[This post continues the discussion from the previous one.]
In the Intelligencer David Wallace-Wells interviewed Jared Diamond about his new book Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis. Diamond’s book, “addresses itself to a world very obviously in crisis, and tries to lift some lessons for what to do about it from the distant past.”
[For the uninitiated, Diamond’s works include: The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal (1991), a work of evolutionary psychology; Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (1997), which offered a three-word explanation for how the West rose to the status of global empire; Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed: Revised Edition (2005), a series of case studies about how environmental challenge led ancient civilizations to fall into disarray; The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? (2012), which asked what we can learn from traditional societies; and now Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis (2019), where he highlights what we can learn from societies that have faced upheaval but still endured.]
While Diamond tries to show us a path through our current crisis he is not pollyannish. In answer to the question “How likely do you think that … the whole network of civilization would collapse?” Diamond replies:
I would estimate the chances are about 49 percent that the world as we know it will collapse by about 2050. I’ll be dead by then but my kids will be, what? Sixty-three years old in 2050. So this is a subject of much practical interest to me. At the rate we’re going now, resources that are essential for complex societies are being managed unsustainably. Fisheries around the world, most fisheries are being managed unsustainably, and they’re getting depleted. Farms around the world, most farms are being managed unsustainably. Soil, topsoil around the world. Fresh water around the world is being managed unsustainably. With all these things, at the rate we’re going now, we can carry on with our present unsustainable use for a few decades, and by around 2050 we won’t be able to continue it any longer. Which means that by 2050 either we’ve figured out a sustainable course, or it’ll be too late.
As for a sustainable course through our current crisis, Diamond states that we must: 1) acknowledge the crisis; 2) accept responsibility for the crisis; and 3) deal with the crisis through a combination of individual, corporate, and governmental action.
Now there are many threats to humanity but Diamond doesn’t believe in ranking them. It’s like a marriage in which you have to get many things right for a successful marriage—money, children, sex, in-laws, etc. So we can’t prioritize:
We have to avoid a nuclear holocaust. If we have a nuclear holocaust, we’re finished, even if we solve climate change. We have to solve climate change because if we don’t solve climate change but we deal with a nuclear holocaust, we’re finished. If we solve climate change and don’t have a nuclear holocaust but we continue with unsustainable resource use, we’re finished. And if we deal with the nuclear problem and climate change and sustainable use, but we maintain or increase inequality around the world, we’re finished. So, we can’t prioritize … We got to solve all four of those problems.
A particular problem for the United States in this regard is its misguided belief in its own exceptionalism. This precludes it learning from other countries how to better deal with, for example, health care, education, or climate change. Yet Diamond states unequivocally that “the idea that the United States is exceptional … is nonsense.” Diamond concludes that while it will take international cooperation to solve our most pressing problems he is unsure of whether or not we’ll succeed.
I will continue my discussion of catastrophic global problems in my next post.