Jared Diamond, polymath, Professor of Geography, ornithologist, author of books about human societies, and director of World Wildlife Fund and Conservation International was ‘In Conversation’ last night at the School of Life to discuss his most recent book, “The World Until Yesterday”. The premise of the book is simple, for most of human history, we have lived in traditional societies without metal tool, writing, central government or modern medicine, until yesterday in evolutionary terms. In light of the recent Western economic, technological and political predominance, Diamond asks whether we have lessons we can learn from traditional societies.
Diamond cautions against romanticizing the past, and obviously we are better off having tamed infectious diseases, reduced infant mortality and many environmental risks, and no longer perceiving every stranger as a threat. However, Diamond asks whether reflecting on traditional societies may give us renewed appreciation for some of the advantages of our own society. In summary, Diamond distills the lessons into a mix of individual and societal decisions: healthy lifestyle habits of exercise, eating slowly and sociably and selecting healthy foods without salt and sugar; multilingual children that are free to explore; caring for and including the elderly; and realistically reassessing our attitude to danger. Statistics show that cars, alcohol and slipping in the shower are the modern mortal hazards. This sounds prescriptive, but in conversation, Diamond was not judgemental, rather he reminds us that traditional societies show there are alternative ways for human beings to order themselves in social, ecological and spiritual spaces. As we are compelled to readdress the way we engage with one another and our wider environment, Diamond reminds us that inspiration springs from diversity, and the simple pleasures.
When questioned about sustainable economy, Diamond remarked that individuals need to feel the environmental consequences of their excesses. Referring to his earlier book, Collapse, Diamond noted that in those societies that have collapsed, the leaders were insulated from the impact of their actions until it was too late to remedy them. Diamond was more sanguine on our ability to learn (noting obesity), perhaps telling in the week the IPCC reported global warming is “unequivocal”, that scientists are 95% certain that humans are the “dominant cause”, and Thomas Stocker, IPCC co-chair cautions climate change “threatens our planet, our only home”.
On a smaller, lighter note, these words of caution remind me of the foreword to a childhood nature book, I have. “In these days of quick and easy transport the countryside is no longer the sanctuary it was for nature, and unless we are careful, those who come after us may justly accuse us of betraying the trust we hold for them. Such a book as this…..is one of the best safeguards that can be provided, since it leaves no grounds for a plea of ignorance”.
And by way of butterflies, if you are looking for ways to restore their sanctuary, garden columnist Robin Lane Fox reveals his strategy to attract more butterflies to his garden, “For the love of painted ladies” in the weekend, Financial Times. Some of the top plants he notes are: purple heliotrope; scabious; buddleias; late-flowering ivy; old Lady’s smock; pale-coloured sedums and clivorum.