Book review – Upheaval: How Nations Cope with Crisis and Change

The subtitle of this book could also be reworded as a question. How, indeed, do nations cope with crises such as war? With Upheaval, geography professor Jared Diamond puts forward a rather unorthodox suggestion for answering this question. Psychologists and specifically crisis therapists have gained a lot of insight into how individuals deal with and overcome crises in their personal lives. Taking a list of twelve factors that influence this, Upheaval is both a thought experiment and a piece of comparative history that tries to apply this framework to six nations that went through a crisis.

Upheaval

Upheaval: How Nations Cope with Crisis and Change“, written by Jared Diamond, published in Europe by Allen Lane in May 2019 (hardback, 532 pages)

As Diamond immediately admits, nations are not individuals. So what value is there in his proposed approach? Well, he writes, personal crises are something we can all relate to, so it can help non-historians to better relate to national crises. And he hopes that the framework that crisis therapists use could form a starting point for historians to develop something similar to understand how and why nations overcome crises the way they do. Clearly, Diamond is not one to let age get in the way of trying to carve out a new research programme.

He introduces his list of twelve factors and how they translate from individuals to nations. Without wanting to rehash that whole list here, they include recognisable points such as acknowledging a problem and taking responsibility for it, getting help and looking towards others as role models, and factors such as self-appraisal, previous experience, patience, and flexibility.

Over half of the book then introduces six nations that Diamond lived or worked in during his lifetime, and gives very readable overviews of defining episodes in their recent history. This includes Finland’s armed resistance to the Soviet Union during World War II, the sudden opening of Japan to Western influences from 1853 onwards, Pinochet’s regime in Chile, the birth of Indonesia and the rule of Sukarno and Suharto, the rebuilding of Germany after WWII and the eventual reunification of East and West Germany, and the national identity crisis of Australia as the influence of Britain waned post-WWII.

“he hopes that the framework that crisis therapists use could form a starting point for historians […] Clearly, Diamond is not one to let age get in the way of trying to carve out a new research programme.”

This is both an awful lot of ground to cover, but also a very limited sample to base your ideas on. Diamond is unabashedly frank in acknowledging these limitations:

It was agonizing for me to contemplate condensing five vertical feet of material on post-war Germany into one chapter of 11,000 words. So much had to be omitted!” (p. 13).

Why these six, and not, for example, Russia, which underwent great crises under the communist dictatorships of Stalin and Lenin, or China, which sacrificed millions of its citizens in its Great Leap Forward? Diamond has no personal experience with these countries, nor mastery of their languages, so rather than overreach, he limits himself here. Not acknowledged is the fact that all his examples effectively revolve around armed conflict (wars, coups, and military dictatorships). Notably absent from the list are natural disasters, pandemics, and famines.

Even so, I found these chapters to be very well written, concise overviews of historical periods that are not always given much airtime in general history books, and that I was not necessarily very familiar with. Having lived in Helsinki for five years, I retain a fondness for Finland, so reading more about their Winter War (which, I can confirm, has indeed been burned into their national consciousness) was very interesting. Similarly, being Dutch, the fate of Indonesia and names such as Sukarno and Suharto are things I remember as frequent items on the evening news when I was a child, but I was not necessarily well-versed into what actually happened.

One can expect knowledgeable historians to go over this with a fine-toothed comb and find much in the way of generalisations and omissions to fault him for. A review in The New York Times was particularly scathing, whereas a history teacher leaving a review on Amazon praised him. I guess you cannot please everyone.

“The chapter on global crises for me was worth the price of admission alone.”

What no doubt opens Diamond up for such criticism is his decision (as he explains in the notes to chapter 2) to not litter his text with footnotes to individual scholarly references for every little fact. Instead, for each chapter, he provides a recommended reading list of books available in large general libraries, rather than harder to find articles. Add to this his personal narrative and the space given to anecdotes and experiences from friends in each of these countries, and you can see why some critics have been giving him a hard time. A less graceful example of this Chile’s president Allende taking his own life, a fact here bolstered by anecdotal confirmation from a Chilean friend who knew a fireman who met the last person to see Allende alive. Invoking third-hard anecdotal information strains credulity.

The last part of the book considers current crises in Japan and the USA, as well as major sources of concern for the world at large. He is not afraid to call out both countries on their weaknesses and blind spots (e.g. Japan’s refusal to accept immigrants to bolster its ageing population, or the US’s proud exceptionalism and refusal to draw lessons from other parts of the world such as Canada or Western Europe).

The chapter on global crises for me was worth the price of admission alone. Though I am perhaps not nearly as afraid of the threat of nuclear weapons as I should be (see e.g. My Journey at the Nuclear Brink), I was pleased to see Diamond openly naming the double whammy of overpopulation and resource consumption, and it is worth quoting him here:

We promise developing countries that, if they will only adopt good policies, like honest government and free market economies, they too can become like the First World today. That promise is utterly impossible, a cruel hoax. We are already having difficulty supporting a First World lifestyle even now, when only 1 billion people out of the world’s 7.5 billion people enjoy it.” (p. 414-415).

That kind of frank owing up to hard limits and calling out our delirious dream that we can have it all is something that is still sorely lacking in many quarters in my opinion.

“Like famous musicians whose fans clamour for a repeat of the hit album, Diamond runs the risk of becoming a victim of his own success.”

It is impossible to mention Diamond without mentioning his bestselling works Guns, Germs and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years or Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive. Even the publicists open the dustjacket blurb by referencing these books. Like famous musicians whose fans clamour for a repeat of the hit album, Diamond runs the risk of becoming a victim of his own success. I get the feeling he is bracing himself for this possibility by clearly outlining what this book is and is not:

Readers and reviewers of a book often gradually discover […] that the book’s coverage and approach aren’t what they expected or wanted.” (p. 11-12).

Both in opening and closing the book, he reiterates the limitations of his selection, the narrative rather than quantitative approach of his book, and the exploratory thought experiment it is. He unapologetically writes:

It remains for other authors to test to what extent my conclusions derived from this non-random sample of nations apply to other nations.” (p. 15).

And you know what, I am okay with that, it is the kind of honesty I really appreciate from an author.

So, sure, Upheaval might not be Guns, Germs and Steel 2. Everyone, relax your expectations already, will you? Is there value in applying Diamond’s proposed crisis therapy framework to nations? I think there are interesting conclusions that he draws throughout the book to suggest that, yes, there is. Fleshing out his ideas and seeing if it applies to other kinds of crises I mentioned earlier will keep social scientists occupied for years to come, and he gives useful pointers on how to start doing this. As such, Upheaval is a bold, thought-provoking book, albeit with its limitations, that will no doubt stir discussion and disagreement in places. For the more general reader, it is also a fascinating piece of comparative history that profits from some darn fine writing.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

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Other recommended books mentioned in this review:

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