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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.

Thursday, Feb 17 2005
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Diamond, born in 1937, learned to write and play the piano from his mother, Flora, a schoolteacher and a linguist. His father, Louis, who died in 1999 at the age of 97 (Flora died the year before him), had been one of the world’s most renowned pediatricians, inventing the exchange transfusion method of treating Rh incompatibility between mother and child. “He just missed discovering Rh incompatibility itself,” Diamond says, “but what he did do saved tens of thousands of lives.” Initially, Diamond followed his father into the medical profession, earning a Ph.D. in physiology from Cambridge after undergrad studies at Harvard, and writing papers such as “The Ultrastructural Route of Fluid Transport in the Rabbit Gall Bladder,” which, according to some of his colleagues, contributed significantly to the understanding of human gall bladders. But he spent his summer vacations doing other things: studying bird behavior, writing weird but delightful papers in science journals and, especially, watching birds in New Guinea. “That started in 1964,” he says, “right when I started getting serious about bird watching. I’d spent a summer in the Amazon with an ecologist friend, mostly mountain climbing, but at the end of the trip, we devoted our time to bird watching in the jungle. It was my first experience in a rainforest, and at the end of the trip my friend John and I asked ourselves: What would be the wildest, most remote place in the world with interesting birds?” Fortunately for the two young Harvard science students, the world’s expert on New Guinea birds, evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr, was teaching ornithology at Harvard. (Mayr died last week at the age of 100.) “He gave us advice about New Guinea birds. And John and I went down, and we just loved it.” He continued on in that vein for 20 years, securing a professorship at UCLA in 1966, spending his summer vacations bird watching in New Guinea and pursuing theories in evolutionary biology. In the 1970s, he conducted a pivotal study on the assembly rules of bird species credited with changing the direction of ornithology, and he served with the World Wildlife Fund as a consultant on rainforest management and Indonesian wildlife refuges. He was so trusted in his field that when, on a 1981 expedition to western New Guinea, he spotted the yellow-fronted gardener bowerbird (until then believed to be extinct) in the throes of a complicated mating dance, his sighting was immediately accepted into the official record, despite his losing all his evidence — and nearly his life — in a boat wreck off New Guinea’s coast. Then, in 1985, his life changed. Diamond was 47, married for just a few years, and still without children or a full-fledged book, when a representative of the MacArthur Foundation called him out of the blue to offer him a “genius grant” for the next 10 years to lighten his financial burden, no strings attached. Suddenly, he’d been ushered into the ranks of choreographer Merce Cunningham and poet John Ashbery — two of his fellow recipients that year. “My immediate reaction was to get seriously, surprisingly depressed,” he admits. “With the MacArthur grant, I realized that people have high expectations of me, that they were placing me in this group of achievers. I compared what I’d actually achieved in my life with what I would like to achieve and what other people have achieved, and I found that comparison depressing.” But before long — a week, maybe — he allowed himself to set aside other people’s ideas of him and get down to the work that he loves. “I decided that now is the time to start doing the things that really interest me and I find important,” he says. “It was in the 10 years of the MacArthur grant that I began working on my first book, The Third Chimpanzee, and I began putting more work into environmental history.” The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal reads like the work of a writer and thinker who’s been storing up all sorts of fascinating ideas for decades and is thrilled to finally have a chance to knit them all together in one comprehensive package. Compared to Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse, it’s something of a hodgepodge of ideas about what it means to be that odd creature 1.6 percent genetically different from a chimp, capable of language, art and architecture, but also prone to destroying its ecosystem and killing itself off with drug, drink and war. It’s also somewhat despairing: The book introduces the saga of the Easter Islanders and takes a dim view of human nature; you come away from it feeling that we couldn’t stop war if we wanted to. Diamond had not yet dedicated himself to hope and persuasion, the kinds of things that allow readers to stand up under reams of bad news. Collapse is a much different book, written by a man with a much different agenda: Frankly, Diamond wants Collapse to change the world. I ask him whether he thinks it’s possible to do that with a book. He answers without a beat. “Yes, of course. Guns, Germs and Steel has already had some success in that regard. I’m always meeting people, and people are coming up to me, saying things like ‘Guns, Germs and Steel has changed my life, or changed the way I look at life.’ It’s coming out soon on television, and it’s already assigned reading not just in colleges but in lots of high schools — my sons are in a school where it was assigned in the seventh grade.” It’s also been translated into 25 languages, “so its impact is not just in the United States. It has changed the way people look at so-called ethnic and racial issues all over the world.” Realizing that this might sound self-aggrandizing, Diamond quickly adds, “It’s not testimony to me, but testimony to the interest in the material. And to all the scientists upon whose work I’ve drawn on and portrayed in the book.” Before I met Diamond, I made the mistake of thinking I could get him talking about politics. Although President Bush is mentioned only once in Collapse, in reference to his willful ignorance on global warming, the book is an implicit indictment of the administration’s folly on everything from Iraq (false analogies have led many countries astray) to social hierarchy (cultures with an insulated elite, the stories show, never notice their resources are dwindling until it’s too late). One story in particular from the book, involving three tiny islands in the South Pacific where the combined populations thrived for 600 years in symbiotic harmony, seemed to work as a metaphor for this country’s obdurate unilateralism. As Diamond tells it, the largest of those islands, Mangareva, had trees for canoe making and oysters for fishhooks; the next, Pitcairn, had obsidian for knives; and the least, Henderson, supported so many birds that a hundred people could each have eaten one a day forever without wiping out the colony. In canoes made of Mangareva’s trees, the islanders traveled and intermarried and traded goods, until one day the canoes from Mangareva stopped coming. Pitcairn’s food supplies dwindled, Henderson ran out of fishhooks, and Mangareva descended into civil war. By the time Fletcher Christian’s Bounty mutineers took refuge in the early 18th century, Pitcairn, like Henderson, was deserted. In his sometimes sanguinary imagination, Diamond spares the Pitcairn and Henderson islanders no suffering — he envisions them dying by mass suicide, mass murder, slow starvation or, at best, an unbearable incidence of genetic disease. And he warns that a similar fate may await modern Americans. “Lest those islands still seem to you too remote in space and time to be relevant to our modern societies,” he writes, “just think about the risks (as well as benefits) of our increasing globalization and increasing worldwide economic interdependence.” But this is also the man who until recently, according to Ernest Wright, wouldn’t tell his closest friends which presidential candidate he voted for. When I pressure Diamond to blame the Bush administration for our increasing isolation, he gently refuses, on the grounds that he doesn’t want to alienate the people who could most benefit from his book. “I’ve worked very hard in this book to keep the lines of communication open,” he says. “I don’t want to turn someone away from this information for partisan political reasons.” “Jared has very private opinions on politics,” says Wright. “There are obvious political implications to everything he’s writing about these days, but he knows that if your audience will not listen to you, there’s no point in talking to them. His expertise is as a communicator; he loves to communicate. And he’s very aware of what that takes.” To that end, Collapse deliberately speaks to the people most caught between the hard extremes of commerce and environmentalism, the Montana ranch owner who holds dear his right to make a living off the land he owns, the oil-field manager bound to observe strict environmental controls at the same time his company’s shareholders demand that he turn a profit — indeed, in some ways, the modern cousins of the last Easter Islander who chopped down the last tree, perhaps for nothing more grand than to put a roof over his family’s head. The first part of Collapse includes three first-person accounts from Diamond’s friends in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley, where he and his family have spent many summers, explaining how difficult it is to balance environmental responsibility with their pocketbooks. 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 country.” 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 wrong? 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.”

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Reach the writer at judith.lewis@laweekly.com

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