Silvia Ceriani, from the Slow Food Headquarters about a book worth reading in times of crisis
In Italy, we are now three weeks into quarantine and, among the many resilience strategies we are adopting to spend this time, there is reading – which is actually a great strategy at any time.
Among the books that have been lying on my bedside table for a while is a book written by Jared Diamond “Upheaval: How Nations Cope with Crisis and Change” (2019). He is an author known for books such as, “Guns, germs and steel: A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years” (1998), and “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed ” (2005). His new book, published just a year ago, looks at crises and their possible solutions by adopting an interesting perspective: the parallelism between personal and national crises, applying it to seven case studies.
STUDYING HISTORY TO BETTER UNDERSTAND THE FUTURE
Finland at war with the Soviet Union (1939) and Japan of the Meiji (1853) give the opportunity to look at two nations subjected to a violent external shock. Pinochet’s Chile (1973) and Indonesia in the 1960s are instead two examples of sudden crises determined by internal causes. Finally, the two national crises, or rather much slower transformation processes, faced by Germany after the Second World War and by Australia starting in the 1960s, when it went through a strong identity crisis.
There is a lack of an overview of current or future crises, whose outcomes are not at all predictable: in this case, from the perspective of individual nations (again Japan and the United States) we move on to that of the planet as a whole: the use of nuclear weapons, climate change, the depletion of the planet’s resources, inequalities in standards of living, and (the issue is only hinted at, but it is the one that now concerns us most closely), the spread of new contagious diseases.
PERSONAL CRISES, NATIONAL CRISES
Can parallelism be drawn between personal and national crises? According to Diamond, yes, and in this regard, an approach known as “crisis therapy” helps the individual to implement selective change strategies that help him/her to draw the boundaries of the problem, and to overcome the feeling of paralysis.
The 12 factors identified by therapists for the resolution of a personal crisis have clear points of contact with the factors that influence the outcomes of national crises. Without listing them all in detail, I will focus on just a few of them.
The recognition of the state of crisis is the acknowledgment, the admission of having a problem, i.e. the first fundamental step we can take, as individuals and as nations – and in a more complex way as a global community – to try to solve it. Its opposite is the denial of the problem, and it is a strategy that does not pay off, because it determines the chronicization of the problem itself.
The next step is the acceptance of responsibility that causes both individuals and nations to adopt a mature attitude, free of self-pity and victimizing attitudes, that leads them to try to change their behavior and reactions.
Hence the need to draw a clear boundary, to outline the individual/national problems to be solved. This is a fundamental step because if we could think about what works within us and what we can and must discard, it would be easier to find a valid alternative, without feeling completely paralyzed or inadequate. Diamond does not speak of change in a strict sense, but of selective change. Intimately linked to this passage there is the capacity for self-criticism, which consists of an honest, and often painful, evaluation of one’s own resources and weaknesses.
And then there is the decisive conversation about others, who in personal crises can offer material and emotional support, but also become models to inspire us.
WONDERING ABOUT STRATEGIES
Since we are in a state of obvious crisis, involving all levels – from individual to national to global – it is difficult to read Upheaval without asking questions – and try to find answers – about how we are acting now and also about how we will prepare for future challenges, which have certainly not disappeared from the horizon for the new coronavirus emergency.
We can use many of the points listed above to ask ourselves about the strategies we have adopted and the corrective measures we can take. Have we recognized the state of crisis? Have we done so in a timely manner? Are we willing to acknowledge our responsibilities, perhaps trying to understand whether the spread of the virus has a link with the destruction of nature, which we have been carrying out for decades and with all the warning signs that we are more or less consciously ignoring? Can we draw a line, identifying the selective changes we need to make, reviewing our lifestyles and putting the public good first instead of the preservation at all costs of an economic system that is proving increasingly inadequate? How can we implement strategies of cooperation and mutual aid, and act as a community rather than as individual entities?
Well, these are some of the questions that the book Upheaval can stimulate, even if it is not focused on the theme of this emergency, and it can do so for now and for the future. It is increasingly clear, in fact, that rebuilding everything as before makes no sense, and that many other problems such as climate change, resource depletion or social inequalities will soon present us their bill if we do not try to do some selective change.