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Why Countries in Crisis Could Use Something Like Therapy

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Jared Diamond made his name as a geographical determinist. In his 1997 book, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, the University of California at Los Angeles professor observed that, because Europe and Asia—unlike Africa or the Americas—stretch across roughly the same latitude, the plants and animals that were domesticated in one part could be spread quickly to others.

An abundance of food, he wrote, gave inhabitants of ancient Eurasia the time and energy to invent the guns and steel that they used to conquer much of the rest of the world. Meanwhile, their exposure to domesticated animals gave them immunity to germs that wiped out the populations they encountered.

Some critics complained that Diamond ignored the role of human agency—no invisible hand of geography, after all, forced the Spanish conquistadors or English slave traders to behave as cruelly as they did. But whatever its flaws, his unique take on the history of civilization won a lot of readers, as well as a Pulitzer Prize.

Diamond isn’t as much of a geographical determinist anymore, at least when it comes to the modern era. His next major book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005), gave a big role to free will by drawing lessons from self-imposed ecological disasters such as the one that eradicated the thriving community on Easter Island. Now, at 81, the indefatigable professor is still writing on the fate of human societies. But this time, he’s more specific about how they can decide their fates.

Instead of geography, therapy is the governing principle in Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis, out May 7. Diamond likens nations in trouble to individuals going through a recovery. For both, he says, there are 12 things to consider, including: admitting you have a problem, accepting responsibility, separating the problem from the rest of your life, getting help, learning from others, and being realistic about what can be done. Nations have slightly different considerations, among them a strong national identity that’s based on language, culture, or other factors, as well as core values, such as democracy.

Why Countries in Crisis Could Use Something Like Therapy

To prove its point, Upheaval speeds through several case studies of countries that have suffered traumatic events: Japan in 1853, when Americans forced it to open its feudal society to the West; Indonesia in 1965, after a coup; Chile in 1973, when President Salvador Allende was overthrown; and a more dragged-out crisis in Australia during its painful distancing from the U.K. during and after World War II.

These episodes can run refreshingly counter to conventional wisdom. In a chapter on Finland, he acknowledges that the country is often criticized for knuckling under to the Soviet Union. But Diamond holds it up as an ­exemplar of realism—resisting at times, accommodating at others. “The end result is that, in the 70 years since the end of World War II, Finland has come no closer to becoming a Soviet or (now) Russian satellite,” he writes.

To illustrate the importance of admitting a problem, Diamond recalls how, in 1970, West German Chancellor Willy Brandt spontaneously fell to his knees on a visit to the Warsaw ghetto, the site of an unsuccessful Jewish uprising against the Nazis. This kind of contrition contributed to Germany’s reunification by convincing other nations of its sincerity. Diamond sees less “honest self-appraisal” from other countries, including Japan. He says it still hasn’t faced up to its behavior in World War II—an ongoing source of resentment in well-armed neighbors such as China and the Koreas.

These historical chapters are followed by several long advice chapters. Although he may be right, there’s nothing new about his admonitions to fix gender inequality in Japan, the decay of democracy in the U.S., or climate change in the world.

Perhaps most interesting to longtime readers will be Diamond’s own tale of personal crisis, which was clearly an inspiration for the book. At 21, he bungled a task at the University of Cambridge to measure the movement of sodium and potassium ions across electricity-­generating membranes of eels. Given a new project involving gall­bladders that required less manual dexterity, he stumbled yet again. He seriously considered quitting science, but on a park bench in Paris, in 1959, his father persuaded him to give the lab another try. Diamond solved the gallbladder problem with the help of two young professors and went on to become a successful physiologist.

Botched experiments with eels and gallbladders wouldn’t seem to lead to lessons for nations in trouble, but what Diamond learned 60 years ago is that a crisis is also an opportunity for crucial adaptation. He’s reinvented himself several times since. If only nations could be as agile.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chris Rovzar at crovzar@bloomberg.net, James Gaddy

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