[Marxism] Good article on Jared Diamond

Louis Proyect 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.

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 he’s 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 
Kertész’s portrait of Mondrian’s glasses, ashtray and pipe.


But Diamond’s 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 it’s cheaper to build double-hulled 
tankers than to clean up the mess that occurs after a single-hulled tanker 
runs aground.

“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. That’s 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 there’s 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 O’Reilly, the 
current chairman and CEO of the merged ChevronTexaco. “I don’t know either 
of them personally, but I’m 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. It’s 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.”

It’s true that Patagonia’s Yvon Chouinard is the president and CEO of an 
extremely sustainable company — he’s also a rock climber, vocal activist 
and one of the country’s 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 that’s 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 doesn’t seem to register — he nods and smiles, as if it’s only an 
interesting aside. I wonder if I’ve missed some recent development, so I 
call Valerie Orth, director of the Global Exchange’s 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.

“It’s 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 didn’t 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, we’ll 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 Exchange’s 
success feeds directly into Diamond’s theory that corporations will change 
when the public demands it.

“People are not helpless in the face of big business,” he insists. “It’s 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 Oil’s 
Platform A ruptured off Santa Barbara’s 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 we’d 
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? “It’s not to say that it’s easy, and you’re 
perfectly correct that some people have much more pull than other people,” 
he says. “But when I say that the public has ultimate responsibility, I’m 
not saying it in a moral sense. I’m just saying it in the sense of what is 
it that’s 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: What’s going to have to 
change? What’s 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 that’s 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 I’m 
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 
isn’t long enough to dismantle all the environmental laws we’ve 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: Don’t 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.”

“That’s easy,” said Rose.

“It’s, what, a few months in Iraq,” Diamond affirmed.

Rose also asked whether Diamond was an optimist or a pessimist. “I’m 
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 devil’s 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 — it’s really an 
upper,” he told me. I asked him how it was that Rose got Diamond to talk 
about politics, when he wouldn’t 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 I’d say that of all the interviews I’ve 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 children’s college loans, to live 
comfortably for the rest of their lives.”

It’s 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.”

It’s that good-natured relativism that makes his books at once so maddening 
and yet so necessary; it’s also what makes talking to him so perplexing: 
Diamond sees the best in so many people, it’s 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: Don’t 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 don’t 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 we’re 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 
movie-theater company.

“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 that’s an argument for stricter zoning laws, I offer. Or protected 
wilderness. Or — what?

“Ultimately it’s 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 can’t say for sure, but he wouldn’t keep working if he didn’t 
believe it was possible; it’s 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 weren’t at all far-fetched. “I 
do, too.”

full: http://www.laweekly.com/ink/05/13/features-lewis.php



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