Focused on new book, but in passing provides very good summaries of past books.
The west’s dwindling connection with the natural world puts it in increasing peril, says the distinguished anthropologist in his new book. Many of the practices of tribal cultures can help us to rediscover our way, he argues – from respecting the environment to letting toddlers play with knives
Since moving to LA, Diamond has produced a series of books that have propelled him to fame. The first, The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee, appeared in 1992, its title referring to Homo sapiens, who are depicted by Diamond as a species of chimpanzee that is increasingly out of kilter with the natural world, particularly since the invention of agriculture, “a catastrophe from which we have never recovered”. With the arrival of farming, Diamond argues, women were subjected to domestic drudgery; people started to hoard resources and wealth; and our proximity to animals triggered disease epidemics that still threaten to overwhelm us. “With agriculture came the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease and despotism, that curse our existence,” he states. The Third Chimpanzee won the Royal Society prize for science books that year.
Guns, Germs and Steel came next, with Diamond adding a new sin to those introduced by the first farmers: colonialism, including – as we have already mentioned – the enslaving of the Inca people by the conquistadors of Spain. Then, in 2005, came Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive. Here he attempted to answer another basic question about the human species: why do some cultures implode and disintegrate because their members destroy their own habitats while other cultures maintain a careful ecological balance? Why did the Vikings perish in 16th-century Greenland while the Inuit flourished? Why did the ancient Mayans wreck their own ecology by stripping their lands of forests, thus triggering the soil erosion and starvation that caused the collapse of their civilisation? And, most poignantly of all, why did the people of Easter Island chop down every tree on their remote island and so maroon themselves in the middle of the Pacific, where they eventually descended into civil war and cannibalism?
In tackling this question, Diamond identifies several factors which help to explain why societies collapse: political intransigence, climatic change, loss of trade, attacks by neighbours and self-imposed environmental degradation. Crucially, these factors are now operating at a global scale, he says. Painted on a larger canvas, the fate of the people of Easter Island could therefore be repeated for the whole planet unless we take action.
Phi Beta Iota: Charles C. Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (Vintage, 2006) remains the standard.