Jared Diamond is well known for linking the success or failure of societies to their ecological foundations and practices in such bestselling books as Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997) and Collapse (2004). So it’s a surprise to see that Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis, coming from Little, Brown in May, deals primarily with political crises, from the humiliation by the West that led to the Meiji Restoration in 19th-century Japan to present-day problems facing the United States and the world. Although Diamond’s list of today’s crises includes environmental dangers, he argues that they are exacerbated by political issues.
“The shift in focus was prompted by the causes of the problems that I was studying,” Diamond explains, speaking from his office in Los Angeles. (He is a professor of geography at UCLA.) “It seems to me clear that in the long-term pattern of history over tens of thousands of years, environmental factors play a major role and political factors are local. But in the changes I’ve observed over the past 50 years, the major factors have been political rather than environmental.”
It’s also a surprise, given that Upheaval is about crises, that the contemporary chapters make no reference to Donald Trump’s turbulent presidency or to Great Britain’s messy exit-in-progress from the European Union. “Two reasons,” says Diamond, who has the well-organized speaking habits of an academic accustomed to classroom lectures. “One: It’s so fast moving, anything I could have written in the first version of the manuscript I turned in in August 2017 about Trump would have been superseded in three weeks. This is not a magazine article that will be read for a few weeks and go out of date. Two: I want my book to be read by people on all sides, so I’m not going to criticize politicians, particularly on one side of the spectrum, because I’d like his supporters to read my book. My books do get read across the spectrum. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair said they were influenced by my books, but, somewhat to my surprise, so did Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida.”
Another reason for surprise is the framework Diamond has chosen for Upheaval. He takes the checklist of factors therapists have identified as crucial for individuals seeking to successfully resolve a personal crisis—known as outcome predictors—and adapts it to evaluate nations in crisis. He’s well aware that this may get him in trouble with critics.
“There are going to be reviewers,” Diamond says, “who pick up the book, read the first couple of pages, then say, ‘For heaven’s sake, nations are different from individuals, I don’t have to read any further,’ and then they’ll write a review saying, ‘Jared Diamond says that nations are the same as individuals, and that’s wrong.’ Well, of course there are differences. It’s not that I set out with any preconceptions; I simply found this framework useful. In the first years of our marriage, my wife, Marie, a clinical psychologist, was doing a year of special training in crisis therapy. Every week, Marie and her fellow therapists would get together to discuss what was happening with a client, especially to anticipate the risk of suicide. As Marie talked about the outcome predictors, it dawned on me that some of these fairly directly applied to national crises, such as getting help from other countries, as opposed to getting help from individuals. In other cases, they certainly don’t apply; for example, countries don’t have ego strength. But they were useful metaphors suggesting factors that applied to national crises.”
The essential first two steps for an individual in crisis, according to the checklist, are acknowledging that one is in crisis and accepting personal responsibility for it. I suggest to Diamond that accepting responsibility for a crisis is a much more difficult task for nations, especially those as polarized as the U.S., where both sides tend to ascribe all the responsibility to political opponents. Indeed, Upheaval identifies America’s biggest and most ominous problem as “our accelerating deterioration of political compromise.”
“There are several reasons why dealing with national crises is more difficult than dealing with personal crises,” Diamond replies. “Things in a country move more slowly, and accepting responsibility is one of them. An individual can wake up one morning and say, ‘My God, that was my mess!’ Countries are less likely to wake up overnight.”
Nonetheless, after examining the daunting problems confronting the world today—nuclear weapons, climate change, natural resource depletion, global inequality—Diamond says that he is, if not exactly optimistic, at least less pessimistic. “When I first wrote the last chapter, I have to say that my conclusion was pessimistic. It appeared to me that the world doesn’t have a track record in dealing with world problems, or the institutions to deal with them; the UN is not as powerful as we would hope. At that last stage, I owe a debt of gratitude to Scott Barrett [professor of natural resources economics at Columbia], who went over with me several cases of bilateral, regional, and world agreements dealing with major problems. Once he had sensitized me, I began finding other such examples.”
Diamond cites the exclusive economic zones of the ocean created by the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which gave nations an economic incentive to mine the ocean floor according to regulations established by the International Seabed Authority. “Getting 216 countries to agree about their economic zones was really difficult, and it was a success, so that gave me optimism.”
Upheaval closes with a reminder that “crises have often challenged nations in the past,” and with Diamond’s hope that “familiarity with changes that did or didn’t work in the past can serve us as a guide.”
Diamond wrote his first book for a general audience, 1992’s The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal, back when he was a professor of physiology at UCLA’s medical school and a leading authority on gallbladders, out of a desire to help people understand the past so that they can grapple with the present and future. He repeats a story he’s often told about realizing, after the birth of his twin sons in 1987, that “their future was not going to depend on gallbladders but on whether there was going to be a world worth living in in 2050.” But there was another reason he turned to writing.
“In 1985 I received a MacArthur Foundation five-year fellowship,” Diamond says. “Initially I was, of course, delighted—it’s no strings attached, do whatever—but then to my surprise I became deeply depressed for the first and only time in my life. I realized that the award meant: ‘Jared, people expect big things of you, and what have you been doing? Yes, you’re a famous physiologist, but you’ve been spending your time on gallbladders. The MacArthur Foundation thinks you can do important things that you haven’t been doing: start doing them!’ ”
Next on the to-do list is a book about leadership, Diamond says. “People often ask me if leaders make a difference in a nation’s response to change; I discuss this in the epilogue to Upheaval, but it’s just an initial discussion. This will take a much more detailed look at the question and be much more specific.”