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Pulitzer Prize winner Jared Diamond on the need for nationhood

Jared Diamond. Photo/Alamy

Jared Diamond’s new book, about empowering national identity to respond to crises, is bound to tip off yet another controversy, but, he tells Andrew Anthony, it’s about core values.

In the evolutionary chain of macro-historians, before there was Yuval Noah Harari there was Jared Diamond. With his big multidisciplinary bestselling books – The Third Chimpanzee; Guns, Germs and Steel; and Collapse – he told the epic story of humanity’s rise from unexceptional primates to global domination, and how and why some humans got to be more dominant than others.

It was grand and impressively bold scholarship that brought huge commercial success and no little academic jealousy. And not just bitter comments spoken in far-off conference bars, but blatant public attacks on Diamond’s character, research and ethics. One academic paper was titled, simply, “F**k Jared Diamond”. It neatly summarised an attitude that was shared by many academics, particularly anthropologists.

Although I’d read and admired his books, I didn’t have a fixed physical image in mind of Diamond before I met him. Who could be the man who inspired such vitriol and animosity? I half wondered if he’d be some meaty bruiser, fresh back from a perilous field trip, perhaps sporting a leather jacket and a livid flesh wound, a kind of Indiana Jones of geohistory.

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But Diamond is 81, a quietly spoken man in a sports jacket and tie, with one of those beards without a moustache that makes him look as if he’s an elder from the Amish community. I meet him first at a dinner held in his honour in a plush London restaurant. There are various publishing figures, journalists and historians around the table, and Diamond gives a lengthy presentation of his new book, entitled Upheaval: How Nations Cope with Crisis and Change.

His sentences are rapid and incisive and punctuated by a long Bostonian drawl. At the end of the presentation, he takes questions from diners on many subjects and makes a solid fist of answering them all, regardless of their relevance to his book. Talk about singing for your supper.

The next morning in his Bloomsbury hotel, he tells me how much he enjoyed having his ideas challenged. The central idea of Upheaval is that nations are a bit like individuals, in that they must deal with crises by adapting their identities, jettisoning some aspects of their pre-crisis persona and adopting new ways of seeing and doing things.

Some nations have been better at doing this than others. His book is a series of case studies, looking at Finland, Japan, Chile, Indonesia, Germany and Australia. It seems an odd, almost random selection of countries, but it turns out that what they have in common is that Diamond has spent a lot of time in each of them and can speak their languages, at least to some extent.

Among his many talents – and the word polymath hardly does justice to the man – is a marked linguistic facility. At one time or another he’s been able to speak or read 13 languages. He thought of becoming a linguist, but instead, after taking a history and anthropology degree at Harvard, he gained a PhD in physiology and became a leading expert on the workings of the gall bladder.

For most mortals, that would be enough to be getting on with, but Diamond, who is professor of geography at UCLA, went on to study ornithology, anthropology, sociology, evolutionary biology, ecology, archaeology, genetics and the epidemiology of human diseases, and practically invented the field of environmental history. He’s also an accomplished musician. In short, he makes your average Renaissance Man look lazy.

The move away from gall bladders was prompted by the birth of his twin sons in 1987, when he was 50. He was suddenly aware of the precarious nature of the world’s future, and started looking for answers in the past.

“I realised my kids were going to be 50 in 2037, and there were estimations that the Amazon Rainforest would be destroyed by then. So I shifted from gall-bladder research with history on the side, to history with gall bladders on the side and, eventually, no more gall bladders.”

His new book is not like his previous ones, which spanned thousands, even tens of thousands of years of human activity. Most of the history in Upheaval concerns the 20th century, and there are also chapters on the global situation and possible crises of the near future.

“It’s not that I’ve abandoned my interest in environmental things,” he says, a little defensively, “and it’s not that I wanted to pick a more political subject. It’s just that this was brewing in the pot.”

Still, it is an overtly political and prescriptive book that could almost be read as a guide to political leaders on how to negotiate major problems. For example, two of the factors he lists as vital in determining how well a nation deals with a crisis are national identity and national core values. These are disputed concepts at the best of times, and particularly in multicultural societies. But he believes an empowering national identity depends upon bringing all groups into the fold.

Just two weeks before we meet, New Zealand experienced its own crisis or, more accurately, trauma. To the rest of the world, its response appeared a model of sensitivity and decisiveness. Diamond has visited New Zealand and has a number of Kiwi friends. How, I ask, does he rate the health of New Zealand’s identity and core values?

He takes the historian’s view, sidestepping recent events and focusing on deeper trends.

Incomplete success: a depiction of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. Image/Alexander Turnbull Library

“New Zealand has been incompletely successful, but at least they’ve been partially successful,” he declares, “much more so than Australia. When you arrive at Sydney Airport, you do not see a sign in the Aboriginal language saying, ‘Welcome to Australia’. Whereas, when you arrive at Auckland Airport, the first thing you see is a sign in Māori.”

He points out that there is still a socio-economic disparity between European-heritage and Māori New Zealanders, but he thinks New Zealand is “making honest efforts to bridge the gap – far more than Australia or America, for which it has to be praised”.

The word he uses to describe Australian attitudes to Aborigines is “racist”, which is an adjective that has also been aimed at Diamond himself. It’s a curious accusation because his best-known book, Guns, Germs and Steel, was a bravura attempt to overthrow centuries of racialised thinking about how the West became so globally powerful.

Although biological explanations of European dominance had become untenable, no alternative story had come to the fore. Diamond changed all that by arguing that geography and its environmental consequences provided the conditions that enabled Europeans to thrive. It was a major breakthrough in interdisciplinary scholarship. But some saw in the emphasis on environment a get-out-of-jail-card for Western imperialism.

That’s not the message I’ve taken from his books, so I wondered why he thought it was that he generated so much animosity, particularly among anthropologists.

“We’re trained, as academics, to write in a way that appeals to other academics and does not appeal to the public. If you want to be understood by the public, though, you have to violate what you’ve been taught to do.”

He believes the reason he’s resented is that he abandoned academic insularity and reached out to the public – in the process becoming famous and earning a lot of money. But he’s mystified why anthropologists so dislike him. Last year, he tells me, there was a conference in Cambridge whose title “was something like, ‘How to Take Anthropology Away from Jared Diamond’”. And the American Anthropological Association once held a conference on his work to which he was not invited. When he asked why, he was told that his contribution would provide “no added value”.

“That,” he says drily, “was an eye-opener for me about anthropologists.”

Although anthropologists will have little to say about Upheaval, he’s still nervous that readers will misconstrue his personal crisis analogy, ignore all his caveats, and decide the book is “nonsense”.

It’s far from nonsense, but instead rather conventional, almost old-fashioned. Diamond sets a lot of store by nations and nationhood. For him, these are the key political units by which we organise ourselves and therefore it’s to nations that we should look for political solutions.

Yet so many of the modern world’s problems extend far beyond national borders. Climate change, for example, which Diamond believes is the major threat facing humanity, and mass migration. He discusses climate change in the book, but comes to a rather simple conclusion: “Climate change is being caused overwhelmingly by human activities, so all that we have to do in order to reduce climate change is to reduce those human activities.”

Many climate-change activists blame relentless capitalist materialism as the chief cause of fossil-fuel consumption. Does he have any time for that analysis? “No,” he says firmly. “I have no time for arguments that we should go back to the Stone Age.”

As for migration, he takes aim at those who promote ideals over reality by arguing for a borderless world.

“Almost all Africans would be better off economically and politically, and in terms of personal safety, if they were in Europe,” he says matter of factly. “The cruel reality is that it’s impossible for Europe to admit one billion Africans, just as it’s impossible for the United States to admit half a billion people from Latin America. Every First World country is facing increasing numbers of immigrants, even Japan and Australia, so every country has got to devise a sane immigration policy.”

In the shadow of Christchurch, the issues of migration and racism seem at their most febrile and depressing. If New Zealand, with its small population and limited social tensions, could be the scene of such horror, what hope is there for elsewhere? Is he concerned that he might be seen as assuaging extremist opinion?

“The issue has gotten hijacked by the racists,” he acknowledges. “It’s unfortunate that people can come to a common conclusion for sensible reasons and for vile reasons.”

Although he goes out of his way to avoid mention of Donald Trump in Upheaval, he is scathing about Trump’s proposal to build a wall between America and Mexico.

“It’s a waste of money to put up the wall, because that’s not the way most illegal immigrants are coming,” he says, explaining that they’re largely overstaying visas.

To staunch unprecedented mass migration, he says, a huge Marshall Plan-like investment in the developing world’s public healthcare is needed. That, he says, would wipe out problems such as malaria and Aids almost at a stroke.

But he’s adamant that we shouldn’t be thinking about the demise of nation states just yet.

“They’re here now,” he says definitively, “and they’re here for the foreseeable future.”

When I ask how long foreseeable amounts to, it turns out he means 10 years. That, ultimately, is the lesson that this extraordinary polymath teaches us: history is full of surprises.

This article was first published in the May 4, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.