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An interview with Jared Diamond

Amos Esty

Jared Diamond, the Pulitzer prize-winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, is a professor of geography at UCLA who began his scientific career in physiology and then expanded into evolutionary biology and biogeography. He has set himself, he has said, "the modest task of trying to explain the broad pattern of human history, on all the continents, for the last 13,000 years." Diamond has received a lot of attention for asking some very basic questions. His latest book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, explores the reasons that some societies fall apart, whereas others survive for centuries or even millennia. (Read an excerpt from the prologue.) It also assesses the dangers facing our modern, global society and offers some suggestions for avoiding an environmental catastrophe of our own making.

American Scientist assistant editor Amos Esty spoke with Diamond about the causes of collapse in societies such as those of traditional Easter Islanders and of the Norse who colonized Greenland in 984 A.D.—and about the possibility that we will share a similarly unpleasant fate.

What led you to this topic, the collapse of societies? Jared DiamondClick to Enlarge Image

It's simple. It was the most fascinating as well as the most important subject I could think of, and one that I'd been interested in for decades, just as many people develop a romantic interest in sites of collapsed societies, like the Maya cities overgrown by jungle or the Anasazi skyscrapers in the U.S. desert. So there was this romantic mystery that drew me to it. There was also the puzzle of why some societies collapse and other societies have gone on in the past for thousands of years without collapsing. Then, finally, there was the importance: what we can learn today in facing problems, many of which are essentially the same as the problems that undid past societies. Maybe we don't have to repeat their mistakes, maybe we can learn. So I did it because I thought it was so fascinating and also so important.

You write in the introduction that when you set out on this project, you thought it would be more narrowly about just environmental damage. Did something change over the course of your research to broaden the scope of the book?

Yes, something changed. Namely, I learned that there is no case of a pure environmental collapse. Easter Island comes closest, but you still have to ask, Why did the Easter Islanders do these foolish things, like cutting down the trees? So there's still the human element. But in virtually all cases other than Easter Island, there's not only human environmental impact, but in many cases there's climate change, and usually there are issues of enemies who try to walk in on a society when the society gets weakened for any reason. There are also issues of friends or trading partners who may be getting weak and collapsing themselves, so that even if you're managing your own resources okay, you may be done in by your neighbors' problems. And then there's the whole human element of how people either respond or fail to respond to these problems. So, in short, the framework got complicated as I learned, and I realized that life is more complicated than my initial naive fantasy.

In the book you say that the case of Easter Island, more than any of the others, "haunts" your readers and students. Why is that?

Because the metaphor is just so obvious. Easter Island is the most isolated inhabitable scrap of land in the world. It's an island in the Pacific about 2,300 miles off the coast of Chile and 1,300 miles from the nearest Polynesian island. So when Easter Island got in trouble, there was no place to which they could flee, and there was nobody to whom they could turn for help. People just see the metaphor: Easter Island isolated in the Pacific Ocean is like planet Earth isolated in space. If we get in trouble, we're not going to be able to run off to another planet, and there aren't really any green extraterrestrials out there whom we can ask for help.

To jump to another of your case studies—you begin by talking about Montana's Bitterroot Valley. Why did you choose to start there, and how would you say Montana relates to these other societies that you discuss?

It does seem paradoxical, because we think of Montana as the most beautiful, pristine state in the lower 48, and that's really true. And it's got among the lowest population density. So you would think that Montana is the last place you would see in a book on societies with environmental problems. Nevertheless, I began the book in Montana. In my first draft of the book, the first chapter was the one that is now chapter 2, on Easter Island. But then I realized that if I began the book with Easter Island, with a remote Polynesian society, we in the United States and Europe would get the idea that this book is about these remote, exotic people who got into trouble, and that we smart moderns would never do the things today that those Polynesians did. And yet, paradoxically, when you scratch the surface, pristine Montana has all the problems of the rest of the world.

In addition, I've been going to Montana for 50 years. I know people in Montana, they're my friends, and I could put faces on the different attitudes that people have about coping with their problems, whereas with Easter Island, I don't know that name of this chief, or that peasant, or that fisherman. So in Montana you can put human faces on the problems and you can show that this isn't just a matter of exotic people but of normal Americans. And you can show that it can happen not just in deserts like the Anasazi of the Southwest, but in what look like robust areas.

You describe Montana as a "microcosm of the environmental problems plaguing the rest of the United States." How so?

One big, familiar problem in Montana is mining that produces toxic waste. The economy of Montana was founded in part on copper mines, and the arsenic and cadmium and copper and acid that's coming out of those mines will come out forever, and it has already cost Montanans $2 billion of tax money. So that's one problem. And many other states besides Montana have mine problems and problems of toxic waste, including the Hudson River, Love Canal and the Chesapeake Bay.

Montana also has its famous problems of forest management and forest fires and forest policy. Those forest fire problems, which result in considerable measure from a century of logging—those forest fire problems are common in much of the American West. In addition, Montana has problems of climate change, because agriculture in much of Montana depends on irrigation, and irrigation makes use of the snowcaps on the mountains, and the snowcaps are melting as the climate gets warmer due to global warming. Montana also has soil problems—salinization, erosion in some places—and, while it may seem outrageous for me sitting here in Los Angeles to complain about air quality in any other American city, the fact is that in Missoula (the city that we fly in and out of in southwestern Montana to get to our vacation home)—the air quality for much of the year is as bad as that of Los Angeles. So those are just some examples of the problems that Montana shares with the rest of the United States and the rest of the world.

One of the case studies that I found most fascinating was that of the Norse settlements in Greenland, which lasted for about 450 years but did eventually collapse. You contrast Norse society there with the nearby Inuit society, which was able to survive. What was most interesting was this idea that the Norse refused to give up some of what you call their "core values." Why did they make the choices that they did? You point out that they starved to death even as the waters around them were filled with fish. Is there a way to explain that kind of decision making?

I find that fascinating too, both fascinating and gut-wrenching—the idea of people starving to death in the midst of abundant food, against which they may have taboos. But the Norse also illustrate that collapse, even in a difficult environment like Greenland, isn't inevitable because another people, the Inuit, or Eskimo, survived while the Norse were dying, and the Norse were refusing to learn from the Inuit. As you say, part of what grabbed you, and part of what grabbed me, about the Norse is the tragedy that the values that had served them so well for centuries, that had enabled them to survive in isolation as this European outpost, a week's dangerous ship journey from Europe, these same values of group cohesion and identity and pride in their European identity—it's those same values that ultimately did them in. But it also reverberates because in the United States, the values that have worked well for us Americans for centuries, namely our isolationism, our sense that we were protected from the rest of the world, and our sense that we were fortunate to live in a land of plenty, of abundant resources—these things are no longer true. And it's agonizing to have to reappraise one's core values that become outdated.

You write that "Norse decision-making was no more suicidal than is ours today." First, by "ours" are you speaking globally, or do you mean, more specifically, the United States? Also, do we have core values, like the possible taboo against fish held by the Norse, that keep us from living in a more sustainable way?

I would say "yes" to both of your questions. When I say "us," it's we Americans, and partly it's we around the world. Are there things that we're doing today? It seems to us just crazy that the Norse wouldn't eat fish, even when they were starving. Then you ask yourself, suppose the United States fails to solve all of the familiar problems that are around us now—problems of energy and oil, problems of water, problems of soil erosion. What do you think people will say, if there are people 80 years from now, when they look back at the United States, consuming twice as much oil per capita as Germany? Germany has a high standard of living like ours, and they do it with half our oil consumption. Isn't it crazy that we waste all this oil? Or isn't it crazy that we in Los Angeles, in a virtual desert area with water problems—that we have golf courses and water our gardens, and waste our water as if we were not dependent on the Arizona River or the Colorado River, over which we are fighting with Arizona, or the Sierra snowpack, over which we are fighting with northern California? So there are things that we Americans are doing that we take for granted now but that I think in 80 years are going to look insane.

Another recurring theme in your book is the tension between First World countries and Third World countries that aspire to First World standards of living. In your chapter on China, you write that "the world cannot sustain China and other Third World countries and current First World countries all operating at First World levels." Yet it seems understandable that people living in the Third World would seek to raise their standard of living, and it also seems unlikely, as you acknowledge in your book, that those in the First World would willingly lower their standard of living. Is there a resolution for this conflict? Is it going to get much worse before it gets better?

It probably will get worse before it gets better, just because there's a lot of momentum to what's going on now. Just to put numbers on it, oil consumption in the United States is about, per capita, 10 times that of China. China wants to catch up to First World standards. So suppose China consumes oil at the same per-capita rate that the United States does. That increases world consumption of oil by 106 percent. We're already concerned about running out of relatively cheap, relatively clean oil within a few decades, so we're going to run out in 15 years instead of 30 years if China achieves our standards.

As for whether the First World can carry on with First World living standards, at first it seems, by definition, no, we've got to give up something. But it turns out there are areas in which we can preserve our standards and just manage our resources efficiently. For example, we could extract and consume the same amount of wood and paper around the world that we are at present with well-managed forests that were just a fraction of the world's current forest estates. But at present we're drawing our timber from lots of forests, many of which are not sustainably managed, and most of which are badly managed. The point is that we could continue operating with the same wood and paper consumption if we just managed our forests better. And the same is true for fish. We could extract as much fish or even more fish from the oceans and go on indefinitely if we managed our fisheries well and sustainably. But in fact most fisheries around the world are managed badly and unsustainably. And so one after another they've collapsed, like the Grand Banks cod fishery or the southern California abalone fishery that collapsed in my lifetime or the northern California sardine fishery that collapsed before I moved to California.

You mention some success stories, such as the long-term success of Iceland and the reforestation of Japan and Germany. Did you find certain traits that these success stories had in common that might show how societies can ensure their long-term sustainability?

Yes, there's a mixture of traits that lie behind these success stories. The success stories tend to be countries that have easier problems to deal with than other countries. It helps if you're in a robust environment like Japan or Germany, which are high-rainfall environments with heavy soil. But on the other hand, Iceland is in a very fragile environment and had a rough time, but it is nevertheless a success story that is now something like the seventh-richest country in the world. On average, it helps if you have easier problems.

The other things are the social factors—what people do. It helps if you can minimize insulation of the elite, those in power, from the rest of society. If the political leaders can wall themselves off from the rest of society— for example, here in southern California, if you live in a gated community and drink bottled water, and you've got your private security patrols, and you send your kids to private schools, and you've got your private pension and your private medical insurance, then of course you don't have a personal investment in Medicare, Social Security, public schools, the police force and the public water supply—that's a blueprint for trouble. Conflicts of interest are another blueprint for trouble, where a small fraction of society can enrich itself by doing things that are bad for the rest of society—like the Enron syndrome, or what mining companies have done, enriching themselves by simply dumping waste into a river. It's cheaper to do that, for them, but it's billions of dollars more expensive for everybody else. Those are some of the ways to achieve success: Minimize conflicts of interest and minimize the insulation of the elite.

One of the major goals of the book, it seems, is to convince people that there really is a danger of potential collapse, but it seems to be a difficult message to get across. You wrote an editorial in the New York Times summarizing some of the major themes of your book, and there was quickly a letter to the editor from a professor of economics who said, "Jared Diamond is too pessimistic about America's future. We trade on an unprecedentedly large global scale. . . . The population growth that so worries Mr. Diamond can be a blessing. When free of oppressive governments and customs, humans are the ultimate resource. We not only consume; we also create." How do you respond to these arguments that your view is overly pessimistic? That as humans we have the ability to pull ourselves out of danger?

I would say to that gentleman to think seriously about the world into which you are launching your children and grandchildren, if you have children and grandchildren. In particular, for example, let's talk about trading on a large global scale. Yes, that has advantages, in that if we run short of a resource, we can get that resource from somewhere else. But that also has big risks. It means that we are exposed not only to our own problems but to other people's problems. The Gulf oil crisis of 1973-1974 showed how the U.S. economy is hostage to what's going on in remote countries that are sources of our oil. Often people, particularly economists and people in the business world, think of globalization as good. They think of it as one way we in the United States are sending them out there in the Third World our good things, like our bottles of Coca-Cola and our Internet. But they forget that globalization means that we are dependent, we are hostage to lots of other countries and also that those other countries can send us their bad things, like their terrorists and their emergent diseases and their illegal immigrants who are moving into the United States and Europe and the Dominican Republic and Panama in numbers that can't be held out.

Fundamentally, then, are you really talking about creating a new way of looking at the world, or just about making simple modifications to our current way of life?

I'm thinking of simple modifications. Many people already understand these issues of environment and resources. The environmental movement really just got started around 1953, so it's a young movement. Nevertheless, more and more people are appreciating the importance of these issues. And those Americans who take them seriously are nearly half of Americans. In the last election they were—what?— 48 percent of Americans. Then, if you look around the world, the United States is the last holdout to the Kyoto Protocol. So most of the rest of the world already accepts the importance of global warming and climate change. In short, we don't need drastic change, we just need 52 percent rather than 48 percent of the vote in the next election.

During the course of your research, was there anything you found that surprised you?

Lots of things. I'd say the two biggest things that surprised me were this issue of why people, why groups make mistakes, why they don't see the obvious problems around them. And that turns out to be a complicated but fascinating subject. And the other big surprise is what goes on in the business world, because eight years ago I, like many people, had naively thought of big businesses as usually making messes and being evil and usually being concerned only with the bottom line and being an unstoppable force. But having been engaged with oil companies and mining companies and logging companies in recent years, I've seen that, yes, some of those companies were even worse than most of us believe, but some of them are far better and do a much more effective job of taking care of their environment than even the National Park Service does—not out of charity, but because they've discovered that it's cheaper for them to take care of the environment and thereby minimize the risks of a $4 billion Exxon Valdez or Santa Barbara oil-spill blowout.

One final question: After having done all this work and written this book, are you more or less optimistic about the way we're headed today?

I remain cautiously optimistic. When my wife and I decided to have children 17 years ago, we decided that the world was not hopeless, and I would still say that things are not hopeless. We've got problems, but if we address ourselves to the problems, we have a chance to solve them, and that's why I wrote the book.

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