Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis, May 2019, Jared Diamond, Little, Brown and Company, 512 pages

51kmp8J8CgL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgJared Diamond is phoning it in. The legendary author of Guns, Germs, and Steel—the epic 1997 account of how Earth’s geography helped to determine the fates of the peoples who inhabit it—has produced a genuine mess of a book.

The shtick of his new tome, Upheaval, is to draw a connection between personal crises and national crises. Diamond’s wife is a clinical psychologist trained in crisis therapy, and largely through her he discovered 12 techniques that professionals try to encourage among their patients. Someone facing a crisis should mentally build a wall separating the actual problem from other things in life that are fine, seek help from friends, model one’s response on solutions others have found effective, decide which of one’s values are truly non-negotiable, etc., etc. Diamond adapts these techniques for national use, explores some case studies in which countries faced crises, and effectively grades each country on how well it applied the techniques—the last of which is an unenlightening exercise, rarely providing insights the reader didn’t already pick up from the case study itself. Then, after a few chapters on current crises such as climate change, nuclear war, and . . . political polarization . . . the book mercifully ends.

Those final chapters focused on the current day are the book’s weakest aspect; they are bland except when they antagonize the reader with bold—or downright laughable—assertions backed up with little evidence. Diamond is very confident that another round of urban riots lurks in America’s near future, thanks to inequality; he thinks we are closer to nuclear war than we have been since the Cuban Missile Crisis; he says the United States is failing his criterion of “honest self-appraisal” because there isn’t “widespread agreement that our fundamental problems are polarization, voter turnout and obstacles to voter registration, inequality and declining socio-economic mobility, and declining government investment in education and public goods.” (Not all of these “fundamental problems” are even real!)

The rest of the book is less aggravating but fails to cohere. His sample of countries, as he admits, is not meant to represent the world as a whole, or even to spotlight the biggest national crises that modern nations have dealt with. Instead, it’s just a handful of nations Diamond happens to know well, and some of the “crises” stretch the meaning of the word. It’s interesting, for example, that after World War II Germany and Japan dealt with the legacy of their horrific war crimes in very different ways. But coming to terms with a disturbing national history over a period of several generations isn’t really a crisis.