Jared Diamond

It’s nothing new for Readings to host an audience with a best-selling author, but it’s rare that we have the honour of hosting a certified genius. Jared Diamond’s career was kick-started with the receipt of a ten-year ‘genius grant’ in 1985, providing him with the impetus to write his first book, The Third Chimpanzee.

Since then, he has been dubbed ‘the rock star of the science world’, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Guns, Germs and Steel, his groundbreaking study tying the prosperity of societies throughout history to their environmental conditions rather than genetics. He takes up that theme again with Collapse, a look at why societies fail or thrive, and the lessons those experiences can teach contemporary readers.

Jared Diamond talked about his work and his mission to change the way we think and behave before it’s too late with author Larissa Behrendt (Home) at the Athenaeum in June. Earlier in the day we caught up with him for a chat.

You say that you ask a lot of the questions that people start asking early in their lives but then stop asking themselves. What makes you keep asking those questions? What draws you to finding the answers?

Just curiosity. I’ve been interested in those questions for a long time and we’re living in an age where scientists like myself are getting the information that lets us answer some of these questions. For example, I first read about Easter Island in the early 1960s. At that time, they didn’t know enough to answer the question of what had happened there. Now, as a result of research that’s been done since the 1960s, we know. It’s great that we’re living in a time when we can answer these questions.

You write about the fact that people closest to a potential ecological disaster block out the possibility of it erupting because they can’t cope psychologically. Do you think that kind of mentality is operating today, with things like climate change?

What about the 4 million inhabitants of Sydney who may, or may not, run out of water in two years? It’s interesting. What really will happen? The reservoirs are at 9% and there are already plans to truck in water. What do you think will happen if two years from now Sydney runs out of water? It’s not something you like to think about.

It’s also kind of scary reading what you say about the forests when you consider that in our last election the ALP put up a policy to save the old growth forests and their defeat was partly blamed on that policy - so in the foreseeable future we won’t see another policy like that. How much time do we have?

Since yesterday! It’s really ironic that the British Empire was founded on exploiting poor, helpless third world countries by getting those countries to export their raw materials to Britain, who would then export back its finished products. Now let’s think of the situation in modern Australia. Japan, the most forested country in the first world, is buying timber from the least forested country in the first world. They’re buying it at very low prices, as woodchips, then it processes them in Japan, so the value increases by a hundred, and then Japan proceeds to export TV sets and cars back to Australia. Yet Australia is not some ignorant third world country. Why is [the government] so economically short-sighted as to export cheaply something that is in such desperately short supply here, so that they can buy their expensive TV sets and cars from Japan? It’s as if the Japanese government were manipulating the Australian Prime Minister.

You say in the book that it’s not likely that there will be an apocalyptic moment in Australia, but that our standard of living is likely to decrease. Is that something you see happening soon?

It’s a risk. It’s a risk in the first world. In the United States, economic indicators have already gone down in the last few years. As to whether Australia is going to face that risk, there’s a best-case scenario and a worst-case scenario. The worst-case scenario is that Australia will experience a slow decline in the standard of living. But it could also be something more apocalyptic. Sydney’s water supply may be the first such apocalypse.

You’ve attracted some ire from environmentalists due to your associations with big business. Does that surprise you?

I’m proud of the fact that some environmentalists are upset, at the same time that some big businesses are upset. The fact that I’m getting attacked from both sides suggests that I’m appropriately cast as a dissenter. But to those environmentalists who attack me for observing big businesses and writing about them, I’d say a couple of things. One is that big businesses, along with governments, are the strongest forces in the world today. And if an environmentalist is not willing to engage with big businesses, then they’re not interested in solving the problems of the world. They’re interested in sitting at home in their study and writing things and feeling good.

What has the response to your book been in countries like Australia and China where you’ve noted that significant change is necessary? Have you had any response from the government?

I’ve had conversations with one of your MPs and one of your senators in the past couple of days. The response varies. At one extreme, some of the responses I’ve got in Australia have been defensive ones. “Yes, we’ve made messes in the past, but we’ve cleaned up our act, and Diamond doesn’t give us credit for cleaning up our act.” That’s one end of the spectrum. And at the middle end of the spectrum, there are people who are very concerned about these issues, and want to learn more about these issues. And at the far end of the spectrum, you get the people who say that I’m too optimistic and it’s all hopeless, and I should be pessimistic. In short, it varies from strongly negative to strongly positive.

When you were writing

Sure. I have 18-year-old children. I’m now 67 and my kids will be my present age in the year 2054. And I’d like the world in 2054 to be a world worth living in rather than a world where Sydney ran out of water 52 years ago.

What kind of role do you think our political leaders can play in allowing the kind of policy change that’s needed? Especially social changes, like admitting that much of the land we use for agriculture is unsuitable. Do you think that political leaders can take that kind of quick action that’s necessary?

Slow problems or long-term problems, there’s no way you can take quick action. But you can start adopting long-term solutions. Politicians also can take a role in educating the public. It’s often said, “what can a politician do?” because a politician has to win the next election. A politician has to be sensitive to public opinion. But politicians can also mould public opinion. There are some courageous politicians who are very successful at doing it. A far-sighted Australian government might begin by saying “let’s cut down those trees in Tasmania”. And then he might say “let’s figure out how many trees to cut down in Tasmania” and then he might say “how much money are we getting from these trees?” And then he might listen to the public and see that they don’t want any more trees cut down.

So it’s about planning ahead?

It’s about planning ahead, and some farsightedness, and some playing the role of leader. And being courageous! There are some courageous politicians.

What do you see as Australia’s most pressing problem?

Australia’s most pressing problem is to stop looking for Australia’s most pressing problem. Australia has 12 pressing problems, and you’ve got to solve every one of them. Australia like the rest of the world, has got to solve all its problems.

But us particularly, because our environmental fragility puts us on the frontline of what’s happening all over the planet?

Yeah. Exactly. That’s a good way of putting it: you’re at the frontline, or the expression sometimes used, you are the clearer in the mine. With all these environmental problems, if things turn bad, they’ll turn bad in Australia before they do in other first world countries.

Obviously we have to make a decision to let go of that technology that is doing us harm. I wonder how difficult it will be to let go of that?

We’ve done more difficult things. There are other things that are harder to let go of than technology. You’ve let go of your White Australia policy. In 1964, who would have guessed that? Who would have guessed that Australia would consider a referendum to let go of the Commonwealth?

So you think that this is stuff that seems impossible right now because it’s right now? Maybe in ten years time I’ll be looking back in amazement, just as you are now?

Sure. That’s a less drastic change than admitting non-white Australians, which happened relatively quickly. In 1964 I first came here. My second post-doctoral student was an Australian who worked with me from 1965 to 1974. He went back in 1971 and wrote me that he had an Indian colleague. It was exceptional. I brought my wife to Australia for the first time in 1979. At that time, ethnic restaurants in Australia meant Italian or Greek. Now you have Vietnamese and Thai all over Sydney. It’s a massive change.

I guess that’s the sort of thing that from an outsider’s perspective, you can see happened over a period of time, whereas we’re living it, so it’s not really visible to us.

It also gives me hope. People tell me I’m pessimistic about Australia. There are Australians who regard my discussion of Australia as critical. It’s critical of the past for the same reasons that Australia is critical of the past. It’s not that Australians in the past were stupid. They were faced with a really difficult deck of cards. But the important thing is that Australians in my lifetime have recognised the difficulty of their problems and changed their society.