An Interview with Dr. Jared Diamond

By Eliot Levine and John Matthews

Jared Diamond © Becky Hale via National Geographic

Jared Diamond © Becky Hale via National Geographic

We recently had the great pleasure of meeting with New York Times bestselling author Jared Diamond (Collapse; Guns, Germs, & Steel) for a wide-ranging conversation, and will post a video of that interview soon. However, to set the stage for our meeting we wrote to Dr. Diamond with some initial questions.

This first interview touches on just a few, although large, topics including: the challenges faced by developed and developing countries, the relevance of conservation practice (past and present) in meeting today’s environmental and development challenges, and of course lessons we can learn from past societies and their efforts to adapt to environmental changes. Climate change is going to present a different set of challenges for developing countries than developed ones. Do you have any thoughts on how you would characterize these differences?

Dr. Jared Diamond: Developed and developing countries differ in that developed countries have more money and resources with which to mitigate climate impacts, and they are separated from disaster by broader margins of safety.  Consider, for example, four countries all of which have extensive lowland areas at risk from flooding by sea-level rise: Kiribati, Bangladesh, the Netherlands, and the United States.  The per-capita incomes of those countries are respectively $800, $1800, $27,000, and $36,000.  That means that the Netherlands and the United States can afford to build sea walls and high-volume water pumps, but Kiribati and Bangladesh cannot.

CP: When you think specifically about the environmental changes nations, developed and developing, will have to deal with, which ones frighten you the most?  

JD: Among the environmental changes facing countries as a result of climate change, I shall mention four.  One is local decreases in agricultural productivity as a result of local droughts, for example in Southern California and in the Northern Great Plains, which are two of the regions of the United States of highest agricultural productivity.  A second is submergence of low-lying coastal areas as a result of rising sea level, either permanently if the areas come to lie below sea level, or else periodically if they remain slightly above sea level but are subject to tidal or storm flooding.  A third is loss of biodiversity: e.g., loss of montane species as a result of habitat zones shifting upwards on mountains, to the point where zones presently located around a summit rise into non-existence in the sky, eliminating habitat for their species.  A fourth is habitats shifting polewards more rapidly than slow-moving species (such as plants and sedentary animals) can keep up with.

CP: Since conservation biology has traditionally meant the restoration of ecological communities and ecosystem functions relative to some past state, what does conservation mean now that those past climates no longer exist?

JD: The impossibility of restoring any past condition, such as a past climate, is not a new problem in conservation biology.  Conservation biologists have regularly faced the impossibility of restoring extinct species or ecosystems based on extinct species, such as the extinct Pleistocene megafaunas that disappeared in North America, South America, Australia, and all oceanic islands.  Even where species themselves are not extinct, it is often impossible to restore ecosystems on a scale that permits them to function without constant human management.  For example, North American bison are not extinct, but we have no realistic possibility of restoring bison range over distances of thousands of miles sufficient to permit prairie ecosystems to be maintained by annual bison migrations.

CP: Is conservation practice today appropriate and sufficient for the challenges of today and tomorrow?

JD: That isn’t a problem just for today and tomorrow: conservation as practiced yesterday has always been overwhelmed by challenges.  Conservation biologists have had to be happy if they win some battles, rather than losing all of the battles.

CP: Obviously adapting to changing climatic conditions is nothing new for human societies. We have seen archeological evidence around the world that shows how societies have dealt with these changes in the past. However, some societies have definitely been more effective at adapting to these changes than others. From your research can you identify any particular traits which you would consider necessary for any adaptive society in terms of climate change? Framed another way, what form did adaptive strategies take in societies that were (and still are) successful? (i.e. cultural, technological, etc.)?

JD: The question of why some societies have been more effective at adapting to change than have other societies is a big and complex question.  A key element is a society’s ability or willingness to change selectively.  It has been a recipe for disaster for societies facing challenges to refuse to make any change, and it has also been a recipe for disaster for them to change wholesale and retain nothing of the traditional strengths that lent them cohesion.  One example of outstandingly successful adaptive change is Britain after the Second World War: the British were able to jettison their long-standing identification as masters of the world’s largest empire and owners of the world’s biggest navy, but the British retained their traditional value of insular distinctiveness and democracy.  Similarly, the Navajo Indians are now the largest Native American group of North America because of their outstanding capacity for adaptive change: they have retained their language and identity, while adopting corn and basketball and trucks from other societies.  Japan during the Meiji Restoration that began in the 1860’s is another outstanding example of selective change: the Japanese jettisoned their shogun and political and commercial isolation, but they retained the Japanese language, emperor, and identity.

A further characteristic that has helped some human groups adapt successfully is a sense of, and pride in, one’s distinctiveness.  The British, Navajo, and Japanese are all distinctive – the British and Japanese as island peoples, the Navajo as Athabaskans surrounded by non-Athabaskans.  Finland is another country that has been outstandingly successful at adapting, transforming the country from a poor agricultural satellite of the Soviet Union to one of the richest and most technologically advanced countries today.  The Finns have been aided by knowledge that they are speakers of a Finno-Ugric language with no close relatives except Estonian, surrounded by Indo-European language speakers for whom the Finnish language is fiendishly difficult.

CP: There’s been a lot of speculation that the essential problem of adjusting to emerging climate change conditions is largely technological (e.g., geo-engineering, nuclear fusion, widespread implementation of desalinization), political (e.g., if we only had the right leaders, they would make the correct policy decisions in our place), or economic (shifting to a low-carbon economy, in order to slow or stop the rate of human-induced climate change). Do you agree with all or any of these approaches, or do you feel that the processes of enabling change are more about cultural or religious transformation and social organization? If the latter, what are examples from the past of such kinds of changes? Do you see evidence that these changes are occurring now?

JD: All of these shifts and forces are relevant.  Examples are that: improved technology can contribute to reducing global warming trends by replacing some fossil fuel consumption with renewable energy; many shifts require “just” political will, because we already know what we have to do but lack the will to do it (e.g., reduce total energy consumption and shift energy sources from non-renewable towards renewable); shifting our economic model from the fantasy of indefinite growth to a no-growth reality; and cultural shifts, such as shifts within the United States and willingness to accept the reality of climate change.

As for examples from the past, an unsuccessful example is the effort of the Khmer Empire based at Angkor to deal with climate change (increasing drought and increasing fluctuations) by technological solutions of increasingly complex water management, which finally became overwhelmed.  A successful example comes from the U.S. Southwest, where the Anasazi, Mogollon, Mimbre, and other peoples were ultimately defeated by climate change, but the Pueblo people found a subsistence model that proved to be sustainable even in a very difficult environment.

As for changes that are occurring now, Denmark, Germany, Spain, France, and China have already succeeded or are well underway in replacing fossil fuel energy sources with renewable sources (wind) or nuclear energy (in the case of France).  Another change occurring now is the increased recognition in the United States, compared to three years ago, of the reality of climate change.  But for every change in the right direction that one can point out, one has to add that we need a lot more of that change, and we need changes in other areas.

In the coming weeks we will post a video interview Dr. Diamond which explores some of these same topics in much more depth.