2019, Books, Non-Fiction

Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis (2019) by Jared Diamond

This is a fascinating, flawed examination of national crises which is really a plea for human beings to better handle climate change (and other major global crises Diamond perceives).

Diamond takes a rather bizarre approach: he looks at psychotherapy to find a model for understanding human beings in crisis. He then attempts to apply this model two a bunch of non-randomly selected countries which have experienced crises in the past century and a half (though almost all of the crises are in the last 50 years or so). It’s a very odd and flawed approach but Diamond sort of admits this and seems to want others to use his model as a basis for a more rigorous study of a bigger sample. (I assume he wants others to do this because he asks it in the epilogue but also because of his age – he probably doesn’t have the time.)

But though the model is idiosyncratic and though it sort of seems hard to imagine that it might provide a lot of value, there are a lot of fascinating insights in the book and I can’t say I didn’t learn anything (both about the histories of some of these crises and about similarities between seemingly dissimilar countries).

My two biggest problems with the book are the lack of rigour (which he admits) and the length. Though Diamond tries to make his approach as rigourous as possible (while admitting it’s non-random and a small sample), it’s hard to really take seriously this psychotherapy approach to national crises, because it’s hard to be rigourous with definitions and scope. I just don’t know how much more we can really learn from this approach than from standard narrative history. Is this somewhat arbitrary set or criteria really superior to another arbitrary set of criteria? The other thing is that, though the book is quite long, it often feels like he is breezing through certain subjects. He’ll spend a short paragraph on something someone else might spend a chapter or even a book on. What I’m saying is that it feels like this project is too big for its own good, and so we get surface-level examinations of many of the issues discussed.

But it’s certainly thought-provoking and it’s an easy read, as all of Diamond’s books are.

6/10

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