The past two years have marked a period of international commotion, with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. As we learn to adjust to a new reality in a historical moment where the future seems uncertain, what’s next for young people?
This question was at the heart of historian Jared Diamond’s Sept. 14 talk at Claremont McKenna College’s Athenaeum. The Pulitzer Prize winning author, geologist and ornithologist discussed the many crises the world faces today, including nuclear war, climate change, depletion of natural resources and global inequality.
“Today, it seems as if we’ve got the worst problems in human history,” Diamond said. “It may seem as if this is the most challenging, the most depressing time in history. But when I looked back on my own life, I realized that each decade of my life seemed at the time to have the worst problems in human history.”
Diamond then recounted the many crises the world witnessed during his lifetime, from World War II and the Holocaust to the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War.
The subject of Diamond’s talk, and much of his academic work, deals with the many issues facing humanity, including his books “Guns, Germs, and Steel” and “Upheaval: How Nations Cope with Crisis and Change.” Nevertheless, Diamond emphasized his intention to inspire hope.
“It’s easy to feel depressed and hopeless, and I’m going to spend some time this evening talking about some of these depressing, seemingly hopeless problems,” Diamond said. “But there’s nothing worse than hearing a talk about depressing problems. That doesn’t give you any ground for hope. If there is no hope, why even attempt to solve the problems?”
Diamond continued on to discuss the instances in which international compromise vanquished dire problems. He cited the global effort to successfully eradicate smallpox, the international ban on fluorocarbons and the suspension of seabed mining in the Law of the Sea Agreement of 1994. He emphasized the need for global compromise in tackling some of the biggest crises humanity faces.
Diamond also addressed the ways young people can make the world a better place for their children, starting by implementing such change now.
“What are the things you can do to make a better world so that come 2050, you’re living in a world worth living in rather than a miserable world where you can’t have children?” Diamond said. “The cheapest and easiest thing you can do is vote.”
Alongside voting, Diamond advocated for protesting and pursuing a career that “does good for the world.”
“To some people protesting is uncomfortable, but if you’re comfortable with protesting, then protest and demand change,” he said. “But you gotta figure out how to protest effectively.”
Diamond’s encouraging words resonated with students who attended his talk, including international relations major Kai Gundlach CM ’24.
“I think he proposed a lot of interesting solutions to problems and he went in depth into how people are solving it,” Gundlach said.
However, Gundlach found Diamond’s talk didn’t go in depth regarding the nuances of societal problems.
“I think he didn’t really explore all of the avenues of how things could be fixed,” Gundlach said.
Another attendee, Lane Moore PZ ’25, found Diamond’s talk failed to answer some of the more difficult questions about the world’s problems.
“I think a lot of the issues that he raised are underpinned by things like global capitalism, issues that he never really addressed while kind of leaning more towards superficial questions,” Moore said. “But I think that there are a lot of greater global systems at work that caused these issues that he raised and never quite addressed because they are quite controversial.”
CMC professor Terril Jones found Diamond’s message inspiring for students, though a bit broad.
“He was talking to young people in general, not necessarily extensively educated young people, since a lot of people are in their first or second year,” Jones said. “So it was a little generic in that sense, but you can see how it can be inspiring and motivate people to say, ‘yeah, that’s what I want to do.’”