Many readers will turn [...] to Jared Diamond’s new book Upheaval: How Nations Cope with Crisis and Change in the hope that it might ease our anxieties by showing us how countries have successfully navigated major upheavals in the past. Diamond promises to do so by asking if the ways in which individuals learn to cope with personal trauma can be applied to nations as well. The stark conclusion that emerges from his book, however, is that while individuals often learn from crisis, countries seldom do... Diamond closes Upheaval with the reflection that we have the option of learning from history if we so choose. Rather than easing our anxieties over the current global malaise, however, Diamond’s book serves as a warning that a return of the ghosts of history can be a very real consequence of our collective refusal to learn.
Diamond writes so well, and his frame of reference (across disciplines and languages) is so considerable, that almost everything he describes comes across as fresh. The chapter on Chile is one of the best things I have read on the country. Diamond absorbs the legitimate points of all sides, details the horrors of the Pinochet era, but is confident enough to describe which policies of that period have led Chile to become the comparative success story it is today. In an era in which history keeps being written as though it is politics by other means, it is a relief to read somebody weighing up situations so judiciously and honestly.
Brexit could either be seen as the response to a 21st-century crisis in British identity or the cause of a crisis of its own making (Remainers would argue things were perfectly fine until we turned Japanese and rejected Europe). Either way, Diamond provides food for thought. Suspending our own happiness or dread at the 2016 referendum result, the author would doubtless advise us to be honest about our position vis-à-vis the EU, for Britain is a rich country, yes, but just one; they are 27... Diamond warns us that one of the biggest roadblocks to resolving any crisis is partisanship, which is particularly acute in Donald Trump’s America. An argument can reach a stage in which neither side can move towards each other and nor can they run away. It’s the classic recipe for civil conflict. Perhaps Diamond’s book is a bit too rational and too keen to wrap things up in “lessons learned”, but this point is very worth considering: it is better to swallow one’s pride than set fire to the world. The national path to greatness requires, ironically, a small dash of humility.
Jared Diamond has won renown as a polymath of incredible versatility: a biologist, geographer, linguist and historian. While his environmental approach to big-picture history is suggestive of cool, white-lab-coated detachment, Diamond also wears the mantle of a modern day prophet. Only the most obtuse reader of his latest book, on national resilience, could miss the signs and portents with which it is studded... The prophet spares us chiselled commandments, but we have been warned.
In stressing the constraints that geography imposes on societies, Diamond is not advancing any kind of determinism – quite the contrary. He believes that we can learn from the geopolitical conflicts of the past how to handle those of the future in different and better ways. In Upheaval, using historical evidence and his own experiences, he examines the coping strategies individuals deploy to resolve crises in their lives and so illuminates how nations confront and overcome critical problems... No one who reads this ambitious study with an open mind can fail to learn something of interest and importance... Whether Diamond’s coping strategies can be useful in dealing with national and international crises is questionable. Certainly, history contains patterns, but accidental events can change everything... ‘Nations, as individuals, may initially ignore, deny, or underestimate a problem, until that denial phase is ended by an external event,’ Diamond writes. As he points out, denial of mounting problems is a deep-seated human trait. Except in totalitarian and authoritarian states, however, leading Western institutions of learning have not until recent times prioritised ideological conformity over intellectual rigour. If there is a remedy for this state of affairs, it is nowhere to be found in Diamond’s book.
Diamond begins with a self-indulgent discussion of emotional crises, peppered with anecdotes about his travails. He then segues into crisis therapy, borrowing heavily from his wife, Marie, a clinical psychologist... Diamond’s little stories are occasionally fascinating... Missing from these stories, however, is a clear evaluation of their relevance and wider applicability. Diamond also blithely ignores contradiction... No one has ever accused Diamond of being humble. Upheaval, he boasts, “is a book expected to remain in print for many decades”. He likes to think he’s a pioneer. “This book has been an initial step in a program of comparative studies of national crises.” That’s cobblers. Upheaval is neither illuminating nor groundbreaking. Diligent scholars, including Paul Kennedy, Daron Acemoglu and Francis Fukuyama, have been ploughing this furrow for years. After reading this book, I now understand why Diamond sometimes needs a bodyguard.
However, let us begin with its strengths. The first is something I initially thought a weakness. Diamond argues that personal crises, the kind grappled with by psychotherapists — the breakdown of relationships, bereavement, family and work traumas — are not so different from political crises. It sounds a little glib, but this conceit turns out to work surprisingly well... Yet too many of the examples, which tend to have come from Diamond’s own life story, don’t hang together tautly enough to provide a satisfying overall thesis. The story of Indonesia coming together as a country after a communist insurgency, and the bleak tale of the 1973 coup against Salvador Allende in Chile, have only vestigial, rather obvious lessons for the rest of the world.