Humans: Next on the Endangered List: Jared Diamond, Professor of Geography at UCLA, Talks to Andrew Brackenbury about the Decline of Societies Such as the Maya and Easter Islanders, and Asks If the Modern World Might Be Heading in the Same Direction

Article excerpt

Jared Diamond is no caped crusader, but he is on a mission to save us. And although he Ks sport a beard, his personal styling if more American founding father than modern-day messiah. Yet in his last book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, Diamond sets out to do no less than save the human race. Trawling through history, he examines ancient and modern societies that, when faced with grave challenges, have either plunged into the abyss or made brave decisions and survived. His basic message is stark: environmental abuse has brought civilisations to their knees throughout time. Either we heed the lessons of the past or we, too, are bound to fail.

He is unusually well-placed to deliver such a sermon. In 1985, he was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship--in other words, he was anointed by those in the know as an official 'genius', and in 1998 his book Germs, Guns and Steel won the Pulitzer prize for its contribution to our understanding of the development of human societies. As Diamond says, from his childhood in Boston, Massachussetts. to college years in Harvard and, latterly, Cambridge, he has (both literally and metaphorically) travelled some distance to be where he is today.

A man of many talents

"I was a bird watcher as a child and after completing my thesis on the gall bladder for my PhD in physiology, I opened a second career working on Guinean birds," Diamond begins. "In Guinea, I became interested in the problems faced by human societies, and this thinking was galvanised by the birth of my twin sons. Finally, having published three books and finished writing Collapse, I moved out of medical school, closed my gall bladder research and became professor of geography at UCLA."

This rich mixture of experience informs every page of Collapse. Whether he is shedding light on the mysteries of Easter Island or examining the environmental challenges that face the modern world. Diamond blends history, science and storytelling to make Collapse quite unlike anything else you will read.

"I brought two key things from my background," he says. "One is specific scientific knowledge: I'm accustomed to genetics, physiology and animal behaviour. And so it turns out that understanding animal behaviour is important for our understanding of human history, for example, which explains why cows, sheep and goats were domesticated--giving a big advantage to people in Europe and Asia--but in Africa rhinoceroses and zebra were not.

"The other thing is thinking in terms of experimental method--with history you can't do lab experiments, but you can still take a scientific approach. You can compare the two halves of modern-day Hispaniola, for example, in order to explain why Haiti and the Dominican Republic are so different today."

The book's inspiration

It is this rigorous approach that makes Collapse so powerful--at times terrifying, at others inspiring, but always convincing. In person, as in his writing, Diamond possesses an uncanny ability to express an idea so clearly that you feel as if you always knew it was so (despite the fact that you've probably never given the fate of the Greenland Norse or the Tokugawa Shogun a moment's thought in your life). Yet, he remains warm and approachable, speaking with gravitas while avoiding pomposity and forming his arguments with care, never intellectualising for the sake of it.

Collapse took six years to complete, yet Diamond's passion for the subject remains undiminished: he genuinely wants his book to make a difference. "I want to motivate more people to take environmental problems seriously, to realise that they are solvable and to think about ways of solving them," he says. His own motivation is at least partly due to personal experience of the negative impacts of global warming. As a teenager in the 1950s, he visited Montana, falling in love with its 'big sky' panoramas and year-round snow-capped mountain peaks. …