The Rise and Fall of Civilizations
An interview with Jared Diamond
If you walked up to random people on the street and asked them how the United States came to be the wealthiest, most powerful nation on Earth, what kinds of answers would you expect to hear? Maybe they would say it's our industriousness, our Protestant work ethic, that's made us so successful as a society. Some might point to an independent, freedom-loving spirit that grew out of our do-or-die frontier culture. Others might say it's our natural ingenuity as a "race"—“It's in our genes, man." You could also expect to hear some people say that God simply likes Americans more than He likes other people.
Some of these answers sound plausible. Others sound loony and bigoted. What's the right answer?
Jared Diamond has spent his professional career engaged in research that goes a long way toward answering this and related questions. A professor of geography and physiology at UCLA, Diamond is a world-renowned expert on the birds of Papua New Guinea. He's also published groundbreaking work on ecology and evolutionary biology. Over the last couple decades, however, he's risen to international fame primarily because of a series of books that untangle the deep, intricate roots of human societies.
In The Third Chimpanzee (1992), Diamond examined how we humans became so utterly unique among animal species, while also evolving the capacity to destroy ourselves along with the complex cultures we've created. In the Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs and Steel (1997), he narrowed his focus to the last 13,000 years of human progress, presenting an innovative theory showing that various geographic and ecological factors most likely led to the disparate distribution of wealth and power still marking our globe in the 21st century. Finally, last year, Diamond published Collapse, in which he traced the historical rise and fall of cultures all over the world, addressing the implications these stories might have for the long-term sustainability of Western Civilization.
No armchair academic, Diamond has visited most of the places he writes about, often spending months or even years studying specific cultures, learning their languages and puzzling out answers to questions like the one above. His books are accessible, engaging and utterly original. It's his ability to synthesize information from several disciplines into surprising yet convincing explanations for societal development that's led to him being recognized as one of the most profound thinkers of our age.
This month, Collapse will be published in paperback. On Friday, Jan. 20, at 7 p.m., Dr. Diamond will present an interactive lecture at UNM's Student Union Building Ballroom. The Alibi recently had an opportunity to speak with him about his work.
One of the chapters New Mexican readers will be particularly drawn to in Collapse is the one about the Anasazi, partly because our current water use is still such a huge issue here, along with deforestation and all the other issues you address in that chapter. Could you comment on the current global problems associated with limited water resources?
Yes, there certainly are global problems associated with limited water resources. If you look at fresh water around the world today, something like 70 percent of the world's fresh water supplies are already being fully utilized. And don't be happy that 30 percent remains unutilized, because that 30 percent is in places like far northern Canada, Iceland and Northwest Australia. It's unutilized for good reasons.
One might say, “All right, so we run out of fresh water. We just make fresh water from sea water.” Well, yes, you can do that, but that requires energy, which is something we're also running out of. Or rather cheap energy, anyway.
Do you think a high desert region like ours can even justify having our current population levels? It seems that at some point, we're going to run out of water, and obviously our population keeps growing, here and in other similar arid, desert regions around the world.
Not necessarily run out. It depends on how water resources are managed. Americans in general are wasteful of water compared to people in other countries. For example, in Australia it used to be the case that every house was required by law to have catchments on the roof and water storage tanks. Well, it sometimes rains in New Mexico, and when it does you could catch that water and store it for the rest of the year. In fact, that's what the Anasazi did, and that's what Pueblo Indians do. It's perfectly possible to store water. So I would not be the one to say the state of New Mexico should empty itself and every person living in your wonderful area and move to California because there's not enough water for you.
Dealing with issues like that, with water in particular, requires long-term planning, but with our election cycles being the way they are, our public representatives seem to focus mainly on short-term goals—what's happening in their current term in office. Is there a way to deal with that problem? It seems with our system of government, it's difficult to do the necessary long-range planning for these kinds of issues.
You're right, and it's easy to get pessimistic and say that politicians care only about what will happen in the next election two years from now. One can get depressed, but it's not the case that politicians always make bad short-term policies in the United States. Not infrequently, politicians make good long-term policies.
Just one example—air quality in the United States is now considerably better than it was 30 years ago. When you think about it, that's amazing, because we've got more cars now and we're driving longer distances. Air quality is better now because the federal government, backed up by the state governments, brought in air quality standards and began enforcing them, and insisted that lead come out of gasoline, and has applied standards for automobiles, vehicle emission standards. The result of all that is that although there are twice as many Americans as there were 30 years ago driving cars longer distances, our air quality [is much better than it was] 30 years ago, and that was not something that was going to win an election in two years. I take that as a hopeful example that occasionally the politicians do something right.
Switching gears a little bit, in Guns, Germs and Steel you analyze why some regions of the globe have become haves and others have become have-nots. In the contemporary United States, we have a wide gap between rich and poor in our own society. Is it healthy for a society to be stratified to this degree? Is that something that's dangerous in terms of sustainability?
A society can be durable although stratified. We've had stratified societies on earth for at least 10,500 years. For about 6,000 years, we've had kings and presidents and dictators. Since it's gone on for 6,000 years, it could potentially go on for another 6,000 years.
On the other hand, it's also true that when you have a lot of inequality in a society, there's risk that those who are "less equal" than others will tend to vent their displeasure, and nowadays they have more and more opportunities to vent their displeasure. That lesson applies to the whole world. ... We saw that in the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. It's now the case that the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans don't protect us. If those countries out there that we used to neglect continue to have desperate populations, those desperate populations now have ways of sending us terrorists and unintentionally sending us emerging diseases and unstoppable waves of immigrants.
You talk about this issue of isolationism as one of our society's core values that might actually be a destructive value. What do you think are the West's most useful core values, and what are some other destructive values we might want to get rid of if we're going to create a sustainable civilization.
Sure, useful core values of the West—individual freedom is one. There are many countries, maybe even a majority of countries in the world today, that do not have a core value of individual freedom, including religious freedom.
Another core value is education. We have the tradition and practice of free public education. There are things that could be improved about our public educational system, but, boy, it is great to have at least some system of public education compared to virtually none.
Another core value is that, in principal, anybody has the opportunity to get ahead. There are limitations on that in practice, but there are societies where lots of people don't have any opportunities to get ahead. Those are core values of the West that are greatly to be admired.
Core values of the West that need reappraisal because they're no longer working are, for one, unlimited consumerism, which was just fine as long as there were just a few million Americans living on a whole continent. That won't work with 300 million Americans on a continent. Then, as you say, there's our isolationism—that works fine as long as the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans really did protect us from any country big enough to threaten us. It won't work today.
On the subject of religion, if you listen to certain public leaders in the U.S. today, you'd almost think our country was going to survive forever because we're divinely blessed. What role does religion play in this?
Well, of course, I really don't know of any public leader in the United States who says that the United States is divinely endowed and will last forever. At least, I can't think of one. (laughs) ...
Of course, you're right. As for the role of religion, it's a potent force, and it can be a potent force for good and a potent force for bad. There are some ugly, horrible things that have been done in the name of religion, including the motivation for the conquest of the New World and the actual extermination and enslavement of Indians by Europeans.
Even within our own times, an area where religion in the United States has been very constructive was the civil rights movement. The churches were big forces in the civil rights movement beginning in the '50s and '60s. One thing that's disappointing is that the churches have not yet been a big force behind the environmental movement as they were for the civil rights movement. That's something that I hope will change.
I heard you give another interview in which you said that the modern media gives you a lot of hope, that it can allow people to adequately inform themselves about the problems we're facing as a global community. Yet a lot of people have so much distrust toward the media and a lot of that distrust seems reasonable, in some ways. Does that aspect of the media concern you at all? I mean people have to wade through so much information. ...
The media are the biggest cause of my hope today. There are lots of things that give me concern and that are depressing and that people are worried about. They're worried about the risk that our society will collapse just as the Anasazi, the Mayan and the Easter Islanders did, but the biggest advantage that we've got is the media. We've got radio and television and newspapers. So we've got the opportunity of learning what's going on in remote countries like Nepal and Afghanistan and Rwanda. ... When the Mayan civilization of the Yucatan peninsula was declining in the 800s, they didn't have television sets to tell them what was going on at the same time in Polynesia. Plus, we've got archeologists and historians to tell us about the successes and failures of the past. So the media, I would say, are the biggest reason for my optimism. We are the first society in world history that has at least the possibility of learning from other societies.
Is there any drawback to there being so much media now, though? People are being bombarded by so much, it's difficult to pull out kernels of truth from everything they're seeing and hearing and reading. Does that concern you at all?
I would say it's a challenge, not a drawback. If I were to say it were a drawback, I would follow that up by saying that instead of 35,000 radio stations we should have 21 radio stations. In which case you could start debating which radio stations get cut off. I would rather have anyone try to launch a radio station or newspaper that can, and the public can decide how much it wants to listen to and how many newspapers it wants to read. The public can listen to me talking right now and decide whether I make sense or I don't make sense. And if the public thinks that I don't make sense, then it will turn off the radio or put down the newspaper.
One nice thing about your books is that they exhibit a very rare talent for synthesizing information from a lot of different disciplines and analyzing the big picture. When you look at your own body of work, how does it all fit together for you?
Well, it fits together in the sense that everything fits together. Everything ultimately comes down to questions of human societies. There are lots of ways that you can learn about human societies. You can learn about human societies from languages and from genetics and from history books and from sensors in satellites, and all this gets woven together. On the one hand, you might say it's challenging, but it's just so fascinating. If tomorrow someone were to give me $20 million so I didn't have to work for the rest of my life, I would still do what I'm doing now. Namely, I would continue to teach undergraduates at UCLA, and I would continue to write books because it's so fascinating and so much fun.
That's the most anyone can ask for, right?
Yes, to get a salary for doing what you most want to do.
It seems like there's a sequence to your work, in a way. Guns, Germs and Steel was a natural sequel to The Third Chimpanzee. Collapse follows from some of the ground you covered in Guns, Germs and Steel. Where do you go from here? What's the next logical step?
I'm already starting to work on my next book. My UCLA students are my guinea pigs because Collapse originated as a course that I gave for several years. My students asked questions and pointed out to me what I really didn't understand. So yesterday I began teaching my new course at UCLA that will evolve into my next book, but I think I will tease everybody and keep it a secret what that next book will be.