Jared Diamond: With Climate Change, Americans Have Unique Opportunity to Avoid the Fate of Ancient Maya

In a new video, Jared Diamond talks about climate change, drawing parallels between modern Americans and the Classic southern lowland Maya – who failed to take the actions that might have avoided the collapse of their civilization. However, unlike the Maya, we have the “unique opportunity” and capacity to “learn from remote places and to learn from places remote in time,” Diamond says. “And among all the things that might incline me towards pessimism, that is the biggest thing that in the end inclines me towards optimism.”

Jared Diamond is a professor of geography at the University of California at Los Angeles, and is a member of WWF's board of directors.  He is the  Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel; and author of Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. The 11-minute video was recorded in early 2011 by ClimatePrep.org , a site focused on ways people around the world are preparing for and responding to climate change.


Diamond explains that energy and greenhouse gas emissions are among a dozen key groups of environmental problems that confront us and “we’ve got to solve them all.”  In the case of climate change, he explains that we must not only slow its pace by reducing emissions, but we must prepare for its impacts and adapt.  To some extent, we now are “stuck with it”:

“We have to do things to adapt to climate change such as – in California – planting olive trees rather than almond trees.   Then there are things to do for wild plants and animals. What do we do about some chipmunk species living on top of a mountain in the Western United States that thrives on cold temperatures, and the mountain is getting warmer and warmer? So this cold habitat is gradually moving up towards the top of the mountain, and the cold habitat is gradually moving off into the sky where there aren’t any chipmunks. What do we do about all those plant and animal species that are threatened by climate change? ...It’s going to require having some either new conservation areas; or species that are now being conserved in Yellowstone National Park will increasingly be getting conserved in Glacier National Park further to the North. In some cases it's going to require actual transplanting that chipmunk on the top of a mountain rising out of the Great Basin. That chipmunk is going to have to be moved somewhere because that mountain is not going to be suitable for the chipmunk. “

In the interview, Diamond draws lessons from the Mayan experience:

"There are so many societies in which the elite made decisions that were good for themselves in the short run and ruined themselves and societies in the long run. For example, the most advanced society in the New World before Columbus was the Maya of the Yucatan Peninsula, Guatemala and Honduras. They ended up collapsing …. because of a combination of climate change, drought, water management problems, soil erosion, deforestation….So the Mayan kings had strong power. 

Why didn’t the Mayan kings just look out the windows of the Palaces and see the forests getting chopped down, soil being eroded down at the valley bottom. Why didn’t the kings say `stop it’? Well the kings had managed to insulate themselves from the consequences of their actions – in the short run. Even while the forests were being chopped down, they were still being fed well by the commoners, they were in their wonderful palaces. And the kings didn’t recognize that they were making a mess until it was too late, when the commoners rose in revolt.  

Similarly, in the United States at present, the policies being pursued by too many wealthy people and decision makers are ones that -- as in the case of the Mayan kings -- preserve their interests in the short run but are disastrous in the long run."

Will we go the way of the Maya?  Diamond is hopeful that we will choose otherwise:

“Today, we have archeologists who tell us about the mistakes that the Maya and the Greenland Norse and the Anasazi made, and we also have archeologists who tell us about the good decisions that the Tokugawa Japanese and the Icelanders made. So we can learn from the past. And then we can turn on our television sets. We can see what it’s like in Somalia. We can also see what it's like today in Norway or Bhutan. And we can decide: Do we like the lifestyle of Bhutan or do we like the lifestyle in Somalia? Which do we choose to emulate? We have this opportunity to learn from remote places and to learn from places remote in time. No other society in world history has had that advantage. And among all the things that might incline me towards pessimism, that is the biggest thing that in the end run inclines me towards optimism. We have this unique opportunity.”

In an earlier video (November 2009), Diamond framed the climate change threat in another compelling way, not by referring to earlier civilizations but by focusing on more immediate, personal concerns and priorities:

“We are working so hard for our children and grandchildren. All of us parents send our kids to school; we debate endlessly about whether our kids are in the right school. We draw up our wills, and maybe we draw up trusts. We buy life insurance. It’s all wasted if what we are propelling out kids into is a world not worth living in.”

Online Resources:

Classic Maya Collapse.  Wikipedia.

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