Jared Diamond is a professor of geography at UCLA and the author of Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997, awarded a Pulitzer Prize), Collapse (2005), The World Until Yesterday (2012), and Upheaval (2019).

How To Save The World

Interview with professor Jared Diamond (b. 1937) for Helsingin Sanomat, the leading daily in Finland. Professor Diamond is the author, most recently, of Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis (2019) including a chapter of Finland during and after the war. His book Guns, Germs and Steel won Pulitzer Prize in 1997.


28.6.2020 15:58

Suomenkielinen haastattelu on julkaistu 14. kesäkuuta otsikolla Kuinka maailma pelastuu.

Professor Diamond, in your recent article in Financial Times you wrote that ”unlike many of the epidemics of the past, the coronavirus isn’t threatening to cause military defeats, population replacements or crashes, or abandonments of land under cultivation”. Have we been overreacting?

”No, of course we have not been overreacting to the pandemic. Yes, it is killing a lower percentage of people than did the black death in the Middle Ages, but it is worldwide, and we are defenseless against it. At the time of the black death, Eurasian people had had a long history of exposure to its germs, and as a result some people had genetic resistance to it. Today, nobody has genetic resistance to Covid, yet.”

You also wrote that the coronavirus could unite the world as the war against Soviet Union united Finland. How could that be possible?

”Almost everybody in Finland was affected by the war. I was surprised, on my most recent visit to Hietaniemi cemetery in 2017, to see fresh flowers on the graves. When I began to chat with a Finnish family visiting a grave and I commented on the flowers, the oldest member of the family, a man of about 40, who probably knew the war through his grandparents, explained to me, ’The flowers are because every Finnish family lost someone then’.”

 ”Covid is the first global crisis in world history that people everywhere in the world are forced to acknowledge as a global crisis.”

”My best-case scenario is that the world will learn from the Covid crisis. The world hasn’t learned from the crises of climate change and unsustainable resource use, because climate change doesn’t kill people within a few days: the consequences of climate change unfold slowly and are often difficult to recognize. But Covid does kill people within a few days, and there is no doubt that someone who has died of Covid has died of it and not died of some other factor.”

”The one-by-one approaches can’t address the world problem. Even if one country succeeds in eliminating Covid within its borders, that country will just get reinfected by Covid cases in other countries. No country will be safe, until the whole world is safe: Covid is a global problem and my best-case scenario is that Covid will mobilize the world to seek global solutions. I also hope that the global success in combating Covid that we are likely to achieve within a year or two, by developing vaccines, will convince people that other global problems such as climate change also require, and can be solved by, global solutions. That would paradoxically be a good outcome of a horrible event.”

A medical worker prepares to take a swab sample from a man to be tested for the COVID-19 coronavirus in Wuhan, Chinas central Hubei province on May 19, 2020.

Finnish and Swedish approach have been very different during this pandemic. Finland closed schools and restaurants, Sweden did not. Was this difference surprising to you?

”Finland and Sweden adopted different approaches, because at the outset nobody knew which approach would work best. When the pandemic was just beginning, a virologist friend of mine suggested the approach of what he termed a ”chicken pox party” — meaning, let all the young people get infected while old people stay home, so that most young people will survive and become immune, and the pandemic will disappear because of herd immunity. Sweden tried that, and it now seems not to be the best approach, but at the outset we didn’t know what would work.”

What are the biggest surprises Finland and its many changes have offered you from 1959 to the present day?

”At the time of my first visit to Finland in 1959, the memories of the winter war were still acute. My hosts were the veterans, widows, and orphans of the war. Finland at that time was not a standard tourist destination for Americans: I felt like a brave adventurer going to your country. Many of your cars then were the notorious Moscovitch: the world’s fastest farm tractor, as my Finnish hosts explained to me! In the countryside outside Helsinki then, few people spoke English, and that motivated motivated me to learn with great pleasure the rudiments of your wonderful language.”

”Today, in contrast, Finland is affluent, you no longer drive the Moscovitch, and people do speak English in the countryside.”

Demonstrators in the streets in Minneapolis during a third day of protests (May 28) following the death of George Floyd.

In Upheaval (2019) you identify four sets of problems with potential for worldwide harm and existential threat to the mankind: the explosions of nuclear weapons, global climate change, global resource depletion and global inequalities of living standards. You also wrote that ”within foreseeable future, the U.S. will experience urban riots”. This was certainly very precise. Do you see these riots as the logical consequence of growing inequalities?

”Even before the George Floyd riots I had experienced two sets of urban riots during my 44 years of living in Los Angeles. I expected more riots, because the conditions leading to those previous urban riots continued to exist. The only question was what would trigger the next riot. The current national US administration of the last three years has of course made those bad trends worse. Fortunately, my city of Los Angeles has a good mayor, and my state of California has a good governor, who have been able to counteract somewhat the deplorable policies of my national government.”

In Upheaval you describe how in 2018 “Finnish police on duty fired only six shots, five of them just warning shots: that’s fewer than an average week of police gunshots in my home city Los Angeles”. What in the development of these two nations contributed to such different results?

”The US differs from Finland in its beliefs, and in many other respects, because of the different geographies and histories of your and my countries. A big influence on the history of the US was our frontier, which was a much more recent phenomenon than your frontier. Europeans settled the US on the East Coast and gradually moved west, so that every scrap of land in the US was initially a frontier. Our frontier wasn’t closed until around 1890. But our frontier was far removed from our national capital on the East Coast, settlers arrived on our frontier before there was effective local government, and so every part of the US began with individuals having to protect and defend themselves. That’s the origin of the devotion of so many Americans to guns today, a mentality that strikes Europeans as insane and that really is dangerously insane, but that is a result of our history. Our police shoot, partly because Americans have had a long history of shooting.”

In Upheaval (2019) you wrote that “current decade of the 2010’s is the one offering the most cause for anxiety” for USA. That, of course, was written before the pandemic and before the death of George Floyd.

”At least in the United States during my lifetime, every decade of my life has seemed to be the most dangerous decade of our history. I was a child during the world war, then I was a teenager during the Cold War, then I was in my 20s during the Cuban missile crisis, then I was in my 30s during the Vietnam war, and each of those crises seemed like the worst thing that we had ever experienced. Hence when I say that the current decade now seems to me the most dangerous decade of my life, I have to remind myself that I have constantly been saying that for all of my life. But even when I remind myself of that, I still think that it’s true: the current decade is indeed the most dangerous decade of American history!

 ”That’s because we face today the real risk of an imminent end of American democracy.”

Already in Upheaval you wrote: ”I foresee one political party in power in the U. S. government or in state governments increasingly manipulating voter registration, stacking courts with sympathetic judges (…) and using the police, the National Guard, the army reserve, or the army itself to suppress political opposition.”

Would you say this risk grew during the 3,5 years of current administration or has it been a logical continuation of what happened before?

”Yes, manipulation of American democracy has grown during the 3.5 years of our current national administration. But it is also a consequence of what happened before: political polarization in United States began in the 1990s, and it has been increasing constantly since then. Without President Trump, it would not be as bad, but it would still be worse than ever and getting worse.”

What are your thoughts about the presidential election, the difference of current and previous administration and the leading candidates?

”The differences between our current and our previous national administration could be summarized simply, as the difference between evil and good. My thoughts about the forthcoming presidential election are that it is uncertain whether it is going to be a free election.”

Joe Biden (b. 1942) and Donald Trump (b. 1946).

 ”The difference between our two candidates is obvious. One is a normal human being. The other is a denier of reality.”

In Upheaval you also determine 12 factors that are related to the outcomes of national crises. How is your current administration dealing with factor 2: Accept responsibility; avoid victimization, self-pity, and blaming others?

”The current national administration in my country has flagrantly failed this outcome predictor. President Trump routinely blames problems of the United States on other countries, especially on China and Mexico and Canada, instead of accepting the responsibility of the United States for being the major cause of its own problems. This is reminiscent of the denial of responsibility of Germany after World War I, for its own role in leading to the disaster of World War I.”

In Upheaval you mention that the book is a narrative exploration, which you hope will stimulate quantitative reading. Have you gone further with quantitative methods and have you found any surprising new info about Finland?

”I haven’t gone further with quantitative methods myself, because I am not computer-literate, and I rely on collaborators for quantitative studies. Yes, on my most recent visit to Finland a couple of years ago I was surprised to learn about the thoroughness and consciousness with which Finland prepares for any danger. That’s an attitude very compatible with my own outlook, because my work in the jungles of New Guinea for the last 56 years has forced me, too, to prepare myself for any danger. I term my attitude “constructive paranoia“ – – that is, I have to think of everything possible that could go wrong, and I prepare for it. That attitude of constructive paranoia is as essential for you Finns, in your geographic situation, as it is for me in the jungles of New Guinea.”

May I ask about your next book?

”My next book is a closely guarded secret whose mystery will be revealed four or five years from now!”

Jared Diamond visited Helsinki in 2017. His first trip to Finland was in 1959.

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