Jared Diamond (2013) The World Until Yesterday

UCLA geography professor Jared Diamond’s latest book compares more than three dozen so-called traditional societies to those in the developed world. Diamond uses the term traditional societies for those that exist in contemporary times and haven’t been affected too much by modern societies.

His text is based on nearly five decades of his own fieldwork and that of many others. He observes that it was largely unheard of in traditional societies for anyone to travel more than a few dozen miles from home for fear of being killed or otherwise harmed for trespassing on the neighboring society’s land.

Diamond points several times to various scales of traditional societies (which he labels with the generally-accepted terms of bands, tribes, or chiefdoms) that had dominated the world until about 5,000-6,000 years ago. About that time, development of agriculture and the resulting growing populations slowly led to the formation of states and their associated governments, and to dramatic eventual changes in how we live. He also notes that we Homo sapiens has existed for about 60,000-100,000 years (and for hundreds of thousands of years prior to that there were earlier forms of humanoids).

Humans were ignorant of all the basics of the geography of the globe until the past 600 years or so. Extensive information now readily accessible to the general public, such as satellite images, documenting the rapid global spread of air and water contaminants has been available for only the past decade or so (a nanoblink in our timeline). Our global population has skyrocketed to more than seven-billion, a total vastly exceeding historic numbers. As recently as 1950 world population was less than half that, about 2.5-billion. In 1800 there were about one-billion of us; in 500 B.C. about 100-million; and in 10,000 B.C. between one-million and ten-million (so a relatively steady state for 100,000 years or so, then exponential growth in the past few centuries).

A far higher percentage of the world’s people than even a century ago now live in urban or urbanizing settings. And our collective behavior suggests that those of us in such settings generally conclude, based on what we can detect with our five senses, that we are largely buffered from many natural forces via the tools, technologies, and improvements of modern society. That perception seems to lead many to conclude they can readily overcome any natural threats that occasionally occur. It is reasonable to conclude that humans for most of our time on earth have had no way to comprehend our impacts on the rest of the planet: For eons, no one even knew how big the planet was, much less envisioned having a direct impact on far-off spaces (i.e. more than 30-40 miles away). People still find it hard to accept that humans can now, collectively, alter the planet via climate change, large-scale pollution, invasive species, or in other ways.

On the plus side, we know that, as part of our embedded biological heritage, we are blessed with the ability to learn, and quickly, especially if perceived benefits of an action outweigh identifiable costs. Diamond presents enough evidence to suggest that personality types very similar to those of today (extrovert, introvert, independent, joiner, leader, follower, etc.) and historical societal and economic structures (albeit at a much smaller scale than is common today) have been around for at least tens of thousands of years, and maybe longer.

Those personality and societal forces seem to play a dominant role in how we humans behave today — especially when shaped by direct, quickly observable tangible drivers such as satisfying hunger and thirst, finding shelter, avoiding physical harm from other people or the environment, and surviving by interacting in locally acceptable ways. But if and when natural forces strike back hard and regularly, and dominate our perceived technology-based invulnerability, people could conceivably pay attention and respond accordingly and rely on the combined forces of our individual personality traits, local societal structures, ability to learn, and long-term biological heritage of coping with obvious nearby natural threats.

Diamond’s new work, when meshed with that of others, helps us better understand how these current combinations of factors make it so challenging to inform the broad public about seemingly intangible climate change risks many don’t yet see harming them regularly and directly. It’s not an entirely new idea it helps us conceptualize the possible underpinnings of climate change communications issues in a more definitive way.

Among Diamond’s other thought-provoking books on such issues are Collapse (2011) and Guns, Germs, and Steel (1999). In each he looks at the evolution of many of the globe’s societies, including climate and other significant local environmental drivers.

AUTHOR Freelance journalist Bob Weinhold has written extensively for publications ranging from local newspapers to international peer-reviewed journals

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: