These four looming threats may bring the end of civilization, warns top scholar
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These four looming threats may bring the end of civilization, warns top scholar

Pulitzer Prize-winning geographer Jared Diamond’s newest book is a look back at past political calamities and an examination of current hot-button issues menacing the planet

Jared Diamond, author of the new book, 'Upheaval: How Nations Cope With Crisis and Change.' (Courtesy)
Jared Diamond, author of the new book, 'Upheaval: How Nations Cope With Crisis and Change.' (Courtesy)

It’s not easy being a nation-state, Pulitzer Prize winner Jared Diamond writes in his new book, “Upheaval: How Nations Cope With Crisis and Change.”

The book is a look back at political calamities across the globe over the last three centuries, and also an examination of current and future threats to the planet. At its conclusion, “Upheaval” issues a chilling warning about the four largest-looming threats that could spell the end of civilization: nuclear war, climate change, global resource depletion, and rising global inequality.

Each of the four brings its own specific worries, anxieties, and agonies, but Diamond, a geography professor at UCLA, doesn’t falter when it comes to choosing a worst-case scenario: nuclear holocaust.

“There is potential right now for exterminating the human race involving the use of nuclear weapons,” the 81-year-old best selling American Jewish author, scholar, and polymath tells The Times of Israel via telephone from his publisher’s office in central London.

“If nuclear weapons were just exchanged between, say, India and Pakistan, and they shot off their arsenals at each other, the result would not just be hundreds of millions of dead people in India and Pakistan,” says Diamond. “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, at minimum [ending] first world civilization, and at maximum, the end of the human race,” he says.

Illustrative: A US nuclear bomb test at the Marshall Islands, 1954. (Wikicommons/US Department of Energy)

If our planet is lucky enough to save itself in the coming decades from self-annihilation by not engaging in a nuclear war, Diamond believes the end may still come from an equally large threat: climate change.

“A great deal of this really depends on the issue of [US President] Donald Trump being elected in 2020,” says Diamond. “If he does get reelected, I would be pessimistic about the long-term future.”

A student holds a banner showing images of US President Donald Trump, right, and Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro during a pro-environment protest in Madrid, Spain, Friday March 15, 2019. Students mobilized by word of mouth and social media to protest what they believe are their governments’ failure to take tough action against global warming. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

Diamond says that solving climate change can be a pretty straightforward matter.

“Firstly, reduce our total energy consumption, and secondly, shift more of our energy consumption to renewables rather than to fossils fuels,” Diamond says. He adds that he has “some cautious optimism that trend is going in the right direction.”

Unfortunately, Diamond doesn’t see a one-size-fits-all environmental solution that meets the demand for energy consumption across the planet. 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 least bad for the environment?

This, of course, means considering all options available on the table, including one that might conjure images of a post-apocalyptic nightmare: nuclear energy.

“Now a nuclear energy [accident] might kill considerable numbers of people,” Diamond warns. “But in the case of fossil fuels, it’s not that they might kill people — they are killing people right now.”

Diamond was born in Boston in 1937. He was educated first at Harvard and then Cambridge, England. His books often drop casual references to his own Jewish heritage and background, usually in connection to the broader sweep of history.

Illustrative: ‘The Revolt of Cairo,’ by Anne-Louis Girodet, 1810. (Public domain)

Diamond’s father arrived in the United States to escape anti-Jewish pogroms in Ukraine. But as the author already confessed to The Times of Israel back in 2013,  his own feelings of Jewishness are in no way religious — he is an atheist, non-practicing Jew. Still, he has called his family’s transition from Yiddish to English “a terrible loss.”

That same year Diamond was awarded the Wolf Prize in Agriculture by the now-deceased former president of Israel, Shimon Peres.

Diamond’s books tend to take an informal, almost conversational tone. The author usually has a politically centrist stance and is heavy on the details — his well-researched writing mixes geography, politics, and history into a sharp narrative where realpolitik takes preference over moral finger-waving histrionics.

That said, his writing often provokes ethical debate. His 1997 best-seller, “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” for instance, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for asking a loaded question: Why European civilization — and not other societies — conquered and dominated much of the world for centuries.

In his latest tome Diamond notes that war is indeed devastatingly cruel to those that survive. But do the moral victories and economic benefits that emerge from its horror ensure posterity gains where their ancestors lost out? Well, sometimes. But it takes Diamond considerable time to admit to this.

Jared Diamond, author of 'Guns, Germs, and Steel,' was announced as a recipient of Israel's Wolf Prize on Wednesday. (photo credit: CC BY jurvetson, Flickr)
Jared Diamond, author of ‘Guns, Germs, and Steel,’ was announced as a recipient of Israel’s Wolf Prize in 2013. (photo credit: CC BY jurvetson, Flickr)

“I don’t see war as having any sense of purpose,” he says. “War is failed diplomacy. Wars kill people.

“There are, however, a number of situations when certain things that are desirable could not be attained without a war,” Diamond eventually concedes.

He notes, for instance, that both Italy and Germany could not have been unified during the 19th century without bloodshed and war.

“These wars were very brief and relatively un-bloody though,” says Diamond. “Both Italy and Germany would not have been unified without those wars. So there are certain circumstances when I can defend war.”

Diamond’s current book also devotes considerable space to describing the clandestine nature of Cold War politics, focusing particular attention on how influential the United States was in making sure Latin America did not embrace communism during the postwar era.

Illustrative: In this September 11, 1973 file photo, a boy pushes a bicycle across a deserted street as an army tank moves towards La Moneda presidential palace during a coup against President Salvador Allende’s government, after which Gen. Augusto Pinochet seized power, in Santiago, Chile. (AP Photo, File)

By the late 1970s, 15 of the major 21 states in Latin America were ruled by military dictators. Much of the meddling, fixing, financing, and supplying of weapons that brought far right juntas to power during the 1970s across Latin America came from the clandestine activity of the CIA.

Diamond dedicates an entire chapter in his book to analyzing  the traumatic crisis that began in Chile on September 11, 1973, when Salvador Allende’s democratically-elected Marxist government was overthrown in a coup d’état led by Augusto Pinochet. The Chilean Army commander-in-chief’s accession to power was achieved through mass fear, kidnapping, and state-sponsored murder.

Until the late 1960s, Chile was seen as one of the most functional democracies in Latin America. As Diamond notes, following the military coup, the Chilean National Stadium in Santiago was turned into a concentration camp, where thousands of suspected dissidents were arrested, interrogated, tortured, and executed. By 1976, one percent of the entire Chilean population was in prison. While many were eventually released, others simply “disappeared.”

Diamond essentially boils politics down to being a shrewd game of poker. If you want to survive at the table, having an expertise in trade, arms, the swift movement of capital, and the psychological games of power will serve you well. The business of surviving in a nation state, his book argues, is grounded in a Machiavellian school of thought based on cruel realism: Justice-seeking won’t get one very far in a global world order where fairness isn’t always forthcoming.

In this 2017, photo, visitors look at an old well where six Indonesian Army generals and a junior officer were buried in an abortive coup in 1965 that the military blamed on Indonesia’s Communist Party and subsequently led to the anti-communist purge in 1965-1966, at Pancasila Sakti Monument in Jakarta, Indonesia. (AP Photo/Dita Alangkara)

Some examples cited in the books are more extreme than others. The national identity crisis Australia slowly played with its big brother, Great Britain, over the course of the 20th century feels more like a drunken pillow fight in comparison to the massacre Indonesia inflicted on half a million of its own citizens during its genocidal anti-communist purge during the mid 1960s.

Generally speaking, it appears that bloodshed is usually the driving impetus for lasting political and historical change; money, meanwhile, often trumps morality in the long game of nation state survival.

Asked if nation-states and their trajectories are predicated upon violence — and whether this can be applied in a broader sense to global capitalism, which is inextricably tied to the nation-state, Diamond looks at the silver lining.

The history of humanity is embedded in violence

“I would say that the history of humanity is embedded in violence,” he says. “Tribal societies were overwhelmingly violent. In fact, the risk of you getting killed was higher in a tribal society than in modern nation-state society.”

“When nation-states do resort to violence, they kill a great number of people in a short amount of time in a spectacular number of ways,” Diamond clarifies. “Tribal societies, when they resort to violence, kill people in unspectacular ways — with machetes and spears. But they do it constantly, whereas nation-states are infrequently at war.”

Illustrative: This picture taken on April 15, 2017 shows an unidentified rocket, reported to be a Hwasong-type missile similar to the one used in a May 14, 2017 test launch, at a military parade in Pyongyang. (AFP Photo/Ed Jones)

“So I would say, let’s not blame nation-states for violence, it’s wrong,” he says, adding that “capitalism [doesn’t play] a big part in these roles of violence either. There has been violence in the world long before there was capitalism.”

Other examples in Diamond’s book come from a motley crew of nations as diverse as Finland, Japan, Indonesia, and Germany. Each nation has responded differently to its own respective moment of crisis. Germany, for instance, presently doesn’t try to disguise its shameful Nazi past that led to the genocide of 6 million Jews.

“Since World War II, Germany has eventually come to grips with its Nazi legacy,” Diamond says. “All German schoolchildren are taught in gory detail about the Holocaust; they are encouraged to visit four concentration camps that have now been converted into museums, and German children are encouraged to visit Israel, too.”

“Germany has made a real effort — more than any other country in the world, I believe — to come to grips with its evil past,” Diamond says. “The Chancellor of [West] Germany, Willy Brandt, in [what has become known as the] Warschauer Kniefall, fell down on his knees at the Warsaw Ghetto [in 1970] and begged Poles for forgiveness for war crimes committed by Germans during WWII.”

This file photo from 1970 shows former West German Chancellor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Willy Brandt during his visit in the former Jewish Ghetto of Warsaw. (AP-PHOTO)

Japan, conversely, has not been as forthcoming in admitting its brutal treatment against the Chinese and Koreans during the same historical epoch, says Diamond.

“It’s unthinkable that a Japanese prime minister would go to Nanking and beg for forgiveness for the [hundreds of thousands] of Chinese that were killed during the Rape of Nanking,” Diamond says. “The explanation undoubtedly lies in cultural differences between Japan and Germany.”

For the most part, Diamond’s central thesis — that war followed by peace, followed by trade, equals prosperity and progress — is a convincing one. But when gaps in his argument appear, they are more like sinkholes than small potholes in need of a smattering of cement.

“Only in poor countries where much of the population [feels] desperate and angry, is there toleration or support for terrorists,” he writes in what could be called one presumptuous passage.

Such a reductive analysis makes a large distinction between state violence versus non-state actors taking up arms in cases when human rights are worth going to war for. It also simplifies violent acts by the state, subtly implying that state-backed violence is somehow morally superior to non-state violence. When this is put to him directly, Diamond does concede that the lines between state terrorism and individual non-state paramilitary groups are not so clear cut.

Illustrative: Members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) march during the annual military parade, marking the anniversary of the outbreak of the devastating 1980-1988 war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, in the capital Tehran, on September 22, 2018. (AFP/STR)

“When terrorism is backed by a state government as policy, it’s pretty clear that is terrorism by the state,” Diamond says. “The CIA has done things that would be considered terrorist, and the government of Iraq has [committed atrocities that] were considered terrorism on a large scale.”

But, he asks, “Does that mean one can universally condemn state-sponsored violence oversees?”

Diamond notes as an example how during the 1980s the Reagan administration tried and failed to assassinate the late Libyan dictator, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

“Would it have been justified to approve of state-sponsored terrorism and kill Gaddafi at the time?” Diamond asks rhetorically. “Well, one doesn’t like to condemn murder, but on the other hand, Gaddafi inflicted so much misery on tens of millions of Libyans.”

“Another example is the attempt to kill Hitler by the Germans themselves in July 1944,” Diamond says. “Would you also condemn that act, or would you say, ‘Thank God they’ve killed Hitler?'”

“These are difficult ethical questions,” he says, “but worth thinking about nevertheless.”

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