January 5, 2006
Wake Up and Smell the Fish
For UCLA geography professor Jared Diamond, the fall of a great civilization can come down to fish.
"Fish prices have tripled; fish form a significant part of our diet," Diamond told The Journal. "At the rate we're going, most of the world's major fisheries will be gone within a decade."
He doesn't expect Los Angelenos to obsess about it. "Fish don't focus the attention the way a single earthquake does," he said.
But Diamond knows what he's talking about. He's the author of the best-selling nonfiction book "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed" (Viking, 2004). His book is the inspiration for a special exhibit at the L.A. County Natural History Museum. Diamond will talk about his book and his ideas on Jan. 10 at a Writers Bloc Presents lecture at the Skirball Cultural Center.
Diamond, who received a 1985 MacArthur Foundation genius grant, won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction with his earlier book, "Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies" (W. W. Norton & Company). The scope of Diamond's research spans not only geography, but also ornithology, physiology and environmental history.
In the earlier book, Diamond examined how and why Western civilizations developed the technologies and immunities that allowed them to dominate much of the world. "Collapse" looks at the flip side: What caused some of the great civilizations to collapse into ruin and what can people today learn from their fates?
Some of what happens could come down to fish, Diamond said, or to other somewhat overlooked factors. Diamond expects a future massive fish decline to be a global version of the New Orleans levees breaking during Hurricane Katrina. A world without fish, he said, will result in "countries collapsing.... A substantial fraction of the world's people rely on fish for protein."
The Cambridge-educated Diamond, who is Jewish, said he has not found evidence that Jews, Judaism or any other major religion played a dominant role in why a civilization ended.
"I have not noticed that one particular religion is more prone or less prone to collapse," he said.
Nor does he list the modern scourge of terrorism among crucial factors -- at least it doesn't rank nearly in importance with the supply of fish. "People don't get excited about the gradual disappearance of fish," he said, "until 2 billion people start sending out terrorists because they're starving."
Jared Diamond will discuss "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed" at Writers Bloc Presents on Tuesday, Jan. 10, at 7:30 p.m. at the Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information, call (310) 855-0005.