Jared Diamond’s book
JARED Diamond, a renowned multi-disciplinary scholar and Geography professor at UCLA, has authored many bestsellers.
His most notable books are Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse: How Nations Choose to Fail or Succeed. His book published in early 2019 is titled Upheaval: How Nations Cope with Crisis and Change.
The book could not have been better timed and is more relevant today than the author could conceivably have imagined while writing it. Since 2020, the entire world has been in a state of crisis.
Numerous countries have been dealing with various crises that are unlike anything they have known before.
Dealing with crises is what Upheaval is all about.
Diomond appears to have some difficulty in defining what he means by “crisis.” But it is clear the crises he focuses on are game-changer and represent a turning point.
Whether they are individuals or entire societies, those affected by a crisis are in an unfamiliar, challenging situation that requires them to transform in order to cope.
Sometimes the transformation they undergo to cope with a crisis ends up defining them permanently.Events happening everywhere currently are not only making life very difficult, they present extraordinary challenge to all.
Take for instance, the pandemic, the socio-political upheavals in the USA, Australia’s Black Summer, the Beirut blast, the winter storm in Texas, etc.
People affected by the developments have no experience in dealing with them. The experience they gain changes their society for good. The upheavals of 2020 and aftermath exemplify how the world is being transformed.
This means the entire decade of the 2020s, as transpired, mirrors Jared Diamond’s latest book. Upheaval may be a useful guide for us to navigate today’s unprecedented global circumstances.
It is comprehensive, featuring not only case studies of relatively recent crises affecting six nations Jared Diamond is familiar with but also a general discussion of threats and challenges faced by the United States and the world in general.
Now that new threats and unprecedented challenges on a grand scale have risen all across the world, with the United States appearing to receive the brunt, humanity urgently needs to know how to adapt to these tumultuous times.
Has Jared Diamond, with his book written just in time, provided us with an effective framework to understand what is happening and how we can cope with it?
Diamond has shown instances of uncanny foresight in Upheaval. After describing how crises occur on various levels, from individuals to nations, he wrote at the end of the prologue that the potential is rising for crises that might engulf the entire world.
He notes that such a calamity will be particularly challenging due to humanity’s lack of experience in working together globally ( because a full-scale universal crisis never really happened before).
There might very well have been no such experience back when Jared Diamond was writing, but now we are in the midst of something that aligns with his scenario, the COVID-19 pandemic, and Diamond’s idea of global cooperation and collective coping by every nation is being shaped, tested, and applied.
Skipping forward to another example, while introducing the chapter on Chile’s brutal Pinochet dictatorship, Jared Diamond wrote, “Most of all for my fellow Americans, Chile raises a frightening question to keep in mind as you read this chapter. The US shares with Chile a strong democratic tradition.
The yielding of that tradition to a dictatorship seemed utterly inconceivable to Chileans in 1967, just as it seems inconceivable to many Americans today. But it did happen in Chile, and in retrospect, the warning signs were visible there.
Could it also happen to the US?” And, indeed, less than two years after that was written, the assault on the US Capitol came way too close to Diamond’s warning for comfort.
It came as a blow to American democracy, was previously considered inconceivable and is widely considered an attempt at coup like Chile’s on September 11, 1971. But the two uprisings are worlds apart.
In Chile, it was the nation’s biggest official institution, the military, attacking the government under direct orders from its commanders, whereas in America, it was a huge crowd of ordinary people apparently incited by the rhetoric of the President and his closest associates. It shows how fundamentally different the United States is from Chile.
Jared takes into account how the same situation plays out differently in several countries due to differing circumstances.
He called Upheaval a comparative study, which examines and compares various countries dealing with “their own crisis,” because “Those who study just one country end up understanding no country”.
He describes comparative research as being an effective tool for gaining a deeper understanding of why a country is the way it is, and why it dealt with a particular situation differently than others. Countries with major differences can encounter a similar issue.
In the case of 1971’s Chile and 2021’s USA, that issue is major elements in the country seeking to do everything they can to stop a democratically-elected head of state from being in office.
It is an indication that America’s democracy is not invincible, just as Diamond warned Diamond asks all the right questions in Upheaval and reading it provides us with the answers we need.
Upheaval is one of Jared Diamond’s many books about the general ways in which human civilization has proceeded over the ages, dealing with how the changes that countless societies were subject to forced them to adapt by partially discarding the old habits that used to define their identity.
The coronavirus and concurrent events are acute signs of a world that is changing so much that humanity will need to radically transform its ways, and Upheaval provides lessons in how this is done. I read the book during quarantine.
In times like this, we desperately need guidance, and a study as broad-sighted as Jared Diamond’s Upheavals, How Nations Cope with Crises, can provide us guidance.
—The writer is Director at Pakistan’s People Led Disaster Management.