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Fri March 8, 2013
Jared Diamond: Lessons for Modern Society
From penicillin to iPhones and x-rays to lattes, there's a lot to love about the modernization of Western culture. After all that innovation, what could we learn from traditional societies, ones with little exposure to modern culture? As it turns out, Jared Diamond argues, quite a lot.
- Jared Diamond: professor at University of California, Los Angeles and author of "The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies?"
Jared Diamond has built a career studying the rise and fall of great civilizations. In “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” he argued that the opportunity for agriculture and domesticated animals led to Western dominance.
But in his newest book, “The World Until Yesterday,” Diamond looks not at the rise of Western civilization but at the even keel of traditional societies that have only just begun to experience Western culture — places like Papua New Guinea, where Diamond has studied for years.
They might not have a reserve of guns, germs, or steel, but Diamond sees the strengths of traditional societies — and argues that America would do well to take a few notes.
Keep It in the Family
There’s no question that our society values youth — we see young people on television and promote them in the workplace. But it wasn’t always that way, Diamond argues. Before societies became literate, the elderly were keepers of history and information.
“People died earlier on the average, so there weren’t that many old people,” Diamond says. “Those few old people were enormously important as the repositories of knowledge in a society.”
But now that millions of people live into their 80s, and we can get instant knowledge from Google, Diamond says we need to find a new way to respect the elderly and celebrate their usefulness in society. Before the advent of nannies and day care, the elderly helped take care of the young people in their village. Perhaps, Diamond argues, families should entrust grandparents with childcare once again.
“In my wife’s and my circle, we have friends who are in their 60s and early 70s — and these are people who have raised their own children, educational psychologists, developmental psychologists, physicians,” Diamond says. “These people are taking care of their grandchildren. They love it, and it frees up their doctor daughter or their teacher son to pursue their careers.”
Giving Back to the Community
Diamond’s next lesson is one we’re supposed to grasp in Kindergarten: learn to share. Although America has made great strides in social equality over the past century, our fiscal inequality has become extreme. Currently, the top 1 percent of Americans control 20 percent of the nation’s wealth. Diamond thinks this imbalance makes for a fragile society.
“We have 300 million people,” Diamond says, “and if we’re underinvesting in a large fraction of our population — if we’re not providing them with the best education, with the best technical training, the best opportunities, and the best outlets for developing their business ideas, we’re throwing away our human talent. We’re going to fall behind other countries that are investing in their human talent.”
Instead of promoting individual wealth, Diamond thinks that we should emulate traditional societies, where people are accustomed to sharing success with the community. If Bill Gates lived in Papua New Guinea, Diamond jokes, he would have had six tribal leaders at his house the day after Microsoft went public, looking to share in his good fortune.
“Once you’ve got 10 million dollars, what do you need your next billion dollars for?” Diamond asks. “10 million dollars ought to take care of most of your life’s needs including a private airplane. Your next billion dollars you might as well give to everybody else so that 100 people can have their 10 million dollars, or alternatively that 10,000 people can have their 10,000 dollars.”
While Diamond thinks America has a lot to learn from traditional societies, he’s quick to defend certain modern amenities, like health care.
“I voted with my feet,” Diamond says. “I live in Los Angeles and I make trips to New Guinea. I do not live in New Guinea and make trips to Los Angeles. The reasons are that I want to live a long time — I want to have first class medical care — I want great libraries, I want to teach at the university, I like to go to the opera.”
Luckily, Diamond points out, there are cultures that balance modern and traditional societal values. He uses the example of Navajo Native Americans. The Navajo still speak their own language and live in traditional houses, but they also use modern political strategies to lobby Congress.
“They’ve learned certain things of our ways, and they’ve also retained their own ways,” Diamond explains.
It’s a long shot — but maybe America can follow suit.
WATCH: Jared Diamond on the Colbert Report
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