Book Review: Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis by Jared Diamond

One of the most important nonfiction books of the late nineteenth century is Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond. In it, the author posits that environmental variables rather than inherent differences in ability were responsible for some nations rather than others becoming dominant in world history. Now, Diamond has come up with another amazing book that is no less important in Upheaval. In this new book, the author draws parallels between factors related to the outcomes of personal and national crises. He draws up a list of twelve of these factors and uses this list to analyze a number of nations that experienced historical or present crises.

Diamond does not use objective criteria to select the nations he chooses as examples. Instead, he uses the nations with which he is most familiar both through study and personal experience. These nations are Finland, Japan, Chile, Indonesia, Germany, Australia, and the United States. Finally, he touches on some major problems currently bringing on worldwide crisis.

The crisis in Finland that Diamond expounds upon is the Winter War that Finland fought with the Soviet Union during World War II and Finland’s subsequent diplomatic efforts to maintain itself as an independent country. Diamond writes two separate chapters about crisis in Japan. First is the visit of American Admiral Perry in 1853, which forced Japan out of its isolationism and caused it to embark upon a radical program of diplomacy and westernization. Later, Diamond writes about Japan in the present and its ongoing problems with its national debt, plunging birthrate, overall declining population size, aging population, and the social barriers to equality for women.

Chile’s crisis had to do with Allende’s socialist takeover of the government, Pinochet’s military coup and subsequent murderous rule, and the long road back to democracy. Indonesia, a new and diverse country with many languages and cultures, also suffered from a murderous military dictatorship.

Germany’s crisis was a shattering defeat at the end of World War II and the necessity of rebuilding itself and reunifying as a nation. Australia had to realign its national image after World War II, look less to Britain and more to other countries, and open its doors to immigration, particularly by its Asian neighbors.

As for the United States, Diamond first describes its advantages of geography, self-image, and government. However, it also has the great difficulties of political polarization, an immense disparity of income between the poor and the super-rich, the apathy of its citizens towards the right to vote compared to other countries, and the inability of its underprivileged citizens to advance in economic status.

In Diamond’s view, the most important problems that the world faces now include the ongoing threat of nuclear weaponry, climate change, global resource depletion, and global inequalities between rich and poor.

This is a well-organized, well-researched, well-thought-out, and well-written book. Within its parameters it is rigorous and insightful. It offers an intelligent perspective on the problems facing the United States and the world. It will most likely be widely read, and it should be.

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