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Jared Diamond in Conversation: Opportunity in Crisis

COVID-19 Insights July 13, 2020
COVID-19 Insights July 13, 2020

 

Most of us have heard of Jared Diamond, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author who has dedicated his life to tackling some of the biggest questions about human life and experience, like why some societies thrive while others fade away. His book Guns, Germs and Steel explores why human history unfolded differently across the globe, and why certain societies fared better than others as a result of geography rather than race. In Collapse, he looks at why some societies self-destruct, and how we can learn to be survivors; in Upheaval, he asks why some nations recover from crisis while others do not, and what individuals and nations can do to become more resilient.

We are in a unique and pivotal moment in history. As we face COVID-19 and chart the road to recovery, and life on the other side of this pandemic, these are some of the same questions we need to be asking ourselves today. What can we learn from past experiences? How can crisis be the catalyst for change, and what is the role of leaders, nations and businesses? What can we learn from COVID-19 and what are the reasons for hope?

These were some of the questions I had the privilege of putting to the renowned author directly when he joined us for a virtual fireside chat at our Managing Directors meeting in June.

We spoke on topics far and wide, and close to home, including our impact on the community and how it drives our behaviour at BMO. In the past decade, especially, we have redefined what a stakeholder is, resulting in our Purpose statement a year ago, to boldly grow the good in business and life. As I’ve said many times before, this was one of the most powerful changes in the bank in the past 10 years.

For Jared Diamond, the COVID-19 crisis is providing for the first time in world history an opportunity to come together as a planet, and mobilize at a global level to solve a global problem.

I would not presume to paraphrase my conversation with Jared. Rather, see below some excerpts from our conversation, edited for length.

On Dealing with Crisis

All of you know from personal experience – whether it’s the break-up of a marriage or career setback – that there are factors that make it more or less likely that you will be able to deal with a crisis. Number one, you have to acknowledge a crisis. If you don’t acknowledge it, you get nowhere. You know that you have to take responsibility. You can’t just blame others and fall into self-pity, and that is also true of nations. Finally, you have to know that, in a crisis, you also have to adopt selective change, and that’s true for a nation, and that’s true for the world of business.

On Global Identity and Cause for Optimism

The world has long suffered from the lack of a world identity. We think of ourselves as Americans, in the EU people think of themselves as Europeans, but we don’t think of ourselves as citizens of the world. And yet, we have a world COVID crisis.

There are grounds for optimism. COVID, for the first time, will have mobilized the world to face a global crisis, because COVID faces everybody. No country alone can protect itself against COVID, so for the first time in world history, the world is mobilized to solve, at a global level, a global problem.

On Facing Other Global Problems That Put Our “Forever” at Risk

Once we’ve dealt with COVID, my hope would be that that will then serve as a model for the world to deal with problems much more serious than COVID. COVID, yes, it’s awful, but it’s not going to be forever. The economy will recover ... but think of the big problems, like climate change, which, if we don’t solve, will ruin our ‘forever’, or the exhaustion of essential world resources, or inequality around the world.

My cause for optimism is that, having solved the COVID problem, by mobilizing world action at a global level, within the next year or two, finally, the world will feel mobilized to face the bigger global problems.

On COVID as a Determined Teacher

It’s rare that a problem arises and immediately we get on the right track to solve the problem. Routinely, in solving a problem, whether it’s personal or national, one experiments, and the first few attempts fail. In the case of COVID … many nations have tried to solve it one by one, but they are getting taught a lesson, because they know that if they just control COVID within their own frontiers, they are going to get re-infected, as has already happened with China, as has already happened with New Zealand. Not all of us have learned the lessons that COVID is teaching us, but COVID is a determined teacher and will keep at us until we have learned all that.

On the Importance of Leadership

Leadership in this case makes the difference, and we have examples before us of good leaders and bad leaders.

Winston Churchill was, in 1940, handed a bad deck of cards. The Nazi army had overcome all of its opponents except Britain; the Nazi air force was getting ready to invade Britain. Churchill did a magnificent job of convincing the British not to attempt to make peace with Nazi Germany. He identified with all British people, and that’s an example of a good leader.

Abraham Lincoln was another good leader, who spoke to all Americans. In his Gettysburg Address, Lincoln did not use the words north or south; (instead) he spoke to all Americans. That is another wonderful example of leadership.

That’s just a couple of examples of leaders who have set a good example by mobilizing everybody by trying to unify their constituents.

On Globalization

People often ask me, Jared, is globalization helping us or is it hurting us. My answer is that globalization is neutral, it does good things (and) it does bad things. Globalization means jet planes that have allowed COVID to spread around the world very quickly – that’s a downside of globalization. Globalization also means that solutions spread around the world.

On Learnings from Guns, Germs and Steel

That was a book where I think the answer that I got in 1997 is substantially the correct answer. There are not major things that I would change about it, but there are new things that enrich the picture.

On COVID and Stress

Stress is just one of those things that we just have to get used to, but one of the things that could help us deal with stress is to reflect that there is going to be good to come out of this, believe it or not. That this may help the world tackle the really big world problems, and that is something that I have to remind myself of.

On Climate Change, Resource Use, Inequality

The big problems facing the world are the problems that were here before COVID and that will be there after COVID, and which can undermine our economies permanently instead of just for a year.

The first big problem is climate change, which is in the process of creating difficulties for almost all of us around the world, and the damage will be permanent unless we get it fixed. The second is unsustainable resource use. We humans depend on resources, many of which are renewable, such as forests and fisheries and topsoil, and fresh water is renewable through rain. But we are exploiting these renewable resources unsustainably, such that we will run out of them within the next few decades. And then there is the problem of inequality around the world.

I’m a cautious optimist, and by that I mean that I recognize that we have big world problems, but we are capable of solving those problems because the big world problems are the ones that we ourselves are creating. We can choose to stop creating problems.

On His Next Book

I’m interested in leadership. Leadership makes a difference. In the lead-up to COVID, my next book was on leadership and I’ve not changed my mind.

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Dan Barclay Chief Executive Officer & Group Head, BMO Capital Markets