Pulitzer Prize–winning author Jared Diamond opened the School of Social Service Administration’s (SSA) 2006–07 Lecture Series on Thursday with a talk on his most recent book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.
Currently a geography professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, Diamond was awarded the National Medal of Science by President Clinton, the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, and the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for his book, Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.
William Borden, senior lecturer at the SSA, introduced Diamond as being “one of the great thinkers of our time.” Although it was Diamond’s first official visit to the University of Chicago, Borden said that Diamond’s work has had a presence on campus for a long time.
Diamond spoke in the crowded lobby of the SSA building for about an hour about why various ancient societies collapsed and what today’s society can do to prevent its own collapse.
According to Diamond, most societies have collapsed due to overexploitation of resources; climate change; enemy attacks; dependence on other societies; and their cultural, economic, and political states.
“Modern societies are struggling with the same problems,” Diamond said. “China is competing for limited resources. China’s problems become the problems of the rest of the world’s.”
“Australia is the country considering the most radical solutions to its environmental problems,” Diamond said.
He described the 1994 Rwandan genocide as living proof of predictions made by the early 19th-century political economist Thomas Malthus, who theorized that excessive population growths and food scarcities would inevitably be tempered by famine, war, infanticide, and murder.
Diamond said his inspiration for the book came from his interest as a teenager in the mysteries of ruins and abandoned societies.
“It was the most fascinating, important, and simple subject I could think of to write a book about,” he said.
When it comes to learning from the mistakes of fallen societies, Diamond said that people “must understand the differences between the past and present,” and cannot just directly apply lessons from the past.
Diamond said he hopes that Collapse will “motivate people to take advantage of these unique strengths of ours,” so that modern society will become a success story.