World History Connected Home    
Home List journal issues Table of contents
Printer-friendly format  Article citation        

A Conversation with Jared Diamond

Tom Laichas
Crossroads School

    Winner of a Pulitzer Prize, Japan's Cosmos Prize, and a MacArthur fellowship, Jared Diamond has become the best-known writer to explore world history. Guns, Germs, and Steel, his third book, has achieved unusual success among popular audiences as well as in high school and college courses.
    Diamond's recently published Collapse: How Some Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed recounts the environmental disasters engulfing a variety of peoples, among them Easter Islanders, Greenland's 11th-14th century Norse settlers, Mayans, and contemporary Rwandans and Haitians. Yet Diamond insists that choice plays a role in a society's survival. Cultural choice (in this case, to continue agriculture rather than adapt to an increasingly hostile Arctic environment) doomed Greenland's Norse but not the neighboring Inuit. According to Diamond, not all choices are bad ones: political decisions have, he argues, thus far saved the Dominican Republic from neighboring Haiti's fate.
     While he takes no partisan shots, Diamond's agenda in Collapse is more explicitly political than in Guns, Germs, and Steel. He provocatively begins the work with an extended tour of environmental damage in western Montana, challenging readers to connect the dots between previous environmental collapse and conditions in the United States.
    While Guns, Germs, and Steel mined the past to better understand the present, Collapse uses history to alter the future. 4
    This interview was recorded on March 18, 2005 at Crossroads School in Santa Monica, California. It has been edited, combining exchanges from a Q & A session with the school's AP World History class with an interview, conducted the same day with WHC's Tom Laichas. 5

The Historians and the Critics

WHC: Guns, Germs, and Steel has become among the favorites of world history teachers at the high school level. I've heard that this success surprised you.
DIAMOND: It has surprised me, because I never thought that it would be read in schools. I assumed it was too complicated. In fact, the first hint that it was getting into schools was when my sons Max and Joshua came home, and they were angry. They said "Daddy, why did you do these bad things to us? We've been assigned this chapter from your book, and we haven't read it yet, but we know it's a bad book, and we know it's difficult." That was in 7th grade. So they read it. I didn't know whether they had digested it or understood it. So Max came in and said, "Daddy, the chapter is boring, and the beginning of the chapter is really weak." At that point I knew that he had read it because, of all the chapters, I think that is the most boring one and has the weakest beginning.
KRISTEN STEGEMOELLER: What do you feel about the reception of Guns, Germs and Steel? What do you think about James Blaut's criticism of your work [in Eight Eurocentric Historians]? He claims you ignore the social aspects of culture in favor of environmental determinism. Do you think Guns, Germs, and Steel was misunderstood?
DIAMOND: By Blaut, yes. By the vast majority of readers, no. There have been some less extreme reactions from historians. A common reaction by historians to Guns, Germs, and Steel is to claim that the book is about environmental determinism and neglects the role of culture. That's a misunderstanding. The whole book is about culture. It's about how people in different parts of the world ended up in different societies, not because of [innate] differences between them, but because of differences in the ways their cultures responded to the environment.
    As for environmental determinism, it's not the case that the environment determines what's going to happen. The environment places limits on what's possible. In some cases, there are severe limits, in some cases there are fuzzy limits. An example of [a people facing] severe limits on environment is the Eskimos, or Inuit, in the Arctic. Why didn't the Inuit develop agriculture? Yes, that's environmental determinism. There's no way in the Arctic that you can practice agriculture.
    As for the development of agriculture in lower latitudes, a big role is played by the plants and animals that were available. That's why the Australians did not become farmers. It looks as though some Aboriginal Australians were in the direction of becoming farmers, and starting to process small seeds.
    That's a long-winded way of saying that Blaut's views are absolutely extreme. I found as I read a page of Blaut, there would be a few dozen factual errors on the page. So it's something that I didn't take seriously.
    But there are knowledgeable historians who are just uncomfortable with the sort of comparative approach I adopt, and haven't engaged it. 13
KAITLYN GOALEN: In Guns, Germs and Steel, [your argument] really came down to environmental factors . . . . However, your subtitle for Collapse, "How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed," takes a very different road. Why the shift?
DIAMOND: You're absolutely correct. In Guns, Germs and Steel, choice is not at the forefront, where in Collapse, choice is at the forefront. The reason isn't because I changed my mind about the role of choice. It's because the two books are about different problems. Collapse is about problems in individual societies. They are problems like deforestation, which some societies solve and some don't solve. It's true that some societies face worse problems than others: If you're in a dry environment, for instance, you're at greater risk for deforestation than if you're in a wet one. But still, these are small-scale societies. The problems are ones which sometimes get solved and sometimes don't.
    The role of choice isn't nearly as big in Guns, Germs, and Steel. In order to become a farmer, you've got to develop the plants and animals for domestication. If you're like the Inuit, there's no way you can become a farmer. Also, in Guns, Germs and Steel, I was concerned with whole continents rather than small-scale societies.
KAITLYN GOALEN: You seem to have gotten criticism because you use a lot of examples from islands. How do you justify using islands as examples for the larger picture? 17
DIAMOND: Good question. Some of the reviews have criticized me for using examples from islands or from 'marginal societies.' Easter Island. The Anasazi. My response to that is that I do also take examples from populous societies in the middle of continents. For example, the Maya. The Maya were the most advanced society in the Western Hemisphere before Columbus. My examples from the modern world—except Haiti and the Dominican Republic—are all on continents: China, the world's most populous country; Montana, in the world's richest country; Rwanda in Africa. So that's one response.
    Another response is that I look at islands because the same things happen on islands as on continents. You've got problems of deforestation, climate change, and [decline of fishing stock] just like on continents. But islands are small, so things develop faster. You have a mess develop faster on an island than you do on a continent. The same problems happen on continents, but they play out more clearly in islands.
JULIA SIMON: [Dale Peterson and Richard Wrangham's] Demonic Males mentions Margaret Mead, who looked at the cultures she was studying through an idyllic, utopian light. I'm wondering if you have ever felt that kind of subjectivity seeping into your own work. You write that the people you knew in New Guinea were very smart—more so than some children in America. Do you ever feel you look at them with [special] favor? 20
DIAMOND: That's a fair question. I personally feel that I'm unusual in being unprejudiced. I look at the way it is and I don't have any blinders. 21
    On the other hand, since I say that everybody else is prejudiced, I have to be suspicious that there may be some things in me that are biased. 22
WHC: Do you follow debates among historians? Landes and Gunder Frank, for instance: is that something you pay attention to? 23
DIAMOND: No. Although I call what I'm doing 'environmental history,' nevertheless, among the various relevant disciplines, historians engage least with my work. 24

WHC: Why?

DIAMOND: Historians traditionally focus on a narrow slice of space and time; most are uncomfortable with the kind of broad comparisons I do. They routinely call them 'superficial.' Also, historians define history as the study of archival writings; if it's before the writing, [historians call it] archaeology . . . . 26
    As far as I'm concerned, history is human experience. There's a seamless transition from 'archaeology' to 'history.' Once you get writing, well, okay, you've got another type of evidence. But [writing only] adds to the linguistic, archeological and genetic evidence. As far as I'm concerned, by focusing on [written evidence], historians throw away most history. 27
WHC: Fifty years ago, in The Two Cultures C. P. Snow argued that through the 19th century, hard science and social science had shared the same conversation. By the mid-20th, he said, scientists and humanists no longer spoke the same language or listened to one another's perspectives. 28
    Given your distant relationships with at least some historians, do you agree with Snow? 29
DIAMOND: Partly. I have lots of discussions with people in the social sciences, especially economists. And there are some groups of historians—environmental historians, economic historians, yes, and world historians who I talk to, yes. But conventional early 16th century Dutch historians? No. 30
    Almost all scientists I know are interested in the humanities and social sciences. Many people in the humanities I know are not interested in science and are ignorant in science. This is something one sees more explicitly in the humanities-based publications like the New York Review of Books or the The New Yorker. The New Yorker does not publish articles by scientists. 31
WHC: I remember some years ago that The New Yorker published John McPhee's series on California geology [later the basis for McPhee's book Assembling California]. Was that just an exception? 32
DIAMOND: I don't think of John McPhee as a scientist. The New Yorker publishes articles about science, but not by scientists. 33
WHC: Do you find that a problem? 34
DIAMOND: Yes, I find that a serious problem. 35
WHC: Why? 36
DIAMOND: Though the accounts of science that one reads in The New Yorker make good reading, they involve serious misunderstandings about science. I think I'll stop at that point, because I don't want to mention any names. 37

The process of writing and research

WHC: How do you go about writing a book? Let's take this chapter on Haiti and the Dominican Republic. What goes into actually writing that chapter? Do you have the articles strewn in front of you? Do you write as you read? Do you like the information first? Do you write on pads of paper? On note-cards? What do you do to bring this to life? 38
DIAMOND: Here is how that chapter on Haiti and the Dominican Republic evolved. I've never been to Haiti. I hadn't been to the Dominican Republic until I was doing research for the book. 39
    A couple of people—my friend John Terborgh—had mentioned that Haiti and the Dominican Republic are like a controlled experiment. They share one island, with very different outcomes: Haiti, a basket case; the Dominican Republic more successful. So with that in mind, I thought this was a case I ought to learn more about. So I called up John Terborgh, my old college classmate, to tell me on the phone about his experience. He had been to both Haiti and the DR. We had a one hour phone conversation. Then I asked him who else I should talk to. He had a student who had done a lot of work in the DR, so he gave me the address of that student. I wrote that student. 40
    Then, I happened to be at Princeton delivering a lecture. Whenever I go talk at a university, I ask for a printout of faculty and their interests. So I saw that there was a guy there who was working on the Dominican Republic. So I took the opportunity to meet him. Richard Turits—very nice guy. Then I met an economist at Berkeley, Jim Robinson, who then gave me the titles of some books. 41
    By this time, I realized that this would be a great chapter . . .but I've got to go there and see it for myself. But it's no good just to go alone; I had to have some contacts. One was Richard Turits, this historian at Princeton. I wrote to him and asked, are you going there and would you like to go with me? Then I call John Terborgh and said, are you going there? Do you know anyone who's going? 42
    John was not going to go there, but he put me in touch with Andres Ferrer [Dominican Republic Country Program Director, the Nature Conservancy]. So the result was that I went to the DR with Richard Turits and met Andres Ferrer. I spent a week there. 43
WHC: And the writing? 44
DIAMOND: Here's how it operates when I'm writing a book; there are these piles of papers on my floor, piles about eighteen inches high. Each pile consists of books and reprints. So I had my pile of books about the Dominican Republic and then a pile of articles that I had gathered while I was there. I took notes on this. 45
    While I was in the DR, I dictated notes to myself while it was all fresh in my mind. The notes are like a very crude first draft of the book. Then I come back and do more reading. In the reading, I got more facts to insert into my notes. Then I scribble down the next draft, and I clean that up. Then finally I get a clean enough draft that I can dictate it into a tape recorder for my secretary. 46
    So, that's how it works: a mixture of talking to people, visiting places myself if possible, and then reading books and articles. 47
    Oh, and when I write a draft, I always send it to experts on the subject. So, for example, I sent the chapter on the Dominican Republic and Haiti to about ten Dominicans [and to] Richard Turits [and] Andres Ferrier. I asked them to tell me what was wrong with my draft. And they said, yes, there were things that were wrong with my draft. It was good that they told me what was wrong before I published the chapter. 48
WHC: How do you plough through reading? You've got this 18-inch pile on your table . . . how do you process it? 49
DIAMOND: I've learned how to read fast and extract what I want and not to waste time on the other stuff. I haven't taken courses in speed reading, but yes, I do read fast. I take notes as I read. In that way, I read somewhat slowly, but nevertheless I can get through a book and extract what I want. Some books I get what I want in a day; other really meaty books [take longer]. Jeffrey Sachs just sent me his book [The End of Poverty]. That's a really meaty book that I'm reading slowly. I've already read the first couple of chapters. It's an easy read, so I read them in an hour. The rest of the book I'll go back to. 50
    So I've got my 18-inch file, I'll take my notes, and then, when I've got my notes, I assemble my subject heading—what the chapter is going to be about—and I pull out the stuff relative to the subject. 51
WHC: Do you take notes on cards or on legal pads? 52
DIAMOND: Yellow paper. 53
WHC: How do you organize the information? 54
DIAMOND: It depends. If it's a book I'm going to take lots of notes on, then I may have up to eight pages, two sided, on the book. If just a few, then on one page I'll take notes on one book, then on the same page, go onto another book. 55
    For example. For preparing my lecture for the Geography course on India. There isn't a chapter on India in either Collapse or Guns, Germs, and Steel. To prepare the lecture I had to work up India. In this case, I was going to do it fast—I wasn't going to do an article. So I took notes in consecutive pages: I took notes first on history and geography of the human genome, and then on ancient India, and then on languages. So: consecutive notes on the same pages. 56
WHC: Where did you learn to make this kind of social contact with people? When did you develop the habit of calling on your networks to help you with your research and writing? 57
DIAMOND: It's not something that I thought of consciously. Perhaps one can say that the social contacts came first and the historical questions second.  . . . My interest in history—even before New Guinea—came from living in Europe and just talking with my European friends who were born in 1937. 58
    One of my German friends spent the war years under a bridge because his town was the westernmost town in Germany, and the [RAF] bombers that hadn't yet dropped all their bombs coming back from Germany to England dropped their bombs over his town. So his school was closed during the War because his parents didn't want to lose their children . . . . So I began with individual experiences, and the history came second. 59
WHC: You used to do shorter articles for Discover, and you've had pieces in the LA Times and the New York Times. What are the relative advantages of a book-length discussion versus shorter pieces? 60
DIAMOND: Well: a book is more paralyzing. It's harder to get started on a book, because I know it's going to take five years. If I have some small finite amount of time, it's easier to go and write some short, 1,000-word article than it is to start a book. 61

On teaching

WHC: Have you gotten the chance to teach any of this? 62
DIAMOND: Yeah. This is now the third consecutive year I've been teaching a course on the material in Collapse at UCLA. 63
WHC: This is through . . . 64
DIAMOND: The Geography Department. For the two years before the book was published, I was giving a course to honors students—between 35 and 50 students. It was that course that sensitized me to the issues in Chapter 14: why societies make mistakes. 65
WHC: How do you organize the course? 66
DIAMOND: We're on the quarter system, so I have ten weeks—ten sessions. The first section lays out the course and discusses Montana. And then I have three weeks on past societies: Easter Island, the Maya, and Greenland/Iceland. Then three weeks on modern societies: Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Australia, and China. Then three wrap-up sessions: one on why societies make mistakes, one on big businesses and then one on environmental threats we face. 67
WHC: Have you considered the way one might organize a world history course? 68
DIAMOND: Yes indeed, because I'm doing it right now. The bread and butter course of most Geography Departments is something called World Regional Geography, where you go around the world. You talk about Asia and Africa . . . 69
WHC: Basically, area studies. 70
DIAMOND: Yeah, basically area studies. Almost all Geography departments teach a course like this, but ours did not. So I volunteered to give a world regional geography course. But because I wasn't trained as a geographer, I didn't know what it was supposed to consist of. So I devised it from scratch. 71
    It could be described as an area studies course, or world regional history. Again, we've ten weeks to do it. The first two weeks I spent on general issues. The first week, I talked about the wealth and poverty of nations—why some nations are rich and others are poor. The next week I talked about the role of agriculture in long-term history: basically Guns, Germs and Steel. Then the remaining eight weeks, going around the world: Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, North America. Then I devoted three sessions to Eurasia—Europe, the Middle East, China and Southeast Asia, and India. Last week I did Indonesia, the Philippines, and the Pacific islands. Then the last session, I'll do New Guinea and Australia. 72
WHC: Have you considered organizing the course chronologically? Do you find that less useful than a thematic approach? 73
DIAMOND: I would say it never occurred to me to do it chronologically. I suppose one could; you could start with the Ice Age and the rise of agriculture in the fertile crescent . . . But then, you'd have to jump around the world. I like the way I've organized this course, starting with general principles and then seeing how they play out differently in different regions. 74
WHC: You're teaching largely freshmen and sophomores? 75
DIAMOND: Actually, all four years. 76
WHC: Do you find that they have some historical background? 77
DIAMOND: They have some historical background. But in my course, I don't assume anything; I teach them whatever they need to know. And for the readings—we just got back the course appraisals from students who rated the course last week. We had two sets of readings. One was a world regional geography textbook. And almost without exception, students disliked it and said that it was useless, boring. Long and dry—and they didn't read it. And then I also had supplementary readings. Each week I assigned something dramatic. For instance . . . for the Pacific Islands I assigned David Lewis, We the Navigators, about Polynesian navigational techniques. For North America, I assigned Columbus's diary. For Africa, I assigned a reading on Zulu warriors. Of those, students liked half and they hated half. 78
WHC: If you were to change three things about the teaching of history, whether at the high school or college level, what would they be? 79
DIAMOND: One element would be the comparative approach: to understand why this happened here and not over there. One example in prehistory would include, for instance: why Aboriginal Australians didn't become farmers, and why, say, Africans did. You'll never be able to answer that question if you just look at Africans and Australians. You've got to look at some different societies. And similarly, if you're teaching about the French Revolution, you'll never understand it. If you want to understand it, you'll have to look at other countries which didn't have such a revolution. What was it about France, and not the Netherlands? I would forbid focusing on 18th century France in a course on the French Revolution: you've got to understand why it happened in the late 1700s and not the late 1600s. 80
    A second thing: on the infrequent occasions these days when I talk with historians, I'm told that history in the last fifteen or twenty years is moved in the humanist direction—the postmodernist direction—giving up establishing what happened in the past. Historians tend to think that the past is unknowable; we can never really understand what happened—we're just story-tellers. If I were giving a history course, I would tell that sort of teacher to get out and go to an English Department. 81
    The third thing: put a lot more than European or Western Civ. Begin with world regional geography. In my course there was a heavy emphasis on Eurasia—Eurasia has had the most people—and Europe got about half a lecture in a ten week course. Asia got three lectures. 82
WHC: So if you were to teach a world history course, it sounds like instead of putting the midpoint of that course in, say, the 16th century or at the French Revolution, you'd want to be around 1000 ce in January. Is that right? 83
DIAMOND: In the course that I'm giving now, I reach 1500 in the last two minutes or—in the case of Japan, I found its recent history interesting. So in the hour and a quarter I devote to Japan, I probably devote 25 minutes to Japan from the Tokugawa era onward. That's because I find it so interesting that Japan is the one country in the world which resisted European colonialism and so successfully adopted the means of European power. But elsewhere, no. 84

Research and Politics

DANIEL PRAGER: Does your research fuel your politics, or does your politics fuel your research? 85
DIAMOND: I don't think my politics has fueled my research. My research has certainly influenced my political views. But: particularly since I began publishing books that have political implications—Guns, Germs, and Steel, which has implications about racism, and Collapse, which has implications about environmental policies—I've been careful not to express political views about particular people or parties. 86
    During the past two months, as I've gone around lecturing about my book, there will be a question-and-answer session after my talk. People often ask me my opinion of President Bush and his administration. I'm always careful either not to answer that question or to deflect that question. I do not want to be identified with one political view. I do not want to be identified with bashing the President. 87
    It's not enough for me just to provide more political ammunition for those who are already environmentalists. That's easy. The more challenging part is to get read by, and to convince, those who are skeptical—namely those associated with the leadership of this administration. 88
    Recently I heard from an official in the Bush Administration. He said he'd read Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse, and that he wanted to have lunch with me. He wouldn't have wanted to have lunch with me if I had blasted the President. 89
    Two weeks ago, I got a phone call from the Deputy Chief of Staff of a very close relative of the President, who had read Collapse and was impressed by it. He told me on the phone that that morning he had given Collapse to his boss, this close relative of the President. He said he was coming back to his boss at 3 pm that afternoon to ask whether his boss had already started reading that book. 90
    Again, if I had blasted Republicans or had blasted the President, I would not have gotten those contacts. So I've been careful not to express my personal views about the President. 91
WHC: How did you go from doing research science—from the Third Chimpanzee—to becoming explicitly political? Did that transition happen consciously over the course of the last twenty years, or is that something you fell into as one issue led to another? 92
DIAMOND: The decisive event was the birth of my sons Max and Joshua. The two kids were born in 1987. People talked about all these things that were going to happen in the year 2050: global warming by so-and-so many degrees. Running out of fossil fuels or the end of the tropical rain forest by 2030. 93
    I was born in 1937. So when people say "2050"—the year 2050 sounded like an unreal date. I couldn't do anything with it. Then, when the kids were born, Marie and I started planning where the kids could go to school. You gotta write wills. You gotta get life insurance. So we did all those things. 94
    And it gradually dawned on me: why on earth am I taking out life insurance and what am I writing a will for if I'm going to be propelling my kids into a world that's not worth living for? So that was really the thing that shifted me from being a laboratory physiologist and writing my first book . . . . Well, in my first book The Third Chimpanzee, there are a couple of explicit environmentalist chapters. And my first book is dedicated to Max and Joshua. 95
WHC: In Collapse, you write that you get brickbats from both conservatives and environmentalists. I recall the Economist's review of Collapse which, I thought, was really quite positive and quite surprising. A couple of years ago, they reviewed [Bjrn] Lomborg. For a long time they carried water for Lomborg. A couple of questions. First: you mentioned you talked to some people who had the ear of the Bush Administration. How do you talk to environmental conservatives so they'll listen, and second, what do you make of somebody like Lomborg? 96
DIAMOND: In reverse order: I don't know Lomborg; I don't know what drives him. I looked at his book and, again, like Blaut, the first page that I looked at, on Easter Island, there were basic misunderstandings and distortions, so I didn't go any further. What drives him to do it, I don't know. 97
    What do I do to get heard? I'm not doing anything. I'm waiting to see if they come to me. I prepared my way by not taking partisan positions. 98
WHC: Was the chapter on business calculated to keep lines of communication open? 99
DIAMOND: Yes. 'Calculate' isn't really the right word. 'Calculate' assumes that I did something to produce some result. But the material on big business is in there because I observed it. I didn't slant it. I observed, to my surprise, that there were businesses doing very good things. It was very puzzling to me to understand, for instance, why a platinum or palladium mine is clean, while a coal mine is filthy. There are differences between platinum and palladium on the one hand, and coal on the other. If we want big business to behave better, we've got to understand the differences between palladium and gold—which I didn't understand. 100
    Last night, I was giving a talk to a small environmental group. One of the couples there introduced themselves. The woman is a Vice President of Phelps-Dodge, and the man had been involved with ARCO at the time they took over the copper mines in New Guinea. So we started to have a conversation. It was clear that their views about some things are different from mine, but I hope they'll read my chapter on mining. And if they do, I would be very interested to see what they thought of it. 101

Environmentalism and the 21st Century World

DYLAN McCRACKEN: In Collapse, some of the countries with positive environmental policies are dictatorships. Is environmental change more likely to happen in a dictatorship or a democracy? 102
DIAMOND: . . .Think of some examples. On Hispaniola, in the eastern half, in the Dominican Republic, Trujillo, for all his awful policies and selfish motives, did do forest protection. Now the Dominican Republic is a democracy, and has had both effective democratic presidents and ineffective democratic presidents. Indonesia, where I worked for seventeen years, was a military dictatorship and is still something of a military dictatorship. But there's one guy . . .[former Environment Minister] Emil Salim, who got the ear of the dictator Suharto. Suharto let him set up a great national park system. But it all depended on one guy. The eastern half of the island, Papua New Guinea, is a democracy, but the environmental policy there is much weaker there than under the Suharto dictatorship. 103
    Under a dictatorship, you can get things done fast. They may be good things or bad things. That was the case of China, there was the disastrous experiment with China's educational system during the Cultural Revolution, which meant closing down the educational system for two years. At the same time, China quickly solved its population problem, perhaps not in the nicest way, and overnight solved its deforestation problem after the 1998 floods by simply banning old growth logging throughout the whole country. And China in one year abolished lead in gasoline, something that the United States struggled with for a decade. 104
    So: I see dictatorships either making messes or doing good things, and democracies either making messes or doing good things. The United States has regressed in its environmental policies in the last four years. I don't see a generalization. 105
WHC: Is there any way to institutionalize positive environmental policies? 106
DIAMOND: I wish I knew one. Vote for good leaders. 107
BEN JACOBS: One of the problems you lay out in the last chapter [of Collapse] is that it would be environmentally or scientifically impossible for all third world peoples to shift to first world lifestyles. I agree with that. But what do you say to people of the third world? 108
DIAMOND: There is absolutely nothing we can say to the people of the Third World. We can't tell them "don't aspire to the lifestyle that we all have," because they're not going to listen. They're going to aspire to it. 109
    A world in which the Third World is living like the First World is now would be totally unsustainable. But a world in which the First World continues to live as it's living now is also totally unsustainable because even with the Third World [remaining] poor, the First World is succeeding in depleting the world's remaining fisheries, forests, and energy supplies. 110
    So the solution—if there's going to be a solution—has to consist of the First World lowering its consumption rates. People often get upset and say, there's no way Americans are going to give up our lifestyle for the sake of those people in the Third World. But the fact is that they can have a lot of our First World lifestyle with lower consumption rates. 111
    For example, I learned after publishing my book that in Germany, which is at least as affluent as the United States, oil consumption per person is about half that of the United States. That illustrates that the United States could maintain a First World lifestyle with much lower oil consumption . . . 112
    So I just see no alternative but for the First World to lower its consumption. 113
WHC: You have a chapter in Collapse on businesses and the environment. Could you talk about that chapter? 114
DIAMOND: The short message of my chapter on big businesses is that people who are concerned about environmental problems tend to think of big business as being evil, selfish, only concerned with the bottom line; that they are among the most destructive in society today. That certainly used to be my attitude towards big businesses until—what was it?—seven years ago, when I started getting involved with oil companies, and then learning more about mining companies. 115
    The brief answer is that there are some big businesses which are terrible, just as bad as we all think, and there are some big businesses that are doing a terrific job, and that are the most potent forces for sane environmental policies today. 116
    For example, the international oil companies. We love to hate the international oil companies. For the most part, they cleaned up their act twenty years ago, because they had some very bad experiences. They had the Exxon Valdez oil spill, which cost Exxon something like $4 billion. They hid the Piper Alpha fire in the North Sea that killed 170 people and produced big lawsuits against Occidental. Even earlier, they had the Santa Barbara blowout. 117
    So the international oil companies have largely cleaned up their act. They've shifted to double-hulled tankers. You still read about tankers having spills, but those tankers don't belong to big oil companies; they belong to small companies. 118
    Again, with the oil industry, we think of the Alaska Wildlife Refuge: those evil people wanting to drill in the Alaska Wildlife Refuge. But my friends in the big oil companies tell me they don't want to drill in the Alaska Wildlife Refuge, it's the government that does. 119
    So that's oil. 120
    In the mining industry, different kinds of mining are very different. Copper mining is dirty; gold mining is even worse. Borax mining is clean; the cleanest mine in the United States is a Borax mine in Death Valley run by Rio Tinto. Platinum and palladium mining in Montana is done very cleanly. So different types of mining are different. It all has to do, partly, with different impacts involved with different types of mining, and then also, among mining companies, Rio Tinto got burned like Exxon. Rio Tinto owned the big copper mine in Papua New Guinea that triggered civil war and got closed down, so Rio Tinto lost several billion dollars. Rio Tinto learned their lesson, whereas other mining companies haven't. 121
DANIEL PEREZ: So you're saying that it's these bad experiences prompting big business to change their acts, because they see it's in their interests. So is it better to come up with ways to make environmental policies more affordable or more in the interests of big business than it would be to hedge them in [with regulations]? I was reading an article about the Kyoto Treaty, saying that it would make more sense to make it worth big polluters' while to change their act as opposed to setting restrictions on them. 122
DIAMOND: Well, making them uncompetitive certainly gets you nowhere. We need oil and we need copper. If you make oil companies and copper miners uncompetitive, then you've gotten nowhere. What it's taken historically to change the policies of big businesses is a mix of complaining when they do bad and rewarding them when they do good. 123
    My wife and I just came back from New York. At the airport, as we were checking in, a guy recognized me and introduced himself as the head of United States Greenpeace. Greenpeace is the most confrontational environmental organization. He had just come back from Japan, where he had been doing what Greenpeace does, namely organizing a confrontation to make some big business uncomfortable. 124
    Greenpeace has a boat called the Rainbow Warrior, which does things which they think makes big businesses uncomfortable. It takes a Greenpeace to make big businesses willing to sit down at the bargaining table with much more buttoned-up organizations, such as the Nature Conservancy, which is the most conservative and respectable and business-compatible of the environmental organizations. Now, big business is not going to sit down with the Nature Conservancy to negotiate some land agreement unless they've already been softened up by Rainforest Action Network or Greenpeace. And when they've been softened up, there's no way they're going to sit down with Greenpeace, but they will certainly sit down with Nature Conservancy. So it takes a combination: making them uncomfortable, and then calling for negotiations. Usually, it requires different people to make them uncomfortable. 125
WHC: What's your take on alternative forms of energy? 126
DIAMOND: Two weeks ago Thursday, I gave a talk at UC Santa Barbara. At dinner, my host introduced me to the man who played a leading role in the last thirty years in devising energy-efficient windmills. He was just unveiling, the next day, his new generation of energy-efficient windmills. So the next day, he took me to see it. It's remarkable. 127
    By the way: windmills are generating 15% of the power of Denmark, and one third of the power of certain parts of Spain and Germany. So windmills are one of the great ways of phasing out fossil fuel. 128
    So this guy showed me his latest windmill. It's incredible. This windmill has got three blades, and each blade is a hundred yards long. The blades change their pitch, so they change their orientation, with each cycle as they're turning. The three blades change their orientation independently. The most important breakthrough in this new windmill is that instead of there being one generator at the bottom to take off the energy and turn it into electricity, there are four different generators. That posed a problem, because they tended to operate out of phase, and there was resonance between them—it took them a while to figure out how to get the four generators to operate together happily. Next week, this generator is going to be mounted in a windy area of Wyoming, and will generate most of the power for a utility that supplies the energy for, I think, Colorado Springs. He has a contract to deploy 150 of these windmills on a windy site in the Appalachians. 129
    So he was telling me that the future of windmills in the United States is in the Great Plains, where there's lots of farmers who want cheap energy, not only for themselves, but also so that they can make money by generating energy they can sell to the local power company. There are lots of farmers who will be quite happy to have windmills. 130
    Windmills are just one example. Other types which don't involve fossil fuels: there's solar, there's nuclear, there's tidal energy—by putting a generator where there's a tide going back and forth, or where there's a constant current, like the Gulf Stream. 131
WHC: You mention this among your one-liner objections at the end of Collapse: "Gloom and doom objections of fear-mongering environmentalists have proven wrong." You respond to that by saying that a few false alarms shouldn't prevent us from funding a fire department. Secondly, you note that environmental skeptics fail to mention people like economist Julian Simon, whose predictions [of unlimited growth] also failed to come true. I remember as an undergraduate at UCLA reading [Paul] Ehrlich, [Amory] Lovins, the Worldwatch Institute, the Club of Rome—all of that—and when the other shoe didn't drop back in the 1990s, there was a sense that this stuff wasn't legitimate. It seems that the cost of this 'false alarm' was relatively high. Did these guys get it wrong? If so, how did they get it wrong, and how do you get it right enough to maintain greater credibility? 132
DIAMOND: Did they get it wrong? No, they didn't get it wrong. The world has six and half billion people today, and two or two and a half billion are living at or below starvation levels. Has the whole world collapsed? No. Have some countries collapsed? Yeah. Rwanda virtually collapsed. Burundi virtually collapsed. Haiti virtually collapsed. Nepal is in the process of collapsing. Afghanistan virtually collapsed. The Philippines and Indonesia are good candidates for collapse. 133
    So I would say that no, they didn't get it wrong. For large parts of the world, they got it absolutely right. It's not the case that the First World has collapsed. Yet. But the First World faces substantial risks of collapsing. 134
    How does one 'get it right.' One can turn that around and ask, "how does one avoid getting it wrong?" A way to avoid getting it wrong is to avoid expressing an opinion on a difficult matter that's hard to predict. If you want not to be wrong, then you should not engage in controversial and difficult problems such as what's going to happen to the world. But it's very important to construct scenarios for what might happen to the world and how one can influence those scenarios. One has to be comfortable with uncertainty. 135
    It's weird that in our private lives, all of us deal with uncertainty: we get married or we don't get married; we make decisions about having children. Who knows whether these decisions are going to be right or wrong? We do the best we can. We muddle through. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't work. 136
    We take for granted in our individual lives that we don't have any alternative. But we don't have any alternative in thinking about society either. You do the best you can. Sometimes you're right, sometimes you're wrong. You should learn as much as you can, see what's worked and what hasn't worked, and then tolerate making mistakes. 137
    The way these works were received I view as involving serious mistakes and ignorance on the part of those who dismissed them. People who dismiss them don't look at the other side. You can make errors both by being pessimistic or optimistic. 138
LAURA QUICKSILVER: Do you think that environmental desperation inspires ideological or religious extremism? 139
DIAMOND: They're not usually exclusive. Countries that ideologically support terrorism today are environmentally ravaged countries. There are three background problems. There are environmental problems. There are public health problems. And then there are family planning problems. All three of those are severe in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nepal. Haiti does not yet support terrorism, but Haiti is a country I would worry about. 140

Violence and the State

WHC: In Constant Battles, Stephen Leblanc claims that while chimps commit murder and even genocide, bonobos are said to be cooperative and pacific. Leblanc concludes that human beings are more like chimpanzee than bonobos. In Third Chimpanzee, you seemed to suggest that we stand between the two species. Are you in agreement with Leblanc? 141
DIAMOND: Stephen Leblanc is an archaeologist at Harvard. He's a very nice guy. He's written a couple of books, one on warfare and cannibalism in the US Southwest, and then a book on warfare around the world. 142
    My first-hand experience comes from New Guinea, which has a thousand different tribes. A lot of Papua New Guinea only came into the modern world in my lifetime. New Guinea is a fair model for what the whole world was like until state government began to arise in the Fertile Crescent 5500 years ago. I spent a lot of time talking to my friends in New Guinea about what life was like growing up, and what life was like when their parents were alive. 143
    Every New Guinean—every New Guinea tribe—I've worked with and talked with tell me that war was routine when they were growing up. For example, on my last trip to New Guinea, I was sitting in a room in the Chevron oil field, and my friend and I were writing up notes. In the next room, I saw there was a guy operating a computer. I looked at the computer and saw that there were these complicated engineering drawings. So I talked to him. It turned out that he belonged to the Fore Tribe. The Fore tribe was the first tribe I worked with in New Guinea between 1961 and 65. But even more, this guy came from Okasa—Okasa was where I worked in '65. But his father was the first South Fore who learned how to write—this was in the late 1950s. So here is this guy, the son of the first Fore who learned how to write, and he's in front of his computer screen doing these fancy engineering drawings. I mean, I can't turn on the computer, and he's got these drawings. He's devising the water system for a city. So in one generation, he's made the leap. 144
    So I asked him: what was life like for your parents and grandparents? Of his four grandparents, three were killed in intertribal wars. I hear that all the time: war was just the way of life. 145
    In history, wars diminished with the rise of state governments. At least, that was their goal: ending war within their boundaries. There's still war, but with states, war isn't chronic, as it is with New Guinean tribes. So I agree with Leblanc: he's basically right that the traditional human lifestyle was virtually constant war. 146
WHC: Why aren't we more like bonobos than like chimps? What explains why violent intergroup conflict would have more likely led to modern humans than intergroup cooperation? 147
DIAMOND: I don't know why bonobos are like bonobos! Among the great apes, chimpanzees are murderous and genocidal. Gorillas—male gorillas—are murderous and genocidal. Orangutans are solitary, so they're murderous, but not genocidal. 148
    Bonobos are the exception. Apparently. But: I have to be suspicious. It was about fifteen or twenty years after Jane Goodall started studying chimpanzees before she discovered genocide among chimps. I have to wonder whether bonobos are also genocidal, and just haven't been observed. 149
    But maybe they really are non-genocidal, and there's something about their lifestyle that makes it unrewarding to be genocidal. 150
WHC: Twenty years ago, the conventional wisdom was that there was a lot less conflict among the Mayans than among, say, the Aztecs and their neighbors. Since the Mayan glyphs have been deciphered, that's all changed. 151
    You say you were skeptical about the bonobos. Was there a point in your career at which you became suspicious of claims such as those once made for the Maya? 152
DIAMOND: I've never believed claims of pacifism in ancient societies. Being born in 1937, I grew up in World War II. On the wall of my bedroom as I was growing up, my father had two maps on the wall. One map was the Atlantic Theater in Europe, and the other was the Pacific Theater. Every day dad would move pins [to show the advance of Allied armies]. So I grew up with images of war all around me. 153
    Then, for four years after the Second World War, I lived in Europe. All my European friends—my German friends, my Yugoslav friends—the war had changed all their lives. And then I went out to New Guinea when I was twenty-six years old, and my New Guinea friends were telling me about war. 154
    So it never occurred to me that anybody would be blind enough to believe that the world was ever peaceful until I heard people say it. 155
WHC: Your next book? 156
DIAMOND: The next book is going to be about New Guinea and the rise of state government, and the changes in human society that came about in 5500 years with the first state governments. Things we just take so much for granted 157
    [The scope is worldwide], but informed by New Guinea. New Guinea gives us a model of what the world was like before state government. Most of the book will be about what the world was like before state government. Part of that is history—prehistory—and part of that is what I've seen in New Guinea, where until recently, there was no state. 158
WHC: What effect do you see the state having, apart from the control of violence? 159
DIAMOND: Enormous effects. Some of these I'm aware of now, and some I'm sure I won't appreciate until I start the book. One is the great decline of war and violence. Another is a transformation of the role of religion; from [explaining the world] to [creating] moral codes and justifying state power. 160


Home | List Journal Issues | Table of Contents
© 2008 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Content in World History Connected is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the World History Connected database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Terms and Conditions of Use