Pulitzer Prize–winning author and UCLA professor of geography Jared Diamond applies his experiences and research in The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? .
You cover a vast amount of space and time in this book, yet it feels like an intimate portrait of traditional life.
I didn’t make a conscious decision about portraying traditional life or shying away from stark conclusions. Instead, the material of my book is the stories that my New Guinea friends have told me over the course of the 48 years that I have been visiting New Guinea, and the experiences that I have lived through with them.
What would strike a traditional New Guinean visitor to the U.S. as the most troubling aspect of American culture?
One is the fate of elderly people in American society: as one Fijian friend angrily said to me, “You Americans throw away your old people!” Traditional people also often comment on the social poverty and lack of curiosity. Finally, it astonishes them that our children have to be taught explicitly how to play, through formal institutions such as “mommy and me groups,” instead of having constant access to children of other ages and thereby learning to play naturally.
Why do you think that U.S. society has difficulty reacting to looming ecological crises?
It’s not that climate change and resource exhaustion are too big for people to come to terms with; it’s instead that they develop so slowly that people don’t notice that the world now is different from how it was 50 years ago. But some societies eventually do learn: it appears that the U.S. is now beginning to take climate change seriously, just as medieval Iceland eventually began to take land degradation seriously. As for strategies that might help the American public understand the seriousness of contemporary environmental issues, you won’t be surprised to hear me say that a good strategy is to read and understand books about the past!
If you could choose one traditional New Guinean practice to transplant into mainstream American society, what would it be?
There are many practices that merit transplanting or adaptation. Ones that I have found most useful for transplanting into my own personal life include how to deal with dangers (I’m much more concerned about slipping in the shower or car accidents than I am about terrorists or nuclear accidents); bringing up my own children to make their own choices as soon as they are able to do so (like New Guinea children); and dealing with growing older, a subject that I find of increasing interest now that I just passed my 75th birthday.