[Marxism] Good article on Jared Diamond
lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Aug 11 13:00:37 MDT 2005
LA Weekly, FEBRUARY 18 - 24, 2005
What Did the Last Easter Islander Say as He Chopped Down the Last Tree?
The best-selling author of Guns, Germs and Steel asks whimsical questions
with grave answers. In his latest book, he turns his attention to the
collapse of civilization.
by JUDITH LEWIS
On a dim January afternoon, under a majestic portrait of a great horned owl
that presides over his Bel Air living room, Jared Diamond has spent the day
studying Italian. His new book, Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail or
Succeed, is burning its way up the best-seller lists. Strings of radio
shows and readings lie ahead of him; television hosts hes never heard of
have requested his presence. But Diamond seems cheerfully unbothered; laid
out on his coffee table are a notebook, a Larousse English-Italian
dictionary and a paperback copy of Sin Non Ora, Cuando? (If Not Now,
When?) by Primo Levi a still life as neat and contemplative as André
Kertészs portrait of Mondrians glasses, ashtray and pipe.
But Diamonds effort to treat everyone so fairly can be somewhat
frustrating to listen to. In response to fears that Collapse might be
depressing, Diamond typically lists his reasons for hope. High on that list
is the power of large, multinational corporations to counter the current
administration by taking it upon themselves to clean up their own global
squalor or at least prevent more from spreading, after disasters such as
the Exxon Valdez wreck taught them that its cheaper to build double-hulled
tankers than to clean up the mess that occurs after a single-hulled tanker
No government is here forever, says Diamond. And there are other forces
the most potent force in our society, in fact, big business doing good
for the environment. Thats what gives me the most hope.
Big business? You mean, like, corporate America?
Yes, Diamond affirms. Twenty years ago you might have been pessimistic
and said theres no hope. But these days, some of our very biggest
companies are acting remarkably cleanly. And in some cases, although not
all cases, the CEOs are the driving forces behind that.
His examples? Ken Derr, former CEO of Chevron, and David OReilly, the
current chairman and CEO of the merged ChevronTexaco. I dont know either
of them personally, but Im told by ChevronTexaco employees that both of
them are personally devoted to the environment. The World Wildlife Fund has
been involved with Chevron for 10 years now. Its been involved with
Unilever and Home Depot, too. Conservation International is involved with
Starbucks. And a few weeks ago, I had dinner with the president and CEO of
Patagonia, who told me his company has made a policy decision not to pollute.
Its true that Patagonias Yvon Chouinard is the president and CEO of an
extremely sustainable company hes also a rock climber, vocal activist
and one of the countrys most outspoken advocates on the environment. This
was true 20 years ago, as it is now, and it seems odd that Diamond should
lump him into a category with the chairman of ChevronTexaco.
Okay, well, yes, one could say that Patagonia is radically
environmentalist, a company thats founded on those principles. But there
are other examples, too, he says. I spoke at a World Wildlife Fund dinner
fund-raiser last October hosted and funded by Starbucks, he tells me,
cheerily. And I sat down next to Starbucks [CEO Orin Smith], who told me
that Starbucks goes to a great effort, and pays twice as much for its
coffee as its competitors do, and is very careful to help coffee producers
in developing countries grow coffee without pesticides and in ways that
preserve forest structure.
I tell him that Starbucks has been under fire for both its labor and
environmental policies, with an aggressive, relentless seven-year campaign
of boycott and exposure led by the Bay Area activists of Global Exchange,
but it doesnt seem to register he nods and smiles, as if its only an
interesting aside. I wonder if Ive missed some recent development, so I
call Valerie Orth, director of the Global Exchanges campaign to get
Starbucks to carry a line of fair trade coffee, which adheres to certain
principles of sustainability and compensates farmers with a fair profit.
Its a constant, constant battle with them, she says. We want them to
carry 5 percent of their inventory in fair trade, they carry 1. We get them
to carry a line of fair-trade coffee for a year, then they drop it, and we
have to pressure them all over again. The campaign is working, though,
says Orth, but not because Global Exchange has set about bridge building,
or working diplomatically within the corporation, as Diamond does for
Chevron when he oversees what he reports as the environmentally sound
Kutubu oil fields in New Guinea. It involves relentless public humiliation.
Global Exchange has had a similar long-running campaign against Nike, with
which Diamond is similarly impressed. When I visited Nike, and asked
whether they were using organic and sustainable cotton, they told me they
were careful not to use too much organic cotton, because they knew that
Patagonia needs to use organic cotton, and they didnt want to drive
Patagonia out of the market.
When I run this by Orth, she laughs out loud. Well, I guess corporations
will say anything and do anything to get out of having to use sustainable
resources and maintain their profits. If Nike started using way more
organic cotton, that would give us the power to organize more farmer
cooperatives growing cotton in better conditions, and it would be better
for everyone. He can tell Nike not to worry if they want more organic
cotton, well help find the people to produce it.
Yet as is so often the case with Diamond, if he misses the particulars, he
remains right about the overarching idea, and this time, Global Exchanges
success feeds directly into Diamonds theory that corporations will change
when the public demands it.
People are not helpless in the face of big business, he insists. Its up
to the public to say what it wants. Only when the public bans single-hulled
oil tankers from American waters, only when the public says no more selling
wood logged from old-growth forests, will companies like Home Depot,
which now carries a line of sustainable wood come up with other solutions.
Sometimes the public has to be motivated by crisis, as when Union Oils
Platform A ruptured off Santa Barbaras coast in 1969, killing thousands of
dolphins and birds the first Earth Day happened the next spring. Diamond
is hoping that one response to the tsunami disaster is that the
international public will demand the restoration of protective mangroves
and coral reefs in Indonesia, Thailand and India, natural barriers that
once would have mitigated the force of the waves.
It may be easier for the Swedes to hear that, he says, having lost
one-tenth of 1 percent of their population. I guarantee you that if wed
lost 200,000 Americans in that disaster, people here would be talking about
mangrove restoration. In either case, the public has to be involved.
But what about the Nigerians who have tried to stand up to their government
and Shell Oil and died for it? Its not to say that its easy, and youre
perfectly correct that some people have much more pull than other people,
he says. But when I say that the public has ultimate responsibility, Im
not saying it in a moral sense. Im just saying it in the sense of what is
it thats really going to bring change.
It may be that the word responsibility is not the most effective word,
because responsibility suggests moral issues, and legal issues. Instead,
what one should ask is the practical question: Whats going to have to
change? Whats it going to take in order to get big business to change? In
the past, big businesses have changed when the public or governments have
changed. And thats what needs to happen.
So how do we get that government to change? I worry that a far-right sliver
of Republicans is consolidating power for future generations, and undoing
all environmental protections along the way. Diamond assures me that Im
now guilty of the same sort of short-term thinking that got us into trouble
in the first place.
This conversation is essentially the same conversation I had when I
visited the Dominican Republic a year ago November, he tells me. Many of
my Dominican friends at that time were very depressed; the government had
been in power for five years and had been turning back the clock on so many
advances. And they were afraid that the Dominican Republic was going to go
downhill faster than Haiti.
But I also remember what one of my Dominican friends said when I asked,
So many of your countrymen are depressed what are you going to do? His
answer was that governments come and go, and some of them are better and
some of them are worse, and in the next election coming up, all the
candidates are better than the current president. And in fact, one of the
opposition candidates was elected, and within a few months the government
was turned around.
Federal elections happen every two years in this country, Diamond
continues. Presidential elections every four years. And four years just
isnt long enough to dismantle all the environmental laws weve got in this
A few weeks after I met him, Diamond did go on Charlie Rose after all. Rose
not only got him to talk about current affairs in the White House, he got
him to give advice to the Bush administration: Dont get into quagmires
like Iraq; invest in international public health and environmental programs
instead. AIDS and malaria and TB are national security issues, he said.
A worldwide program to get a start on dealing with these issues would cost
about $25 billion.
Thats easy, said Rose.
Its, what, a few months in Iraq, Diamond affirmed.
Rose also asked whether Diamond was an optimist or a pessimist. Im
cautiously optimistic, Diamond said, which is exactly what he said to me
(and exactly what he writes in the book). The difference is that Rose,
perhaps as a devils advocate, seemed to be prodding Diamond to explain why
he had so little hope; I was wondering how he justified so much.
Four days after the show, I talked to Diamond over the phone from Oregon,
where he was doing a series of readings. He was elated; the readings were
packed, and people are responding so well to the book its really an
upper, he told me. I asked him how it was that Rose got Diamond to talk
about politics, when he wouldnt talk about them with me.
My understanding was that this show was particularly interested in those
sorts of questions, he said, and so I tried to accommodate that. It went
well. But Id say that of all the interviews Ive done.
He also talked a little bit about the people he was meeting in Oregon
ranchers and farmers much like his friends in Montana. They know that what
made their land valuable in the first place, the beauty of the landscape,
is what they risk if they sell it off to developers when they retire. But
no other farmer or rancher can afford the land only the developer can
and they want to retire, to pay off their childrens college loans, to live
comfortably for the rest of their lives.
Its the same miraculous equanimity with which Diamond evaluates everyone
he meets from corporate CEOs to the New Guinean tribesman who left a job
with Diamond so he could return home and eat his son-in-law. (That was
Hirobe, Diamond told me, one of my best workers.) While some
anthropologists have refused to acknowledge the existence of cannibalism in
New Guinean cultures, Diamond refuses to acknowledge that cannibalism is
the worst of all human crimes.
There are New Guineans, he writes in Collapse, who would consider us coarse
for not doing our relatives the honor of eating them.
Its that good-natured relativism that makes his books at once so maddening
and yet so necessary; its also what makes talking to him so perplexing:
Diamond sees the best in so many people, its almost impossible not to like
him. But sometimes you want him unequivocally on your side. Sometimes he
makes you want to stand up and scream: Dont you realize these people are
With the stories of oil companies and Montana ranchers and impoverished
Haitians, Diamond wants us to understand first of all that saving the
planet is hard work, and second, we do ourselves no service by being too smug.
I dont want people to be able to say, Oh, how could those Easter
Islanders be so stupid, to cut down all their trees? We Americans would
never be so stupid.
Instead, he wants us to see that in many ways, we face the same challenges
as the Easter Islanders, and were making some of the same bad decisions.
In Montana one summer, Diamond took one of his sons to the movies. The
movie theater was stuck out in the middle of the hay fields, he remembers,
because there are no zoning regulations, and some farmer cashed out to the
I understood why he did it. And I understand that it would be hard not to
do the same. But unfortunately, if lots of farmers do that, then Montana
has lost what generates its value the beautiful landscape.
So thats an argument for stricter zoning laws, I offer. Or protected
wilderness. Or what?
Ultimately its an argument for people themselves learning how to balance
profit with an environment that keeps them happy and keeps them rich.
But will we?
Diamond cant say for sure, but he wouldnt keep working if he didnt
believe it was possible; its the whole reason, he says, for writing books.
I just hope someone like Dick Cheney reads Collapse, I tell him.
Yes, he says with a smile, as if the idea werent at all far-fetched. I
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