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Interview: Jared Diamond

- On the world's biggest crises and how to solve them

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The latest book from Pulitzer Prize winning author Jared Diamond – Upheaval: How Nations Cope with Crisis and Change – presents a litmus test for a nation state in political crisis and its subsequent survival. With an ambitious scope and vast scale, the book looks at world history over the last three centuries and predicts future threats against our planet and humanity. We interviewed Diamond in his publisher's office in London.

JP O'Malley

Journalist

Posted Aug 7, 2019 in Culture & Ideas Article from Scenario 04:2019

Pulitzer Prize winning author Jared Diamond's recently published book, Upheaval: How Nations Cope with Crisis and Change provides a litmus test for a nation state in political calamity and its subsequent survival. Vast in scale and ambitious in scope, Diamond’s book takes on global history over the last three centuries and dedicates significant time to predicting future threats to our planet. Especially the four most daunting ones are: nuclear war, climate change, global resource depletion, and rising global inequality. All four bring their own specific worries, anxieties, and agonies. But the 81-year-old Professor of Geography at UCLA doesn't waste much time when it comes to predicting a worst-case scenario related to a nuclear holocaust.

“There is potential right now for exterminating the human race involving the use of nuclear weapons,” Diamond explains in a softly spoken, yet deadpan manner from his publisher’s office in Central London. That threat no longer just involves the usual suspects either, such as the United States, North Korea, Iran, and China. The globe-trotting intellectual then brings me on a tour of mid-twentieth century nuclear holding history, illuminating how the policy has gradually transformed since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

The most popular scenario when discussing atomic war is a surprise nuclear attack by one nation on another. This potential catastrophe was the one most feared throughout the Cold War. It led both the U.S. and the Soviet Union to develop weapon systems, enabling what Diamond labels “mutual assured destruction”. And, while the threat of nuclear war often loomed, and came close during the Cuban Missile Crisis, an attack was never carried out. Cold War politics may have seemed like a perpetual game of apocalyptic poker, where a winning hand allowed you to cash in your chips and receive the end of the world as the winning prize. But Diamond believes that somewhere in its eschatological all-or-nothing approach to political ideology lay a safety mechanism of sorts. This arose out of an unwritten gentleman's agreement: both superpowers understood the unwritten rules with absolute clarity and certainty – a surprise attack would be an irrational move.

Today, the world is a much more fragmented place than it was during the Cold War. Old certainties and distinct polarities, like East vs. West or communist vs. capitalist, no longer wedge the globe between clear cut ideological lines. “If nuclear weapons were just exchanged between, say, India and Pakistan – and they shot off their arsenal at each other – the result would not just be hundreds of millions of dead people in India and Pakistan,” Diamond explains.

“The exposure of those nuclear weapons would put dust up into the atmosphere and produce what's called a nuclear Winter: it would first of all darken the atmosphere, we would then witness the world getting colder, followed by a drop in photosynthesis, the spread of disease, and the end result would be the risk of ending first world civilization, and at maximum, the end of the human race.”

Even if our world is lucky enough to save itself from self-annihilation in the coming decades by avoiding a nuclear war, Diamond believes an end point may still come from a more obvious threat: climate change.

“A great deal of this really depends on the issue of Donald Trump being elected in 2020,” says Diamond: “If he does get reelected, I would be pessimistic about the long-term future. But on the other hand, if he gets defeated, I would say that we have gone through a bad period, but that we were on our way to repair.”

Given that figures such as Trump, leading the present global political climate, are refusing to engage in an open discussion concerning the dangers of climate change, Diamond says it's important that every global citizen understands its fundamental mechanisms. The starting point of this issue comes down to the increase of the world's population – reaching 9.8 billion in 2050, and 11.2 billion in 2100. As it rapidly increases, so will the average person's consumption and waste production. The most important waste being carbon dioxide (CO2), which is constantly being produced by the respiration of animals and being released into the atmosphere. But due to the pace of the Industrial Revolution, and the human population explosion that followed, natural CO2 release has been dwarfed by CO2 production.

The CO2 acts as a greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, which has a significant impact on the environment. The other primary effects of CO2's release into the atmosphere are two-fold: it gets stored in the ocean as carbonic acid, killing coral reefs – a major breeding ground for the ocean's fish – and decreases plant growth across the planet.

“Solving this is straight forward,” says Diamond. “We know perfectly well what to do to reduce climate change: it's caused due to burning fossils fuels, and therefore, if we want to reduce climate change, we need to do two things.”

“Firstly, reduce our total energy consumption, and secondly, shift more of our energy consumption to renewables rather than to fossils fuels,” Diamond explains. “That sounds really simple. But it requires motivation and convincing people.”

Diamond points to several geo-engineering approaches to tackling climate change – such as the injection of particles into the atmosphere or extracting CO2 from the atmosphere to cool the earth's surface. However, Diamond is keen to point out that there aren't any tested geoengineering approaches that are known to work.

Looking to renewable energies, therefore, seems to be the most sensible and efficient way to stop burning fossil fuels, Diamond stresses. Especially since their sources – namely wind, tidal, hydroelectric and geothermal – appear to be almost inexhaustible.

Diamond points to the fact that Denmark, for instance, already gets much of its electricity from windmills in the North Sea, and that Iceland's capital city, Reykjavik, gets its heating from geothermal energy. But renewable energies are not a utopian concept and bring their own set of problems too. Converting areas of sunny desert for solar panel energy in southern California, for instance, has proved harmful to an already endangered population of tortoises. Windmills also tend to kill birds, while hydroelectric dams across rivers present obstacles to migrating fish.

Unfortunately, there simply isn't a one-size-fits-all solution that both meets the demand for our energy consumption needs across the planet and saves the environment. Since a choice doesn't exist between a good and bad solution, Diamond says it's better to see this issue through the lens of a more realistic question: which of those bad alternatives is the least bad for the environment?

This, of course, means considering all options available on the table. Including two words that most cannot say out loud without shuddering with post-apocalyptic terror: nuclear energy. Mainly, Diamond notes, for three reasons: fear of accidents, fear of diversion of nuclear reactor fuel to make nuclear bombs, and not knowing where to store spent fuels.

This, of course, means considering all options available on the table. Including two words that most cannot say out loud without shuddering with post-apocalyptic terror: nuclear energy.

Especially considering the American atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, and the internal nuclear disaster in the north of Soviet Ukraine, which many will note has been popularized in mainstream culture as of late by the HBO TV series Chernobyl. Such horror stories lead many to instinctively associate nuclear reactors with visions of post-apocalyptic worlds before they can even begin to think about the benefits of the energy. But Diamond says those fears are not backed up with a credible set of statistics concerning casualties.

“When it comes to nuclear energy, one can point out the potential catastrophes,” says Diamond. “The worst nuclear catastrophes so far were the 130,000 killed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki by nuclear bombs in 1945. And the 32 people killed – and many more indirectly – in the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986.”

Diamond then points to a multitude of nations that, for many decades, have generated most of their electricity requirements from nuclear reactors without a single accident. The list includes France, South Korea, Taiwan, and Finland. The possibility of a nuclear reactor accident, therefore, needs to be weighed up against the certainty of deaths caused annually by air pollution with the burning of fossil fuels.

This then brings us to another issue that Diamond explores with scrupulous analysis: how countries in the developing world are increasing their living standards through the process of global capitalism. Almost immediately, this sets up the premise for two further important questions: is every global citizen’s dream of achieving a First World lifestyle possible? And if so, what kind of impact will that have on our planet's environment?

Well, problems only start arising when billions of people increase their consumption and production habits. But that, of course, is what a rise in living standards fundamentally entails. Just consider the numbers, Diamond suggests. The world's current population stands at 7.5 billion. But only a billion live in the First World, which consists of North America, Europe, and Japan. The ratio of per capita consumption rates between the First and Third World is presently at about 32:1. The math is a little complicated, Diamond explains. But just consider this for a moment, he says: the United States currently consumes 210 times more than Kenya does, and Italy, which has a population of 60 million, currently consumes twice as much as the entire African continent, which has a population numbering over 1 billion.

Until recently, Third World countries posed almost no threat to First World countries. Especially since the First World managed, and stole, the Third World's resources during the colonial period: a subject that Diamond's book explores in some detail. Nevertheless, the new map of global capitalism – problems, prejudices, and labour exploitation notwithstanding – has changed all of that in the last two decades, as living standards across the world have grown in tandem with a rising global middle class. Lest we forget, this new middle class wants to eat meat regularly, fly on airplanes to go on holiday, use more fuel to power motor vehicles, and use refrigerators. When one adds up these luxurious consumption habits, the end result is that our collective carbon footprint as a species rises not just a little, but astronomically.

Indeed, Diamond argues that as Third World countries catch up to First World living standards, the coming decades are going to present an unavoidable problem: consumption rates across the globe, on average, will increase to 11 times the rate they presently operate at. That number is the equivalent of 80 billion people consuming with the eyes, ears, tastes, and smells of aspiring bourgeois comfort.

“It's a challenge to decouple the improvement of living standards with the damage of the environment too,” Diamond explains. “The improvement of living standards always involves more food production, and this usually involves damage to the environment. The question is: how can we produce more food and make it less environmentally damaging?”

There are ways to be more environmentally conscious, Diamond maintains. Especially when it comes to food production. He points to the Netherlands, which after the United States is the second biggest agricultural exporter in the world.

“In the Netherlands much of the food is grown indoors in multistacked buildings,” says Diamond. “So the [carbon] footprint on the ground is minimized with these modern forms of food production.” Diamond also points to the issue of food waste, noting that half of the food presently produced in the United States goes in the bin.

“We also need to start asking: what can be done to reduce food waste by 50 percent?” Diamond goes on: “There are some relatively simple ways to do that, which will help to minimize our impact on the environment.”

Diamond's tone as an author is conversational, laid back, centrist, heavy on detail, measured, and well researched, and creates a sharp lucid narrative that mixes geography, politics and history, wherein realpolitik takes preference over moral finger-waving histrionics. But as an American citizen, there is no doubt that he  is – certainly when speaking and writing about political affairs – biased towards his home nation: even if he is critical of it on occasion. His book points out, for instance, that the U.S. has been ruling  the global world order since the Second World War – with power, industrial might, and military capability that no country or empire has, historically, come close to matching.

Diamond's tone as an author is conversational, laid back, centrist, heavy on detail, measured, and well researched, and creates a sharp lucid narrative that mixes geography, politics and history, wherein realpolitik takes preference over moral finger-waving histrionics

But are cracks starting to appear in what many political scientists have labelled since 1945 as the American Century? Well, in Diamond's view, yes and no. In one chapter entitled ‘What Lies Ahead for the United States’, Diamond asks two pertinent questions: what about the long term threat of American global hegemony being ruptured by China? And, will the 21st century gradually become the Chinese or Asian Century? It seems like the perfect talking point to begin moving our conversation to the next topic.

“There are some people who will say this century is going to be the Chinese century or the Asian century, I think no,” says Diamond with assured self-confidence. “This century is going to remain the American century and the western European century.”

But China, as Diamond's book points out, has a population that is four times the size of United States’ population. Moreover, China's economic growth rate for years has consistently exceeded not just the United States, but the growth rates of many other countries too. After the U.S., China can also boast of having the highest number of standing soldiers; the world’s second largest military spending budget; and having outstripped the U.S. in some spheres of technology (such as alternative energy generation and high speed rail transport). Lastly, China’s dictatorial government can get legislation through without being held back by bureaucratic inconvenience, as democratic checks and balances tend to hold a government accountable.

There are some people who will say this century is going to be the Chinese century or the Asian century, I think no,” says Diamond with assured self-confidence. “This century is going to remain the American century and the western European century

Despite these numerous advantages, Diamond maintains that the United States and western Europe possess an advantage that is immeasurable in graphs demonstrating economic growth rates, industrial output, or monetary value. It boils down to one word: democracy.

“The United States and western Europe have democratic forms of government, whereas China has been an uninterrupted dictatorship since it was unified in 221 BC,” says Diamond. “In a democracy you can debate things, in a dictatorship you cannot.”

Diamond then points to a number of examples where China's dictatorial politics has caused chaos and always seemed to present a case of one step forward, two steps back. Examples include:

 the large-scale famine during 1958-62 that killed tens of millions of people, and the suspending of the education system, when teachers during the Mao era were sent out to work with peasants. And lastly, and perhaps most importantly, creating the world's worst air pollution as China eagerly entered into a new era of economic progress and global trade in 1978, when the Deng Xiaoping era began. Diamond points out that in a democracy, voters can simply unseat politicians who are not performing, once their term in office is up. Something he insists is invaluable when it comes to progress and prosperity.

Diamond may have utter confidence in the U.S. remaining at the helm of a global world order, where it acts as both the world's policeman and its driving economic force. But internally, he admits, the nation is facing a huge crisis. Most of this stems from the deteriorating political compromise that began to surface in the 1990's during the Clinton years. Today, under the leadership of President Trump, the United States is more disunited than it has been in decades. This has presented a political shift with two major changes: passing legislation in the U.S. Congress is proving to be extremely difficult, and both the Democratic and Republican Party are becoming less appealing to voters with interests in the centre ground. Millions of voters across the United States are consequently left feeling disillusioned and isolated in a political atmosphere where people insist on contempt for their favored party’s opposition.

“I'm worried about the decline of political compromise in the U.S.,” says Diamond. “I’m also concerned about the increasing level of inequality within the U.S., the decline of socio-economic mobility, and the decline of government investment in the U.S. for public purposes.”

Diamond believes this lack of political unity is feeding into broader sociological problems across the United States. Much of which he blames on technology, specifically social media, where Americans choose their sources of information according to their preexisting views. Indeed, increasing social isolation, with the rise of Moore's Law, has led to the decline of what Diamond defines as social capital: that is, connections among individuals, social networks, and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness arising from face-to-face meet ups with people who share common interests.

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