Jared Diamond Video: With Climate Change, Americans Have Unique Chance to Avoid the Fate of Ancient Maya

Jared Diamond, author of the bestseller “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed,” has a fascinating video discussion of climate change. Below is the video and a blog post on it by WWF’s Nick Sundt.

In a new video, Jared Diamond talks about climate change, drawing parallels between modern Americans and the Classic southern lowland Maya — who failed to take the actions that might have avoided the collapse of their civilization. However, unlike the Maya, we have the “unique opportunity” and capacity to “learn from remote places and to learn from places remote in time,” Diamond says. “And among all the things that might incline me towards pessimism, that is the biggest thing that in the end inclines me towards optimism.”

Jared Diamond is a professor of geography at the University of California at Los Angeles, and is a member of WWF’s board of directors. He is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel; and author of Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. The 11-minute video was recorded in early 2011 by , a site focused on ways people around the world are preparing for and responding to climate change.

Diamond explains that energy and greenhouse gas emissions are among a dozen key groups of environmental problems that confront us and “we’ve got to solve them all.” In the case of climate change, he explains that we must not only slow its pace by reducing emissions, but we must prepare for its impacts and adapt. To some extent, we now are “stuck with it”:

“We have to do things to adapt to climate change such as — in California — planting olive trees rather than almond trees. Then there are things to do for wild plants and animals. What do we do about some chipmunk species living on top of a mountain in the Western United States that thrives on cold temperatures, and the mountain is getting warmer and warmer? So this cold habitat is gradually moving up towards the top of the mountain, and the cold habitat is gradually moving off into the sky where there aren’t any chipmunks. What do we do about all those plant and animal species that are threatened by climate change? …It’s going to require having some either new conservation areas; or species that are now being conserved in Yellowstone National Park will increasingly be getting conserved in Glacier National Park further to the North. In some cases it’s going to require actual transplanting that chipmunk on the top of a mountain rising out of the Great Basin. That chipmunk is going to have to be moved somewhere because that mountain is not going to be suitable for the chipmunk. “

In the interview, Diamond draws lessons from the Mayan experience:

“There are so many societies in which the elite made decisions that were good for themselves in the short run and ruined themselves and societies in the long run. For example, the most advanced society in the New World before Columbus was the Maya of the Yucatan Peninsula, Guatemala and Honduras. They ended up collapsing …. because of a combination of climate change, drought, water management problems, soil erosion, deforestation….So the Mayan kings had strong power. Why didn’t the Mayan kings just look out the windows of the Palaces and see the forests getting chopped down, soil being eroded down at the valley bottom. Why didn’t the kings say `stop it’? Well the kings had managed to insulate themselves from the consequences of their actions — in the short run. Even while the forests were being chopped down, they were still being fed well by the commoners, they were in their wonderful palaces. And the kings didn’t recognize that they were making a mess until it was too late, when the commoners rose in revolt. Similarly, in the United States at present, the policies being pursued by too many wealthy people and decision makers are ones that — as in the case of the Mayan kings — preserve their interests in the short run but are disastrous in the long run.”

Will we go the way of the Maya? Diamond is hopeful that we will choose otherwise:

“Today, we have archeologists who tell us about the mistakes that the Maya and the Greenland Norse and the Anasazi made, and we also have archeologists who tell us about the good decisions that the Tokugawa Japanese and the Icelanders made. So we can learn from the past. And then we can turn on our television sets. We can see what it’s like in Somalia. We can also see what it’s like today in Norway or Bhutan. And we can decide: Do we like the lifestyle of Bhutan or do we like the lifestyle in Somalia? Which do we choose to emulate? We have this opportunity to learn from remote places and to learn from places remote in time. No other society in world history has had that advantage. And among all the things that might incline me towards pessimism, that is the biggest thing that in the end run inclines me towards optimism. We have this unique opportunity.”

In an earlier video (November 2009), Diamond framed the climate change threat in another compelling way, not by referring to earlier civilizations but by focusing on more immediate, personal concerns and priorities:

“We are working so hard for our children and grandchildren. All of us parents send our kids to school; we debate endlessly about whether our kids are in the right school. We draw up our wills, and maybe we draw up trusts. We buy life insurance. It’s all wasted if what we are propelling out kids into is a world not worth living in.”

Nick Sundt

Online Resources:

Classic Maya Collapse. Wikipedia.

Below are the earlier comments from the Facebook commenting system:

Curtis L Walker

Share Liberally.

June 19 at 8:31amDorvek Prolétariat

“How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed”: by referendum?

June 19 at 9:34amAlexander Ač

Great Jared… but optimism never dies.. 🙂

June 19 at 9:55am


The Optimism Bias

a growing body of scientific evidence points to the conclusion that optimism may be hardwired by evolution into the human brain…the core function of the memory system could in fact be to imagine the future — to enable us to prepare for what has yet to comeBut something unexpected occurred. Once people started imagining the future, even the most banal life events seemed to take a dramatic turn for the better. Mundane scenes brightened with upbeat details as if polished by a Hollywood script doctor.


People with mild depression are relatively accurate when predicting future events. They see the world as it is. In other words, in the absence of a neural mechanism that generates unrealistic optimism, it is possible all humans would be mildly depressed.

To induce expectations of success, she primed college students with words such as smart, intelligent and clever just before asking them to perform a test. To induce expectations of failure, she primed them with words like stupid and ignorant. The students performed better after being primed with an affirmative message.

Examining the brain-imaging data, Bengtsson found that the students’ brains responded differently to the mistakes they made depending on whether they were primed with the word clever or the word stupid. When the mistake followed positive words, she observed enhanced activity in the anterior medial part of the prefrontal cortex (a region that is involved in self-reflection and recollection). However, when the participants were primed with the word stupid, there was no heightened activity after a wrong answer. It appears that after being primed with the word stupid, the brain expected to do poorly and did not show signs of surprise or conflict when it made an error.

A brain that doesn’t expect good results lacks a signal telling it, “Take notice — wrong answer!” These brains will fail to learn from their mistakes and are less likely to improve over time. Expectations become self-fulfilling by altering our performance and actions, which ultimately affects what happens in the future.

Why would our brains be wired in this way? It is tempting to speculate that optimism was selected by evolution precisely because, on balance, positive expectations enhance the odds of survival. Research findings that optimists live longer and are healthier, plus the fact that most humans display optimistic biases — and emerging data that optimism is linked to specific genes — all strongly support this hypothesis. Yet optimism is also irrational and can lead to unwanted outcomes. The question then is, How can we remain hopeful — benefiting from the fruits of optimism — while at the same time guarding ourselves from its pitfalls?


I believe knowledge is key. We are not born with an innate understanding of our biases. The brain’s illusions have to be identified by careful scientific observation and controlled experiments and then communicated to the rest of us. Once we are made aware of our optimistic illusions, we can act to protect ourselves. The good news is that awareness rarely shatters the illusion. The glass remains half full. It is possible, then, to strike a balance, to believe we will stay healthy, but get medical insurance anyway; to be certain the sun will shine, but grab an umbrella on our way out — just in case.

Read more:​ealth/article/0,8599,20740​67,00.html

June 19 at 11:29am

Richard Dudeney

In my opinion a significant process would be:

An insult will make an innocent person introverted because the only way to protect yourself is to know yourself and your environment. The introversion will be the beginning of the (long) process of obtaining that knowledge. Someone who has been insulted will have their attention divided between this introversion and the task set for them and thus on average will perform worse in the short term.


A person with experience who knows themselves and their environment will take insults ‘on the chin’ — they understand the dynamics of interpersonal relationships and thus will perform the same whether you insult or praise them on a set task. Therefore in the long run honesty and straightforwardness are more valuable than either over optimism or pessimism.

June 19 at 4:31pm

Richard Brenne


Please keep your great links and comments coming, but please credit the author who has done the work (often a life’s work) so that we know who’s talking. With no credit or name given other than a link at the bottom, it would be easy for many to misunderstand who the author is. In this case, just a simple “Tali Sharot writes in Time Magazine:” at the top would suffice. Thank you!

June 20 at 9:12pm

Dan Staley

Can we actually use our big brains for something other than following Kardashians around while they shop?

June 19 at 10:15amRichard Brenne

There are brains involved?

June 20 at 1:34am

Pat Brown

It is amazing to me how little known Jared’s books are at large, given that what he presents is of the utmost urgency: survival, or not.

June 21 at 6:42pm

Robbert Carr

well THAT brain anyway…

June 22 at 8:41pm

John McCormick

Yes, we have the capability to change but do we have the time?

June 19 at 10:34amSylvia S Tognetti

It depends….

June 19 at 12:07pm

Paul Magnus

on if time slows down?

June 20 at 3:50pm


More than two million people are now reported to have been affected by deadly floods in eastern China.

Torrential rain was continuing, leaving large parts of Zhejiang and Hubei provinces under water, state-run news agency Xinhua said. It said nearly 1,000 businesses were being disrupted and crops destroyed, pushing up food prices. This month’s flooding — the worst since 1955 — has already left about 170 people dead or missing, reports say. The government has mobilised troops to evacuate hundreds of thousands of people.

The floods come after months of crop-destroying drought in the centre and north of the country. Some areas along the Yangtze River have suffered their worst drought in half a century. Despite the rain, officials have warned that the crop shortages and dislocation caused by drought will remain severe. Analysts say crop shortages in China could affect prices around the world.​world-asia-pacific-1383106​8June 19 at 10:49am


China floods bring steep food price rises

Regional vegetable prices rise by 40% as rains flood more that 1m acres of farmland and affect lives of 5.7 million people​world/2011/jun/19/china-fl​oods-food-price-rises

June 19 at 2:46pm


Budget cuts may hamper flooding researchSIOUX FALLS, S.D. — The Missouri River flood — unprecedented in the careers of anyone involved in engineering, hydrology or fish and wildlife management — offers unparalleled research opportunities.

But this disaster is happening at a time when a weak economy and belt-tightening in Congress may limit the chance to do any studies.

John Cooper, the retired secretary of the state Game, Fish and Parks Department and an adviser to South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard on Missouri River issues, quickly can think of several things the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should study:

•The Corps’ use of weather data.•Movement of information through the Corps bureaucracy.•The Corps’ runoff projections.•How the flood is affecting fish species.​ather/floods/2011-06-19-mi​ssouri-river-flood-fallout​_n.htm

Or how this affects nuclear plants near the rivers…

June 19 at 2:48pm


China’s cancer village: a product of industrial pollution​environment/video/2010/jun​/07/china-cancer-pollution

June 19 at 2:51pm

Patrick Linsley

Hey Prokaryotes, have you thought of doing a newsvine thing like coloradobob1 does? It would be good to be able to keep up to date on this stuff.

June 20 at 12:17am


Unsafe Radiation Found Near Tokyo, Vast Area of Japan Contaminated​ory/2011/06/16/985938/-eSc​i:-Unsafe-Radiation-Found-​Near-Tokyo%2C-Vast-Area-of​-Japan-Contaminated?via=si​derec.

June 19 at 10:49am


What is the difference from the people today and those Mayans, Romans etc? Not much, except you have today much more technological power, greed and impact.

All systems seek equilibrium…

June 19 at 11:03amMorris Meyer

“We are working so hard for our children and grandchildren. All of us parents send our kids to school; we debate endlessly about whether our kids are in the right school. We draw up our wills, and maybe we draw up trusts. We buy life insurance. It’s all wasted if what we are propelling out kids into is a world not worth living in.”.

June 19 at 11:09amKen Calkin

Jared Diamond, who Wrote COLLAPSE, talks about the lessons we can learn from previous societies and global warming.

June 19 at 11:25amPeter S. Mizla

Americans have to make a choice- the extreme consumption based egocentric society of having ‘things’ of the last 35 years or something different- the choice is theirs.

June 19 at 11:58am


Think Big: Transportation overhaul would save money, create jobs, cut pollution, burn less oil​ory/2011/06/19/984608/-Thi​nk-Big:-Transportation-ove​rhaul-would-save-money,-cr​eate-jobs,-cut-pollution,-​burn-less-oil?via=blog_1.

June 19 at 2:37pmColorado Bob

Cape Grim Greenhouse Gas Data.The latest greenhouse gas data updated monthly from one of the cleanest air sources in the world.​ouse-gases/June 19 at 3:03pmBenno Hansen

one of my favourite books!

June 19 at 4:46pm

Anthony Silvestri

Our expensive lifestyles can’t continue. Individually and collectively, we must adapt to the times following a pathway of descent (as opposed to collapse), as outlined by the Transition Towns movement.

June 20 at 9:40amBob Geiger

An unpersuaded person is unlikely to be persuaded by this video. Diamond is a well-credentialed, well-respected figure. But the consequences of climate change will be what? Chipmunks dying on mountaintops? That doesn’t seem likely to do in civilization. Moreover, do the dangers posed by toxic waste really rival the dangers posed by climate change? We have a messaging issue here. Let’s use our big brains to address that.

June 20 at 6:42pmNick James

It’s very hard for me to be optimistic about all this. I think we are like the obese, diabetic, smoker who is being told by his doctor to make drastic lifestyle changes now or risk catastrophic failure of health. Experience has shown us that most people fail to make the appropriate changes in time.

June 20 at 8:03pmRichard Pauli

Americans? I thought it was a global problem.

June 22 at 12:38amRobertson Work

As the unsustainable and unjust fossil fuel civilization comes to an end, we have the opportunity to create a new civilization of sustainable human development.

June 25 at 11:04amGeorge Holcombe

An article well worth paying attention to, few have said it so well.

June 25 at 1:34pmReinard Knutsen

Thank you George. I am watching the video now.

June 25 at 1:52pm

William F Tibor

Those who continue to deny Global warming will reject this, along with evolution, proving once again that science and education is a waste.

June 28 at 4:46pmTom J DeLany

Good lord…. Neanderthals abound on both sides….. The farmer just west of me is ripping out his Almonds due to federally restricted water policy not climate! I have deer in my front yard and believe that chipmunks will move just like deer, mice and humans when the climate is not well liked…. as for life style, the present administration as changed that more than anything a 1,000 year flood could possibly do. I always find the doom & gloom crowd to be so much like those they hate that are calling this the end of times…… 1am….scurry, scurry……. and move those chipmunks today!

June 28 at 5:57pm

William F Tibor

Tom, Your reaction was predictable if you are correct so many others will be wrong, most of them….So confidently Right!

June 28 at 6:20pm