Science Talk

Jared Diamond on the State of the World Environment

In this episode, biologist, ecologist and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Jared Diamond discusses the environmental state of the world and the relationship between the environment and economics and politics in remarks at a recent benefit for the organization Conservation International. We'll also hear from CI's president, Russell Mittermeier. Plus we'll test your knowledge of some recent science in the news. Websites mentioned on this episode include

Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American for the seven days starting June 13th. I am Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast, renowned scientist and Pulitzer prize-winning writer, Jared Diamond, plus we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. A couple of weeks ago, Diamond was the keynote speaker at an event for the organization Conservation International at the American Museum of Natural History. I went. Here's an edited version of his talk. The president of Conservation International, Russell Mittermeier, did a nice job introducing Diamond, so I'll let him do it again here.

Mittermeier: It now gives me great pleasure to introduce tonight's featured speaker, Dr. Jared Diamond. Jared is a truly remarkable individual, and he is himself an increasingly endangered species in today's world—a real renaissance man. He is a professor of geography at U.C.L.A., a professor of physiology at the U.C.L.A. School of Medicine, a world class ornithologist, an explorer and one of the world's authorities on the biodiversity of the fascinating island of New Guinea, one of CI's high-biodiversity wilderness areas. He has led numerous National Geographic Society expeditions—many to the isolated, unexplored mountain ranges of the island of New Guinea—and as a dedicated conservationist, he has designed comprehensive national park plans for the governments of Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. But most of you probably know Jared through his books, because he is also a world-renowned, best selling author who has been read by millions of people and who has written some of the most interesting and provocative books of the last quarter century. His Pulitzer-prize winning book, Guns, Germs and Steel, is certainly one of the most interesting books I've ever read and it has been translated into 25 languages; and his book The Third Chimpanzee came out in 18 languages and won Britain's Science Book Prize. But in many ways his most important book [is] maybe his most recent, which is entitled, Collapse: How Societies Choose or Fail to Succeed, which takes a hard, comprehensive look at a number of societies that have failed, that have literally fallen apart because of their mistreatment of the environment. I was so inspired by Collapse that shortly after it came out, my wife Cristina and I made a trip to Easter Island, one of the places that is featured in Jared's book and one of the most remote corners of our planet. When the first Polynesians arrived there, it was an earthly paradise covered by rich and diverse forests that included giant palm trees seven feet in diameter—the largest that ever existed—and with an abundant marine life. But over the course of several centuries it was totally destroyed, mainly through an ego-driven competition among neighboring clans to produce more and bigger moais, the giant statues for which the island is so famous. As they depleted their resources, the Easter Islanders got more and more desperate, eating rats and anything else they could find, and eventually turned to cannibalism. While we were impressed with the massive moais—archeological relics, the marvels of primitive technology—they are [a] real testament to human folly. We were shocked at the condition of the island, which is now covered by degraded grasslands and has nothing but a handful of introduced species. If you ever want to see a microcosm of the consequences of human misuse of the environment, take a trip to Easter Island—but be sure to read Jared’s book before you do so. With that ladies and gentlemen, it gives me great pleasure to introduce my good friend and CI board member, Dr. Jared Diamond.


Diamond: I would like to talk with you about how Americans perceive the state of the world today and about what personally you can do to improve the state of the world. My own impressions of how Americans perceive the world have been heavily influenced by my talking with lots of Americans and with lots of people overseas in other countries in recent years, in the course of traveling around to discuss my books. I talked with very diverse people, all across the political spectrum. They include ultraconservative Montana ranchers, radical environmentalists who try to sink whaling ships, members of the Democratic Congressional Caucus, mining company executives, a cabinet minister of our current president, a first-degree relative of our current president and so on. All of this has been a new experience for me, given my background as a laboratory physiologist and professor at a medical school and an expert on the gallbladder, accustomed to talking with world's other five experts on the gallbladder. (Laughs) Authors like to delude themselves that any success of their books is because of their own beautiful writing. The problem for me is that my book Collapse became a best seller within two days of its release—before anyone could have read my beautiful writing or before my book was even reviewed. I realized that that outcome was because the book and its title hit a widespread raw nerve. People are worried now about the future of the U.S. and of the world more, I think, than at any other time in my lifetime. Most people are at least are aware or concerned or confused by talk about environmental problems, and many people are taking environmental problems seriously. People have good reasons to be concerned. In the past, there have been about eight different ways by which human societies hammered environments, by destroying habitats, exterminating species, overfishing, deforestation, soil erosion, introducing exotic pest species and other ways. Well, all of these old ways of hammering the environment are continuing; but now we also have four new environmental problems—namely releasing toxic chemicals into the environment, global warming caused by humans, bumping up against the photosynthetic ceiling, and energy problems. Combinations of these old problems dragged down the most advanced societies in both hemispheres in the past, and they are threatening to do it again today. All of these dozen problems are like time bombs with fuses just a few decades long, because world societies are already on a non-sustainable course, and our trajectories for each of these problems will run out in a few decades if we don't change our course. So you can be sure that everyone of these problems that I mentioned will get resolved in one way or another within the coming decades—and that means within the lifetimes of those of you here under the age of 40. Either we are going to resolve these problems, in pleasant ways of our choice by our solving our problems of energy and deforestation and toxic wastes and so on; or else the problems are going to resolve themselves in unpleasant ways—not of our choice—through the consequences of our failure to solve the problems. History is full of examples of societies that shows either pleasant or unpleasant solutions. For example, in the past, New Guinea highlanders did solve their problems of deforestation by figuring out how to transplant and grow Casuarina trees; and the Japanese of the Tokugawa era figured out how to solve their own problems of deforestation by developing sustainable plantation, agro-forestry and rationing wood. Both the New Guinea highlanders and Tokugawa Japanese thereby became self-sufficient in wood. Today, Iceland and Bhutan and the Dominican Republic are making good progress at managing their own difficult environments. But there are many other past societies that resolved their environmental problems in unpleasant ways—not of their choice—by widespread depopulation or collapse of central government has happened to the Anasazi, the Maya and the Easter Islanders. Today other societies are at risk of succumbing to equally unpleasant solutions. The gentlest of my own worst-case scenarios for the world is what could be called a soft landing, as anarchic conditions—similar to those currently prevailing in Haiti and Somalia—gradually spread to other countries. Those soft landings will be mixed with some hard landings as happened in the African country of Rwanda in 1994, when Rwandans transiently solved—if I can use that word—their own problems of over population and deforestation and soil erosion in a horrible way—namely in 1994 awhen six million Rwandans killed nearly one million Rwandans—mostly with machetes—and drove another two million into exile. One Rwandan friend of mine wrote me that, just before in the buildup to the genocide, you'd wake up in the morning and you'd discover that the soil of your neighbor on the slopes above you had ended up in your garden overnight through soil erosion; and one Rwandan said frankly, after the genocide, that genocide is a way of restoring population balance. To suggestions that environmental problems are serious, to suggestions that CI makes, [many of] their objections many of which are one-liners, and these one-liners I think have the situation exactly backwards. Let me give you a couple of these one-liners.

The first of the one-liner[s] goes as follows: "But, but, but environmental problems are not our only problem. What about war? What about terrorists and other enemies? What about nuclear proliferation and trade?" Yes, history shows that all of those things are also important and that they all interact with environmental problems. Environmental problems weaken a society's ability to hold off its enemies. For example, environmental problems weakened the Khmer Empire based at Angkor Wat to the point where the Khmers could no longer hold off the armies of Thailand; and environmental problems weakened the Greenland Norse to the point where they could no longer hold off the Inuit—the Eskimos.

Another one-liner that you often hear to diminish the environmental problems that CI is concerned about goes as follows: "You environmentalists care less for people than you do for some lousy species of earthworm, snail darter or furbish lousewort." Okay, let's talk about lousy earthworms. Does all of the gardeners among you know earthworms are the main force maintaining the texture and fertility of our soil? For example, populations of earthworms are plummeting now in China because of China's heavy use of pesticides and fertilizers. China's pasture-grass production has decreased by 50 percent—in large part because of declines in those lousy earthworms. Now that China has lost half of its food-growing potential for its more than one billion people, you can just calculate how many trillions of dollars that's worth to the economy.

Another of these one-liners says: "We have to balance the environment against the economy". That one-liner has it exactly backwards. Environmental problems are the strongest reason for take[ing]—in fact the economy is the strongest reason—for taking environmental problem[s] seriously. Environmental problems are relatively cheap and easy to solve if you catch them in an early stage, but at a late stage, they are horrendously expensive or impossible to solve. That's a lesson that was rubbed into the faces of us Americans something like two years ago, August, when after a decade in which various governmental agencies complained about the economy and didn't want to spend a couple of hundred million dollars to shore up the dikes around one of our big cities. We then found ourselves faced with the bill of several hundred billion dollars in insurance losses and the cost of rebuilding a major city, not to mention the couple of thousand of dead Americans—all because we didn't want to spend the couple of hundred million dollars to solve the problems of the dikes around New Orleans.

The last of these one-liners that one hears to dispute CI's invocation of environmental problems goes as follows: "The only thing that counts nowadays is international security. How can you justify throwing money at some turtle or coral reef when we are already having to spend 280 billion dollars to combat threats to our security in just one overseas country?" Again, that one-liner has it backwards—we need a healthy environmental precisely because it's essential to the welfare of people, and hence to international security. If you doubt the political importance of environmental problems, just ask any Ivory Tower ecologist—who doesn't know or care anything about politics—to name the most environmentally ravaged countries today. Your ecologist's list of environmentally ravaged countries would include Afghanistan, Burundi, Haiti, Indonesia, Iraq, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, Rwanda, the Solomon Islands and Somalia. And then go ask some politician who doesn't know or care anything about environment to name the modern world's worst political trouble spots, where state government has already collapsed or is at risk of collapsing or where there have been civil wars or dispatches of American troops or exoduses of millions of desperate illegal immigrants or terrorists. The politician would say it's obvious the list of those political trouble spots would include Afghanistan, Burundi, Haiti, Indonesia, Iraq, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, Rwanda, the Solomon Islands and Somalia. Surprise, surprise! The list of the politician is the same as the list of the ecologist. Those two lists are the same because of cause and effect—namely, countries that are ravaged by environmental problems are countries in which people get desperate; they see no alternative and they either support terrorists or in desperation, they turn to civil war or they emmigrate. If you think that it could never happen to us here in the United States, then please reflect on another lesson of history. History tell us that collapses in the past have tended to be sudden and unexpected, [and] soon after a society had reached its peak power in population; and that's because peak power and peak population means peak resource consumption and peak demands on the environment. Just consider, for example, the recent sudden collapse of the Soviet Union—a collapse that was unthinkable until it actually happened. So the study of history emphasizes our conviction here at CI that destroying the environment destroys our own chances for a healthy, secure and prosperous world. Destroying the environment destroyed those chances—the many societies in the past—and it threatens to do so again today. So finally what does this all mean for each of us, for each of you personally? Tonight, when you go home and look [at] yourself in the mirror, ask yourself, am I happy with the state of the world into which I am launching my children and my grandchildren? If you are happy with the state of the world, then you don't have to ask yourself anymore questions. But if you are not happy with the state of the world, then ask yourself whether in order to secure the future of your individual child or your grandchild, is it enough for you just to buy life insurance for your child or to take out a remainder trust or to pay your child's tuition at a good school. Well, ask yourself whether perhaps you had better also do something for your child's world as a whole. Ask yourself—am I wasting all my efforts on behalf of my individual child? Am I throwing away all that money on life insurance and tuition if I don't also invest to make sure that my kids end up in a world worth living in? And if you think that something does have to be done for your child's world as a whole, then look yourself in the mirror tonight once again and ask yourself two questions that Italian-Jewish partisan soldiers fighting behind Nazi lines in World War II used to ask themselves before taking important decisions. In Italian, those two questions were "Se non lo faccio, chi lo farà? Se non ora, quando?" Or in English, that means, "if I don't do this, then who will do it?" and "if I don't do this now, then when will I do it?"

Steve: Scientific American’s review of Diamonds book Collapse appeared in our January 2005 issue; you can access it free on the Web. A National Geographic miniseries based on Diamond's book Guns, Germs and Steel is available on DVD. Conservation International's Web site is

We'll be right back.

Male voice: Send your science videos to Scientific American and see if yours becomes a featured video. Follow the simple instructions at

Steve: Now it's time to play TOTALL.......Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories, but only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL.......Y BOGUS.

Story number 1: A Canadian man being operated on recently bled dark green blood.

Story number 2: Male red deer may have big hunk and antlers, but it's their call that really attracts the ladies.

Story number 3: The U.S. military is working on a big robot to carry injured soldiers away from the battlefield. The six-foot tall robot would have a teddy–bear-style head, which would allegedly help put the wounded soldier more at ease.

And Story number 4: Most patients do not want their doctors shaking hands with them, knowing that the doc has probably recently touched many other sick people.

Time's up.

Story number 1 is true. A man did have dark green blood, which was discovered when he was operated on in Vancouver. No, he was not a Vulcan; he was taking a medication, called Sumatriptan, for migraines, according to a report in last week's edition of the medical journal of The Lancet. The drug includes sulfur, which can sometimes incorporate itself into the hemoglobin molecule, imparting a green color to human blood.

Story number 2 is true. Ovulating female red deer show a big preference for the loudest males rather than those with the biggest antlers—that's according to research published last week in the Royal Society [journal] Biology Letters. The study is the first in any non-human mammal to find that females use an acoustic cue as a marker for body size in selecting a mate; and they like the big guys because they are more likely to provide healthy offspring—and the big guys are more likely to have the loud call.

Story number 3 is true. The Battlefield Extraction Assist Robot—akaBEAR—is being developed by the military—that's according to New Scientist Magazine. And the teddy-bear-style head is designed to calm the wounded soldier as he is carried to safety by the big robot. Said Scientific American editor-in-chief John Rennie, in an e-mail, "Oh Sure! Because when I am wounded on a battlefield, in pain, disoriented, maybe weak from loss of blood and still terrified by the knowledge of any missile around me, nothing in the world would be more comforting in that moment than to have a huge robot bear scooping me up in its powerful metallic arms." Future victims of posttraumatic shock syndrome are going to have deeper issues than we can possibly imagine.

All of which means that story number 1, about most patients not wanting their docs shaking hands with them, is TOTALL.......Y BOGUS. Because a study of over five hundred adults, reported in this week's issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine found that 78 percent of patients indeed did want the handshake at the beginning of a visit. The study's authors note that "the first few moments of a medical encounter are critical to establishing rapport, making the patient feel comfortable and setting the tone of the interviewing." They went onto say that "physicians should be encouraged to shake hands with patients, but remain sensitive to nonverbal cues that might indicate whether patients are open to this behavior." Knowing where their hands have been all day, I am comfy with a white-coated elbow bump.

Well, that's it for this edition of the weekly Scientific American podcast. You can write to us at, check out news articles at our Web site,, the daily sciam podcast 60-Second Science is at the Web site and at iTunes. For Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, I am Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

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