Upheaval: How Nations Cope with Crisis and Change by Jared Diamond

Simple questions are hard to answer and often provoke great responses. Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond started with a question “Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?”, asked by a New Guinean politician. It resulted in breathtaking exploration of the history of everybody for the last 13,000 years. It outlines—with broad brush strokes—main factors stimulating or holding back progress. The Collapse started with a simple question “Are we doomed to collapse?” Jared Diamond traced the fundamental pattern of catastrophe and adaptation using cases as diverse as the Polynesian cultures on Easter Island and Inuits adapted to the Greenland environment.

The Upheaval: How Nations Cope with Crisis and Change, the third book in the series, raises a simple question “Can we learn from the lessons of the past?” This simple question starts exploration of national self-appraisal (or lack of) and adaptation through selective change (or avoiding it).

The first, short, part of the book Jared Diamond borrows and adapts a 12 factors framework from crisis therapy to understand what happens to nations in crisis. In the second part, he applies this framework to a series of case studies—Australia, Chile, Finland, Germany, Indonesia, and Japan—selected on the basis of personal knowledge and connections. How did these countries manage challenges like foreign threats, civil war, or general change of conditions? How different factors worked for them? What did not work? The cases in the book are very different, but all are fascinating. Finland faced harsh reality during World War II and managed to find the pragmatic way forward. Chile was so proud of unique democratic culture and suddenly slipped into decades of bloody dictatorship. Japan was forced to open up to the World, rapidly embraced the change and soon became the westernmost of the East. In the third part he turns the look forward and explores challenges ahead—or Japan, USA, and the whole World.

One sad conclusion of the book is that “obvious” lessons and requirements have been ignored so often (and are still often ignored today) and this is a recipe for disaster. However, the book conclude on a more optimistic note—familiarity with changes that did or didn’t work in the past can serve us as a good guide in navigating in crisis.

P.S. This book came to me spontaneously—I spotted the cover with japanese Ukiyo-e and immediately got interested.