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Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis

By: Jared Diamond

512 pages

Format: Audiobook w/ physical copy for reference

Rating: B+

Who should read this book?

If you want a new framework for thinking about current problems in the US and the World, you should read this book.

Also, this book is going to be part of the “conversation” for a while and if you want to be part of that you should read this book.

Representative passage:

I agree that these concerns cannot be lightly dismissed. On the one hand, throughout my life, in each decade there have been reasons to consider that particular decade as posing the toughest problems that we Americans have ever faced — whether it was the 1940’s with World War Two against Japan and Nazi Germany, the 1950’s with the Cold War, the 1960’s with the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War that lacerated American society, and so on. But even when I tell myself that we should be suspicious because every decade has seemed at the time to be the one offering the most cause for anxiety, I still have to agree: the current decade of the 2010’s really is the one offering the most cause for anxiety.

Thoughts

The structure of Upheaval is very simple. When individuals are in crisis there are a set of a dozen or so factors that determine whether or not they will weather that crisis. Diamond takes these factors and applies them to nations in crisis. He does this first by using them as a lens through which to view past crises in Finland, Japan, Chile, Indonesia, Germany and Australia. Then he moves on to applying the factors to crises he feels are currently underway.

The first question one has on encountering this structure is, “Does that even work?” Or more formally, “Can you profitably apply something designed to treat individuals in crisis to nations in crisis?” As you might imagine the answer to that question is unclear, and many people have dismissed the book because of that. The current top review on Amazon gives the book two stars and describes the problem pretty well:

I found Upheaval to be largely an exercise in loose analogies and long narratives with few testable hypotheses. While pleasant reading it is not the epochal work the author intended.

I agree with basically everything the reviewer says, but as you’ve already seen, my rating is much higher, and it all has to do with that word “epochal”. Arguably Diamond’s best known book, Guns, Germs and Steel was epochal, and expecting the same thing out of Upheaval isn’t entirely unwarranted, but it does seem like a pretty high bar. In contrast. I prefer the word I used earlier when framing the question, “profitably”. Yes, I agree that this structure is not epochal, but is adding it to our chest of tools for discussing the health of nations a net positive? That is are we better of using it than not?

As I’ve said there are valid criticisms to be made. The evidence is almost entirely anecdotal, it appears unfalsifiable (he offered no example of a nation who failed at the crisis point because they ignored the factors), the data set is very small, etc. And despite all of these weaknesses I would say that, yes, we are better of using it than not. If there was some theory of national crisis and decline which lacked one or more of these weaknesses I would gladly switch to it, but as far as I can tell there isn’t. This is not to say there aren’t other theories of national crises and decline, but I’m unaware of any that do better on these measures, and most do a lot worse.

Of course, even if we decide that it’s worthwhile to use Diamond’s list of factors, we still might not agree that there’s any nation in crisis for us to use them on. Earlier in the Representative Passage section I quote Diamond as saying, “I still have to agree: the current decade of the 2010’s really is the one offering the most cause for anxiety.” But there are definitely people who disagree with that. (In fact I’m not sure I agree with it. At this point I’m far more anxious about the 2020’s.) Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now, which I’ve frequently mentioned in this space makes nearly the exact opposite argument, that things are better than they’ve ever been, and he makes this argument about not only the US but the whole world. Precisely two of the places Diamond identifies as definitely in crisis. Which takes us to the second argument Diamond is making, that there are numerous current and developing crises where his methodology can profitably be applied. As someone who has done a lot of this myself I’m at least as interested in seeing what Diamond identifies as crises as I am in his methodology for dealing with them. Additionally, it’s helpful to have some examples in mind before going through his list of factors. So let’s start with the various crises Diamond has identified, beginning in the US:

First, and in Diamond’s opinion, “the most ominous” current crisis is the decline of political compromise and civility. I would agree that this is definitely one of the more worrying trends, though I disagree that the 2010’s are objectively worse than the late 60’s/early 70’s. That said, I definitely don’t like the way things are headed. In other words, I basically agree with Diamond and my sense is that we’re far from alone in worrying about this. Though you might wonder what kind of counter argument exists. I checked my copy of Enlightenment Now to see what Pinker had to say, and there wasn’t much. He did talk about the divisions between right and left. And seemed to indicate that greater reliance on reason and superforecasting were the answer, but I don’t see much to indicate that there’s a broad-based trend in this direction, or that divisiveness isn’t as bad as people think. All of which is to say, I feel pretty confident that Diamond has identified an actual crisis which appears set to only get worse.

The other three US crises are not quite as compelling (which Diamond himself admits). The second potential crisis is voting, particularly the US’s very low voter turnout. Here I am less inclined to think this is a crisis, and if it is, then it’s probably related to the first crisis and shouldn’t be considered separately. The third potential crisis is socioeconomic inequality, here I’m more sympathetic, but I also admit there are several important caveats. To begin with, whatever worries this should engender, they’re going to be operating on a much longer time horizon than the issue of declining political compromise. Also this is something Pinker speaks to fairly extensively in Enlightenment Now, putting together a pretty convincing argument that inequality is not as big of a concern as most people think. I’m not sure I agree, but it at least appears to be something where there are compelling arguments on both sides. Diamond’s fourth issue is the decline of overall social capital. That the nation as a whole is becoming less cohesive, this once again appears closely related to the first issue, and doesn’t require a lot of additional commentary.

I’ll be honest, the US crises Diamond comes up with are a little underwhelming. Not only are they all fairly similar, but I think Diamond overlooks several other potential crises related to advances in technology. This is not to say that the things listed by Diamond aren’t genuinely concerning issues, just that I’m not sure they have the same heft as the past crises he profiled, for example Germany recovering from World War II or Finland staying independent from the Soviet Union when a dozen other nations were unable to. But from a discussion of US crises he turns to crises facing the world, and given that the US is still the most powerful country in the world, a crisis for the world is essentially also a crisis for the United State. He comes up with another four crises that are world wide. And again, seeing what he identifies as a crisis is at least as interesting as his explanation for how to deal with them.

The first worldwide crisis he identifies is the possibility of nuclear weapons being detonated in anger. Here we’re definitely on the same page, as you may remember I did a post on this very thing not that long ago.

To the surprise of absolutely no one, he then moves on to a discussion of climate change. Out of all the crises he mentions this seems to clearly be the most intractable, and the one where novel ways of thinking are most needed. We’ll see in a moment whether Diamond ends up providing that novelty when we arrive at his list of factors

Third on his list of worldwide crises is global resource depletion. For a counter argument to this we don’t even have to turn to someone like Pinker, things like the Simon-Ehrlich Wager provide a ready made retort to the idea that this is a crisis, let alone an acute one. Tying this into the last point, I think most people are far more worried about the CO2 created by fossil fuels than the idea that we might run out of them. Certainly all of this could be a problem, and maybe even one which can be dealt with by nations acting in concert, but there’s a lot of evidence that even if it is, it’s not our biggest problem.

Finally he brings up global inequalities in living standards. I don’t think anyone denies that inequalities exist and are extreme. The question is, does extreme inequality equal extreme harm? And if it does, how do you solve it without making the previous two problems worse? Resource consumption and carbon emissions by people in developed nations are at least an order of magnitude worse than those in less developed nations. It’s hard to see how you reduce inequality without increasing both emissions and resource usage.

You can probably see where the US is a major actor in all of these crises. Putting all of them together we have eight example crises where we can apply Diamond’s factors and see where they take us. I do not intend to offer 96 separate observations, particularly since most of the factors end up working out similarly regardless of the crisis. Also I am assuming that somewhere in that list of eight is something you are genuinely concerned about. And I would ask you to keep that in mind as we go through Diamond’s 12 “Factors related to the outcomes of national crises”:

  1. National consensus that one’s nation is in crisis
  2. Acceptance of national responsibility to do something
  3. Building a fence, to delineate the national problems needing to be solved
  4. Getting material and financial help from other nations
  5. Using other nations as models of how to solve the problems
  6. National identity
  7. Honest national self-appraisal
  8. Historical experience of previous national crises
  9. Dealing with national failure
  10. Situation specific national flexibility
  11. National core values
  12. Freedom from geopolitical constraints

To remind you of what I said in the beginning, we have to take it somewhat on faith that Diamond has not only correctly translated these factors from the personal to the national, but that they maintain similar utility when expanded to this level as well. But, once we do, each of them provides an interesting jumping off point when talking about the nation and the world.

1- National consensus that one’s nation is in crisis: This one is interesting precisely because Diamond’s first US crisis is a lack of consensus. Which means we may be dead right out of the gate. When Diamond gives examples of past national crises that have been successfully overcome, I can’t recall any example where the nation didn’t get this first step right, and indeed everything would appear to follow from it.

2- Acceptance of national responsibility to do something: For the worldwide crises Diamond mentions I think we do better on point 1, but then stumble as soon as we get to point two. I imagine just about every nation is worried about nukes and climate change, but accepting responsibility has been a lot harder. Even when we look at the European response to climate change, which is about as good as it gets, it’s far too anemic to really make any significant difference.

3- Building a fence, to delineate the national problems needing to be solved: This factor relates to dividing things that are working well from things that need to be fixed. Marshalling your strengths to combat your weaknesses. And once again the problem comes from the fact, in the US, we don’t merely disagree about what should go where, we have exactly opposite views on placement. To take just one example, one side identifies immigration as a strength, the more the better, and one side identifies it as the central problem which needs to be solved. This doesn’t merely apply at the national level. As I just pointed out, one way to solve inequality is for people from poorer countries to move to richer countries, but if that increases their carbon footprint then that makes climate change worse. The solution to one problem makes the other problem worse.

4- Getting material and financial help from other nations: Needless to say, we should hope this factor ends up being unimportant. Since there are really no countries in a position to materially help the US, and definitely no other planets in a position to materially help the entire world.

5- Using other nations as models of how to solve the problems: This is another factor which may work great on a personal level, and even pretty well on a national level, but which is entirely impossible at the level of the world. And in fact it’s why I continually come back to Fermi’s Paradox. In theory, we should have other worlds to use as models, but for some reason we don’t and the implications of that should be frightening. Beyond all that it’s unclear how much the US can use other nations as models either, our size, culture and power make our problems somewhat unique.

6- National identity: Here the US does a little bit better, even so, the argument could be made that one more part of the fracture involves questioning exactly what that identity is. From the perspective of the world I think, at best, even if you could come up with an identity, that it would be particularly weak, and easily swamped by the various national identities.

7- Honest national self-appraisal: Much of what was said about the last few issues applies here as well, but I will admit that I don’t have a strong sense for whether we’re currently engaged in honest national self-appraisal, or if all of the conflict and divisiveness and debate going on is actually avoiding the issue. And, yet again, moving from the US to the world would only appear to make this problem worse.

8- Historical experience of previous national crises: At least at the national level I think this is finally someplace where it might be possible to engage with this factor in a useful fashion. That said I see no evidence that we are. If anything I think we’re bringing up crises that were previously solved (or at least shelved) and making them into a new crisis. (For example reparations for slavery.) At the world wide level there might have been past crises, but I think most of them were military in nature, thus I’m not sure how much past experience helps with our current issues. Which is to say if we end up with another Hitler I think the world is ready, outside of that, not so much

9- Dealing with national failure: Here at last I feel like we’ve arrived at a point with some nuance. Nations may frequently fail on their first attempt to fix a problem, or fail in other areas. How they react to these failures can say a lot about whether they will eventually find success. Has the US already failed? Does Vietnam count as a failure? How did we deal with that failure? Is the nation as a whole teachable or is part of the problem? Will the US only engage in a major course change when our failure is impossible to ignore? At a worldwide level has the world failed? Can we recover from a failure that is truly worldwide, to say nothing of learning from it?

10- Situation specific national flexibility: Occasionally crises require flexibility, occasionally they require rigid adherence to a well-defined set of principles. It appears easier to rigidly adhere than to be flexible and many of the examples of nations successfully negotiating a crisis involved extreme flexibility. One fantastic example of this is Meiji Japan. I am not detecting any great degree of flexibility when I consider the worldwide response to crises, and that goes double for the US.

11- National core values: This is different than a national identity, and speaks more to religion, and virtues like honesty. I once again think the key problem, and the reason why Diamond is so alarmed is that the chief crisis currently afflicting the US is one which precisely undermines all of the tools nations normally use to deal with such a crisis. And beyond that we can add this to the long list of factors where a particular tool appears entirely absent at the level of the entire world.

12- Freedom from geopolitical constraints: Finally we reach the one factor where the US actually has significant strength (though, it should be mentioned, even this has been diminished). In dealing with it’s crises the US doesn’t have to really worry about whether Canada will approve. Or whether Mexico might take it as an opportunity to invade. It doesn’t even have to worry very much about Russia or China (as current tariffs demonstrate). As the most powerful country it has wide latitude to deal with any crisis in just about whatever manner it sees fit. But this is the very last step. All the power in the world can’t help you if you don’t know how to apply it. From a worldwide perspective, all I will say is does the world have zero geopolitical constraints or all the geopolitical constraints? I suspect the latter.

It would appear that there are significant reasons to wonder whether any of the factors can be used by the US or the world to overcome the crises Diamond identifies. And you might imagine that this would end up being a strike against the book. And perhaps for some people it is. But for me it’s one of the things I like about it. Pinker says there’s nothing to worry about. Diamond says there may be something to worry about and the tools we have for dealing with it would appear to be inadequate. My own position is much closer to Diamond’s and similar to most people I enjoy reading things that I agree with.

Criticisms

As I mentioned in the beginning, one of the biggest criticisms of this book is that you probably can’t take something that was designed for individuals and usefully apply it to nations. I disagree with this, I think there is some utility, but let’s not kid ourselves, this is mostly because every other system is even worse, not because Diamond’s framework is outstanding. Also as you can see from my rundown of the 12 factors, even if they are useful, most of them seem hard to apply to the US and the world.

Also like many individuals he ends up with a somewhat incoherent policy on immigration. For example he talks about how Japan’s declining population is a good thing because it will lessen the resource crisis they’re having, but then goes on to suggest (as many people do) that Japan needs to admit more immigrants. Won’t that deplete their resources even faster? I pointed out a similar conflict between inequality and climate change.

Finally as has been mentioned this is not Guns, Germs and Steel, and if you come expecting something like that you’ll be disappointed. It is nevertheless a perfectly interesting and useful book, if you’re not expecting something revolutionary.

If you were going to take only one thing from the book:

It might be possible to identify the factors that go into helping a nation successfully navigate a crisis, but even if it is, we’re still probably in a lot of trouble.


Among the many factors for having a successful blog is almost certainly some amount of money. I’m not sure what the other factors are, but I suspect that whatever they are I could do better. If you want to at least help with the factor I have identified consider donating.