UCLA geography professor Jared Diamond’s latest book, The World Until Yesterday, provides food for thought on climate change, though the main focus is his comparison of more than three dozen so-called traditional societies to those in the developed world. Diamond uses the term traditional societies as a catch phrase for ones that exist in contemporary times and haven’t been affected too much by modern societies.

Book Review and Commentary

Tucked into his text, which is based on nearly five decades of his own fieldwork and that of many others, is his observation that it was largely unheard of in traditional societies for anyone to traipse more than a few dozen miles from home turf, for fear of being killed or otherwise harmed for trespassing on the neighboring society’s land.

Diamond points several times to various scales of traditional societies (which he labels with the generally-accepted terms of bands, tribes, or chiefdoms) that had dominated the world until about 5,000-6,000 years ago. About that time, development of agriculture and the resulting growing populations slowly led to the formation of states and their associated governments, and to dramatic eventual changes in how we live. He also notes that we Homo sapiens have hung around for about 60,000-100,000 years (and for hundreds of thousands of years prior to that there were earlier forms of humanoids).

From other sources, we know that humans didn’t even begin to get a decent handle on all the basics of the geography of the globe until the past 600 years or so. And extensive information readily accessible to the general public, such as satellite images, documenting the rapid global spread of air and water contaminants has been available for only the past decade or so (a nanoblink in our timeline).

In addition, our global population has skyrocketed to more than seven-billion, a total vastly exceeding historic numbers. As recently as 1950 world population stood at less than half that, about 2.5-billion. In 1800 there were about one-billion of us; in 500 B.C. about 100-million; and in 10,000 B.C. between one-million and ten-million (so a relatively steady state for 100,000 years or so, then rocket-fueled growth in the past few centuries).

We also know from other sources that a far higher percentage of the world’s people than even a century ago now live in urban or urbanizing settings. And our collective behavior suggests that those of us in such settings generally conclude, based on what we can detect with our five senses, that we are largely buffered from many natural forces via the tools, technologies, and improvements of modern society. That perception seems to lead many to conclude they can readily overcome any natural threats that occasionally occur.

It’s reasonable to conclude, based in large part on these impressions and data, that humans for most of our time on earth have had no way to comprehend our impacts on the rest of the planet: For eons, no one even knew how big the planet was, much less envisioned having a direct impact on far-off spaces (i.e. more than 30-40 miles away).

Perhaps that lack of hands-on learning for the vast majority of our time on the planet helps us understand why many people still find it so hard to accept that humans can now, collectively, alter the planet via climate change, large-scale pollution, invasive species, or in other ways.

UCLA Professor and provocative author Jared Diamond

On the plus side, we know that, as part of our embedded biological heritage, we are blessed with the ability to learn, and quickly, especially if perceived benefits of an action outweigh identifiable costs.

In his book, Diamond presents enough evidence to suggest that personality types very similar to those of today (extrovert, introvert, independent, joiner, leader, follower, etc.) and historical societal and economic structures (albeit at a much smaller scale than is common today) have been around for at least tens of thousands of years, and maybe longer.

Those personality and societal forces seem to play a dominant role in how we humans behave today — especially when shaped by direct, quickly observable tangible drivers such as satisfying hunger and thirst, finding shelter, avoiding physical harm from other people or the environment, and surviving by interacting in locally acceptable ways.

But if and when natural forces strike back hard and regularly, and dominate our perceived technology-based invulnerability, people could conceivably pay attention and respond accordingly and rely on the combined forces of our individual personality traits, local societal structures, ability to learn, and long-term biological heritage of coping with obvious nearby natural threats.

Diamond’s new work, when meshed with that of others, helps us better understand how these current combinations of factors make it so challenging to inform the broad public about seemingly intangible climate change risks many don’t yet see harming them regularly and directly.

It’s not an entirely new idea, but Diamond’s exploration of it helps us conceptualize the possible underpinnings of climate change communications issues in a more definitive way.

From the perspective of a journalist, scientist, or other communicator, the only recourse may be to continue informing the public about related issues. That information, if objective, credible, repeated often enough, and reinforced by on-the-ground tangible impacts affecting a significant percentage of the population, could lead over time to society-wide changes in thought and actions on issues such as our warming planet.

Similarly, the evidence and insights that Diamond offers suggest the entire realm of contemporary thinking, from far left to far right, seems to have a solid biological basis, in certain settings, for tens of thousands of years. That information might lead one to more readily accept most any point of view on its surface, but only after considering whether a person is justifying actions more appropriate in a small traditional society while living in a large collective one.

Among Diamond’s other thought-provoking books on such issues are Collapse (2011) and Guns, Germs, and Steel (1999). In each he looks at various aspects he thinks were involved in the evolution of many of the globe’s societies, including climate and other significant local environmental drivers.

Freelance journalist Bob Weinhold has written extensively for publications ranging from local newspapers to international peer-reviewed journals.