world’s most prosperous countries, despite the financial crack ten years ago.
Then you have Japan, which has had a state government for two thousand years and which has not had any collapse except for military defeat in World War II. Japan is 76 percent forest; they have done very well in preserving their forests. And then you have Tikopia, an isolated island in the Pacific, that can sustain about one thousand people. It was colonized around 1200 BC. So, the Tikopians have been operating stably for about 3,200 years. In New Guinea there have been people for about fifty thousand years and agriculture for seven thousand years—and yes, there has been deforestation—but the New Guinea highlanders realized that there was a problem and figured out how to deal with it through a sustainable kasorina agroforestry—so every village has its kasorina trees, and from these trees they take their wood for fences and building.
These are all societies with long successful track records. One often hears people say, “Well, isn’t collapse inevitable? Don’t all societies collapse, sooner or later?” No! Some societies make it.
AD: Now, all these societies are isolated—and many of them are islands. Does this have any bearing on their success rates? Isolation can be a boon and it can be a problem.
JD: For a society, isolation can be an advantage—but not if you run out of resources. The Easter Islanders didn’t have a second island from which they could get wood. In the past, isolated societies could collapse one by one, without the world even knowing about it. Whereas today we don’t have the possibility of isolated collapse, the way we did in the past. Yes, state governments have collapsed in Somalia, and virtually in Afghanistan. Is Somalia worse off than Easter Island was three hundred years ago? There is no way to argue that. Somalia is still getting humanitarian aid. The last outbreak of smallpox was in Somalia—and smallpox was eradicated in Somalia, which means it was eradicated in the whole world. So even if Somalia is isolated enough to suffer from the fact that its state government has collapsed, it’s still connected enough to the rest of the world that it can go on and eventually get help.
AD: Interconnectedness seems to be more of a boon than a problem, then, so that in general, it is better to be connected?
JD: Yes and no. The risk of Easter Island–like collapses are unlikely today because we’re all so connected. Instead the risk we face today is world collapse—and that is a risk we never faced until recently. When, for instance, the Maya Empire, once the most advanced society in the world, collapsed, no one outside middle America even knew about it. No one else was affected by the collapse. Nowadays, if the most powerful society in the world collapses, then they will take other countries with them.
AD: When societies grow, not only do they experience population growth, but they also get more complicated: there is more division of labor, luxury consumption goes up. Do you see any credible countertendency to these developments, like the “back-to-the-land” movement in the 1970s that tried to restore ideals of self-reliance and self-subsistence?
JD: All modern societies depend on trade. Just as an example: in the news now, there is a lot of talk about the so-called rare earths in China and Malaysia. The United States and Europe are dependent on these rare earths. China in turn is dependent on soybean imports from the United States and Brazil. As living standards go up, the Chinese are dependent on imports of seafood. All this, together with a thousand other dependencies, makes it unthinkable to talk about a self-sufficient modern society.
AD: So the dream of living in small, protected, and self-sufficient societies is an illusion.
JD: Yes, but it doesn’t stop many Americans from trying. Have you heard about the rocket bunkers? In the United States, in the years of the Cold War, we built all these missile bunkers—that is, big holes in the ground. There are very wealthy people who have bought these missile bunkers and converted them into luxury fifteen-story underground apartments surrounded by walls with guards and with stockpiles of stuff to last for months. Okay, so they can last for three months. In a missile bunker, even if you are very careful and live simply, you’re eventually going to run out of food.
AD: Food is fundamental—and humanity’s consumption of food will be decisive to the future of the planet. Wouldn’t eating and living more frugally be a natural consequence of the crisis? Even the pioneering critics of the growth economy recommended a vegetarian diet. Do you consider this a possible large-scale solution?
JD: How many people do you know who are vegetarians?
AD: Quite a few. The tendency is growing, even if it is limited. Many choose such changes of lifestyle not out of need but also out of a sense of what is right and sustainable. Which leads us to a crucial question: You cite several examples where societies have succeeded in managing common resources by virtue of individuals limiting themselves. This can be conceived of as an extended self-interest—even where the time frames have been very long. Do you think that environmental concerns, which transcend self-interest—let’s call them idealist motivations or care for animals and nature—can be a mobilizing factor that makes people give up their luxury consumption?
JD: For most people in the world, moral considerations are themselves a luxury. Just today, this morning, I was talking to someone I collaborate with on my projects in New Guinea and Indonesia. He is making a video trying to convince Indonesians and Indonesians in New Guinea to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle—and the appeal is to idealism. He and I were having a discussion by phone with the filmmaker about whether an appeal to idealism is going to motivate people in New Guinea—and my experience is no. Most people in New Guinea live on a subsistence level, and they want food security, and for that they need money. Therefore, if miners or plantation owners offer them money in the short term, their view is, “Of course I am going to take the money.”
AD: Even if this is the situation for most, it should still be possible to advance by influencing the major players directly—the mining companies, the oil companies, and so forth. As a board member and regional manager of WWF for several years, you have worked directly with some of these companies, and you have described how some of them have indeed learned from prior disasters. Other companies seem incapable of learning—or they are not interested. What is the factor that makes some of them learn from their mistakes, and others not?
JD: That is a good question—and one that interests me a lot. The big oil companies differ somewhat in their environmental policies. The biggest of the oil companies, Exxon, is notorious for not taking environmental problems seriously, while Chevron does in many respects. BP does or did in some respects, despite the disaster in the Mexican Gulf in 2010. Why is Exxon blinder than the other companies? Partly because it is larger than the other companies, so that it is more impervious to what’s going on. Another reason is the chance factor of the leaders of the company. Exxon has had two presidents in succession who were inclined to dismiss environmental concerns. The CEO of Chevron, on the other hand, is personally concerned about environmental issues. When I was working in Chevron fields in New Guinea I had lots of friends who were workers in the fields of Chevron and they told me what goes on: every week the CEO sends an internet post that goes out to the seventy thousand employees of Chevron—and these posts regularly talk of environmental concerns.
Walmart, which is the biggest retailer in the United States and in the world, up until fifteen years ago had no particular interest in the environment. Then the director, Rob Walton, who loves scuba diving, was taken on a scuba diving trip in eastern Indonesia by the president of Conservation International. Robert was taken to the richest coral reefs in the world where he expected to see sharks every day. Instead he saw two sharks in a week because the coral reefs even in Indonesia are so plundered, among other things, for shark fins to be used in shark fin soup. This was a real shock to Walton, and he then played a role in the transformation of Walmart, so that they now have made major efforts to be environmentally sustainable, which they don’t talk much about. They have changed their fleet of trucks and made them more fuel efficient, and thereby also saved a lot of money.
AD: Big companies also risk being sued for environmental damage. In Norway, young people are even suing the government for drilling for oil in vulnerable arctic areas. Is this an effective way of addressing the crisis?
JD: It already is a part of the solution. The state of California has a different take on environmental matters and many political matters than the federal government, and so many changes in environmental policies that the federal government is now proposing are being met with lawsuits by the state of California. But the federal government has also considered suing the state of California. There are lawsuits both ways.
AD: So we see a process where society is learning from history through institutional change. Those who experience or fear environmental destruction report back to governments and decision makers. Do you see in these processes a cause for optimism? Are we learning fast, not fast enough, or way too slowly to get a grip on the challenges?
JD: I would describe myself as an optimist, as my wife and I decided to have children. That means something like this: I see the chances as 51 percent that thirty years from now you’ll find a world worth living in, and 49 percent that you wouldn’t want to be alive. Are we doing enough? No, of course we’re not doing enough. Are we doing some things?
I am optimistic when it comes to international agreements and treatises. For instance, oil used to be transported in single hull tankers. If you got a hole in the hull, your oil would spill out. About twenty years ago, an agreement was reached that all oil tankers should have a double hull. Oil leaks have been reduced drastically. There is also significant progress in health—smallpox has been wiped out through a coordinated international effort. There was a worldwide effort to wipe out rinderpest, a horrible disease of livestock. There are efforts to eliminate river blindness and river worm. Those are achievements that give me hope.
AD: Steven Pinker has argued alongside yourself that there is a tendency to decreased violence as societies become industrialized, even if some people would like to think that primitive societies are quite idyllic and peaceful.
JD: Yes, some people like to think that—people who have never seen a primitive society.
AD: The same Steven Pinker is concerned with re-establishing the enlightenment faith in moral progress, and has lately talked a lot about how there is actually a lot of progress in dealing with environmental issues, to the effect that pessimism is now becoming a major problem because it forces people into denial instead of generating efforts to deal with the problem. What do you think about this?
JD: As a practical issue, it is true that if you are too pessimistic, then you share your pessimism with other people. If I convince you that the world is going to be ruined, why should anybody make any effort? You’ve got to give people hope. Even if you don’t believe it yourself, you’ve still got to give them hope.
AD: What about technological solutions? Can new technologies save us?
JD: New technologies inevitably produce new problems that often can’t be properly predicted. Some people say technology will solve our problems. That usually means that they hope that some magic technology can solve our problems without us taking the environmental concerns seriously. I’m not one of those who think that technology can provide much hope for solving our problems.
AD: So we come back to the choices we make in organizing our societies—and in this respect the steadily growing class of luxury consumers seems to be a problem. At the same time, inequality is a problem in itself. Is it a bigger problem than both population growth and the growth in consumption?
JD: Inequality is one of the big problems, and in the long run it’s not viable. Because poor countries in direct and indirect ways make trouble for richer countries. This is a problem we could actually do something about, since there are many ways to help poorer countries. There is also wasteful consumption, particularly in the United States. The only reason luxury cars and gas cost less than half what they do in Europe, in countries like Norway and Germany, is that we don’t tax these goods. We could have reduced our emissions significantly in the U.S. if we deployed similar means of regulation.
AD: Equality concerns the problem of a balanced sharing of burdens and benefits among people. What about fairness to nature? As a passionate bird-watcher and biologist, don’t you sometimes feel that humanity’s crisis and questions of injustice will constantly push concerns for people to the foreground, and the survival of other species to the background?
JD: An equivalent question would be do I care more about one son than the other. I care about the future of human societies, but I also care about my beloved birds.
Jared Diamond (b. 1937) is an American historian, geographer, and anthropologist.
Anders Dunker’s Rediscovering Earth is available now from OR Books.