On his second visit to UCSB, best-selling author Jared Diamond gave a lecture based on his new book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, to a packed Campbell Hall on Thursday night.
Diamond, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, spoke about what he said are the defining factors that lead societies to collapse. Diamond also talked about what people living today can learn from the fates of previous societies.
Diamond said people have misconceptions about why societies fall and what precedes their decline. One common error in thought, he said, is that societies can see their downfalls coming. He said the current global warming situation is an example of how societies cannot predict how unprecedented situations will affect their futures.
Civilizations need to address current environmental situations by learning from the past, Diamond said. He said historical catastrophes, such as the deforestation of Easter Island, should serve as a map of what not to do in the future.
“We had better take our environmental problems seriously,” Diamond said. “You’d better believe that we can damage our environment faster than the people of Easter Island did.”
Diamond also said that people today often blame big businesses for harming the earth, but big business can actually help the environment and societies, too.
“Many of us think of big business as one of the main destructors of the modern world,” he said. “We think they are only concerned with the bottom line.”
Diamond also said individuals can take certain steps to keep big businesses in check.
“If you, as a consumer, want to change the behavior of big business, educate yourself,” he said. “Ultimately, the voters control big business.”
In addition to voting, Diamond said individuals can buy selectively from trusted businesses and give money to admirable organizations.
People residing in the “gated communities” of society where they cannot see what is happening to everyone else is one of the biggest factors that hinders solving major historical and contemporary problems, he said.
“What we have seen in the last decade is the increasing insulation of the elite from the consequences of their actions,” Diamond said. “It is a blueprint for trouble if the elite are insulated.”
Despite his views of the problems in society, Diamond said he considers himself a “cautious optimist.” He said current societies enjoy one important technological aspect that keeps the world together: communication.
“We are the first society in world history with the possibility to learn from the successes and failures of other societies through technology,” Diamond said.
But he also warned that, even though the world is connected in an unprecedented way by technology, it cannot be relied upon to prevent future catastrophes.
“Technology is morally neutral – don’t look toward technology [to solve problems],” he said.
Sharon Okonek, a Santa Barbara resident who attended the lecture, said she thought the subject of lecture was fascinating, but that she did not agree with Diamond’s measure of a civilization’s success.
“He only based the success of societies on their longevity rather than the quality of life,” she said.
Okonek also said she wanted Diamond to elaborate more on the historical causes of societal collapse.
“It is absolutely imperative that we look to history because its correlation to the present is so obvious,” she said.
In contrast, UCSB alumnus Shine Ling said he thought Diamond was an eclectic person and a great speaker.
“It is important that he pointed out the problems …” he said. “He is only shining the light on what the real issues are.”
Diamond is a geography and environmental health science professor at UCLA and has published seven books and over 500 technical articles. He was trained in laboratory biological sciences at Harvard College, the University of Cambridge and the Max-Planck Institute for Biochemistry in Munich, Germany. In addition to his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Diamond has also won several other awards, including the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, the National Medal of Science and election to the National Academy of Sciences.