Polished Diamond

Peter Sellars is the theater and opera director who greets complete strangers with a hug and wears bright-blue shirts to stuffy conferences full of men in gray suits; Jared Diamond is the Amish-bearded author of unlikely best-sellers like Collapse: Why Societies Choose To Succeed or Fail, in which he leavens dire predictions of doom with a loopy kind of hope rooted in the premise that CEOs are people too. I have come to see them, as well as Australian climate scientist John Merson and Berkeley water expert Peter Gleick, at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. And because I have interviewed Diamond, and been hugged by Sellars on the odd occasion when I have managed to buttonhole him after this or that event — and because I was so angered by the museum’s anemic reduction of Diamond’s book in its current exhibit, “Collapse?” (diplomatic, conservative-sponsor- friendly emphasis on that question mark, please!) — I am hoping for some Celebrity Death Match–style action here. Maybe a small squabble over Sellars’ apparent belief that terrorism happens when power is deaf to suffering; or perhaps the intellectual equivalent of plasticine eyeball gouging over what Diamond calls “cautious optimism” — his faith in corporations to see the light and save the world even as so many oil giants cloud over the climate-change talks at the U.N. conference in Montreal. And though Sellars has arrived from Caracas just hours before, and is wearing a relatively muted green-and-black shirt, he starts off the evening with promise.

“We live in an age where we’re inundated with nonsensical detail by a media controlled by special interests,” he begins. “America is exhausted with having to know things — it’s kind of more relaxing to make things up.” We laugh.

Diamond goes next, with a statement about how his “cautious optimism” was bolstered by America’s response to Hurricane Katrina, but reminds us that ecologies, from the fisheries of the Pacific to the agricultural tracts of the Central Valley, are still headed for collapse. “Our problems” — salt-soiled farmland, “cheap energy,” economic disparity — “are a microcosm of the world’s problems,” he says. We ought to look at them “not as a cause for pessimism,” but as challenges we can face thoughtfully. “Societies have solved these problems in the past without archaeologists, without historians, without the media.”

Gleick then describes a world in which

1 billion people have no access to clean drinking water. Merson explains the ironic phenomenon of sluggish ocean currents — a side effect of the dissolving ice cap that will one day turn Europe to ice — and the massive extinctions that will follow.

“Jared,” Sellars then says, “I’m obsessed with your use of the word cheap. I’m wondering if you’d each give a brief meditation on the word cheap

Merson decries short-term thinking; Gleick remarks that it was cheap oil that gave us global warming. But Diamond interprets Sellars’ statement as a chance

to condemn the tendency to see a tradeoff between environmental and economic concerns (improved air quality has saved 150,000 lives, which would have cost the country $1 trillion).

“There’s an idea out there that you have to balance economic concerns against the environment. That’s a stupid idea,” he spits, “that gets it upside down.”

Nothing to argue with there. But then Sellars asks the men to expound on the meaning of the “first” and “third” worlds, and explain how it is that a wall can exist between them. Could it be that he is irked by Diamond’s consistent use of “first and third” instead of “developed and developing” world? I can’t tell, really; I’m just thinking, maybe . . .

But no. “You’ve expressed it very well,” Diamond allows. “You can’t build a wall.”

By this point, it’s clear that no metaphorical claymation heads will be rattling across the floor. It’s not simply because Sellars is moderating, not participating, nor is it because he’s weary from his flight. It’s that Jared Diamond — how could I have forgotten? — is a kung fu master. You cannot insult him. He will not fight.

As audience members line up with questions, I feel the same brooding frustration I experienced when I interviewed Diamond a year and a half ago and first heard that old canard he shares again tonight about the Chevron oil fields in New Guinea being better managed “than any national park in the world.” A young man approaches the microphone and demands to know what proof we have that human-generated carbon is causing climate change.

“That’s an excellent question,” Gleick says, and then explains how we have drilled down through the frozen Antarctic and measured the carbon in the atmosphere by its content in the soil. It’s higher now than it has been in 650,000 years.

Why aren’t we screaming from the tops of buildings? Shutting down government offices? Blockading the freeways with our bodies?

Finally, near the end of the session, a man steps up to the microphone, dark-haired and dark-eyed, with an Italian accent. He seems agitated; I lean forward to hear him better.

“We have forgotten,” he begins, “that there was a broad anti-globalization movement that was stopped dead by 9/11, and now there is nothing. There are no protests; no scientist is putting his job on the line. And it seems to me that you as scientists are prevented from making radical, political choices. But you should, because you can protest at a much higher level; you hold the key of expert knowledge. Shouldn’t you be there at the U.N. right now?”

There is a beat. I wait for the mood to shift. Gleick jumps in to acknowledge that it’s hard for scientists to dive into politics. “I wasn’t trained that way.” But he also suggests it’s possible to exert political influence. His example: Jared Diamond.

Outside the auditorium, I track down the Italian man. His name is Claudio Fogu. He teaches in the French and Italian department at the University of California at Santa Barbara. “It drives me nuts that these guys won’t take a stand,” I tell him.

“But we are at a juncture in history when they have to,” he says. “Einstein did it; he endorsed peace at a very difficult time. He knew that when you’ve captured the audience, you need to step up to the plate. Scientists need to do something symbolic. They cannot keep coming back to cautious optimism.”

“Is it possible you can get Diamond to hear any of this?” I wonder.

“Maybe,” Fogu says. “He is learning Italian.”

To read Judith Lewis' story on Collapse author Jared Diamond, click here.