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Like a Diamond

Author Jared Diamond brings teachings from tribal societies to Sebastopol for Earth Day

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BETTING ON HOPE Pulitzer Prize winner Jared Diamond explores the range of human behavior around the world.
  • BETTING ON HOPE Pulitzer Prize winner Jared Diamond explores the range of human behavior around the world.

The view from Iron Horse Vineyards, the rustic, respected sparkling wine producer tucked into the hills above Green Valley, would seem to be of an earth that hardly requires much saving.

But when Iron Horse CEO Joy Sterling was casting about for another high-profile guest speaker for the winery's semiannual Earth Day lecture series, she picked Jared Diamond, author of the 2005 doom-and-gloom opus Collapse, which compares our situation today with the uncomprehending, doomed society of ancient Easter Island.

Sterling says that it was Diamond's positive message that attracted her attention, in a speech several years ago. "He was saying we're in a neck and neck horse race between the horse of hope and the horse of doom. Fortunately, he said he's betting on the horse of hope."

The Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel is the scheduled guest speaker at the winery's Earth Day celebration on April 21.

Diamond was an explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C., which Sterling supports with donations from Iron Horse's sparkling Ocean Cuvée. "We met over a glass of Joy's wine," Diamond explains from his home in Los Angeles, recently returned from a trip to New Guinea.

Diamond's most recent book, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?, derives its title from his assertion that "traditional societies . . . retain features of how all of our ancestors lived for tens of thousands of years, until virtually yesterday."

The idea that Westerners might glean a useful tip from the mercifully less civilized is older than Margaret Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa, of course. Diamond proactively demurs that he does not romanticize what he calls traditional societies, societies that exist outside of the "WEIRD" world: "Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic societies."

"I'm not telling people what they should do," Diamond says in a phone interview. "Instead, I'm describing the enormous range of human behavior around the world, much greater than we have in the United States."

Diamond draws from his experiences among the highland people of New Guinea, where he has done fieldwork since 1964, as well as anecdotes from around the world. Fans, such as Sterling, feel that Diamond's broad reach is his genius. "His books are considered required reading if you care about the future of this planet," she says. "He is able to connect the dots in all kinds of disciplines."

In 2009, two New Guinea tribesmen filed a $10 million lawsuit against Diamond because of his article "Vengeance Is Ours," published in the New Yorker. Daniel Wemp, who had been Diamond's driver while he conducted unrelated ornithological research, alleged that Diamond falsely named him as instigator of a clan war that resulted in dozens of deaths and atrocities. A high-profile lawyer went on the case, which was supported by the investigative website iMediaEthics, published by Rhonda Shearer, widow of evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould. The suit was withdrawn after the lawyer's untimely death.

"My notes were very accurate of what he said," Diamond tells the Bohemian. "But New Guineans, like Californians, are very litigious people, and if they see an opportunity to gain financially, they will take that. But that's something that you see in Northern California as well."

The time-consuming resolution of conflict by face-to-face, relationship-rebuilding interaction is, perhaps ironically, one of the hallmarks of traditional societies, according to Diamond.

Nevertheless, the episode with Wemp does not appear in Yesterday. Instead, Diamond draws on accounts of a 1961 "war" in New Guinea to support his assertion that life in traditional societies, and, thus, that of all of our ancestors in the relatively recent past, is more rife with violence than today's WEIRD society.

The so-called Dani War, as depicted in anthropologist Robert Gardner's 1963 documentary Dead Birds, served as a much different inspiration for the author of Ecotopia, the ultimate environmental "what if?" book. Berkeley's late Ernest Callenbach said that the ritualized but largely harmless warfare in his fictional society was modeled after the film.

Much of Yesterday concerns uncontroversial subjects like the high salt and sugar diets of modern populations. But Diamond only goes so far in his recommendation that we adopt the practices of tribal societies. "I love the fact that he's a foodie," says Sterling. "He's a huge foodie. His first question was whether I could get him a reservation at the French Laundry."

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