Upheaval by Jared Diamond – Book Review

How do nations cope with crisis and change? In this brilliant book, the author, historian and geographer Jared Diamond examines how six modern countries have dealt with a crisis, and looks at the crises currently unfolding in contemporary Japan, his home country the USA, and the world at large.

The only Jared Diamond book I’ve read (and loved) previously to this one was Collapse, which explored the demise of past societies around the world, whether due to their misuse of natural resources, unwise political choices, or other factors. It’s fair to say that the book was something of a downer that didn’t exactly paint the humanity in flattering colours. While Upheaval also abounds with sober warnings and possible pessimistic scenarios, it’s altogether a more optimistic book, demonstrating that honest self-appraisal and capacity for change is not out of our reach.

In the opening chapter, Personal Crises, Diamond suggests that a nation going through a crisis is not unlike an individual dealing with a serious personal upheaval in their life, whether it’s a sudden death of a loved one, divorce, serious chronic illness and so on. He then identifies twelve factors that make the resolution of a personal crisis possible, which include: admitting that you’re in trouble, accepting the responsibility to do something about it and resisting the role of victim, learning from others, getting help, and exercising patience. The twelve factors for nations in crisis, Diamond argues, are not terribly dissimilar.

The book then goes through six case studies of countries that suffered a crisis, each about forty pages long, enough to give a reader a good understanding while keeping things concise. These can be split into three distinctive groups, each dealing with a different kind of crisis. At the end of each case study, Diamond assesses how a country fits into the 12-factors crisis framework he’s established earlier on.

The two cases of an internal crisis include Indonesia in 1965 after a coup, and Pinochet’s military dictatorship in Chile after the overthrow of President Salvador Allende in 1973. These countries are the ones whose history I knew the least about, so I felt like I learned the most from these two chapters. The Chilean case is a particularly frightening example of a country with a strong democratic tradition where political polarisation and breakdown of compromise led to a brutal authoritarian dictatorship few Chileans could have predicted. Later in the book, Diamond names political polarisation as the biggest problem facing today’s United States.

The examples of countries that experienced a serious external threat include Finland, whose tiny army faced the might of Soviet Union’s Red Army in the Winter War of 1939-1940, when Stalin attempted to bring Finland into the Soviet fold alongside with Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Needless to say, this chapter was an utterly fascinating read in the light of the current Russian invasion of Ukraine. It remains to be seen whether Ukraine will be required to show the same mix of resistance and accommodation that Finland has, but while not identical in every way the parallels between the two conflicts are downright eerie.

Another country facing a sudden external shock is Meiji-era Japan, forced out of its isolation and into unfavourable terms by the technologically superior United States in 1853 (those steam-powered warships sure made their point). It’s an excellent example of a country that successfully managed a selective change, picking and choosing Western models in order to make itself an equal of the West, while retaining the essentially Japanese core. Unfortunately, the later generation of leaders who got Japan involved in the WWII didn’t display anywhere near the same amount of brutal realism and honest appraisal.

Unlike Japan after the Second World War, which never faced up to its behaviour towards its Asian neighbours, Germany illustrates the importance of admitting a problem and dealing with the dark past that didn’t just involve a few evil individuals at the top. The rebuilding (and later reunification) of Germany is Diamond’s example of a slow, dragged-out crisis that unfolds over decades.

I must admit that initially I was very surprised to see Australia make it into this book; surely its crises couldn’t possibly compare to the other countries, with their wars and coups and rivers of blood? However it turned out to be an enlightening study of a shifting national identity and the question of “Who are we?”, as over the years, Australia stopped thinking of itself as a British outpost in the Pacific, dismantled the White Australia policy, and strengthened its ties with the US and neighbouring Asian countries.

As Diamond stresses over and over, a strong national identity is essential in order for a country to survive a crisis or a trauma, but building that identity in a first place is no easy task. Earlier on, Indonesia is another example of a relatively young country successfully building a sense of national identity, despite being more splintered in terms of geography and language than any other country in the book.

The final chapters, dealing with the current unfolding crises, were perhaps a tad less compelling read – not because they’re no longer relevant because god knows the issues of political polarisation, mass immigration and climate change certainly haven’t gone away since the publication of the book in 2019. But it’s just inevitable for any book tackling “now” issues to feel somewhat dated even a few years down the track, especially when it’s written just before a global crisis wreaked by a certain pesky virus. This however didn’t detract too much and I thought that Upheaval was overall bold and invigorating, with Diamond tackling big issues in his customary lucid and highly readable style.

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