Jared Diamond. Photo from Wikimedia.

Jared Diamond. Photo from Wikimedia.

Last week, during the Understanding Growth series, I was asked by multiple people to give a list of my influences and books/articles I would recommend reading. I'm going to do that in drips over the coming weeks.

I would be remiss if I did not start the list with Jared Diamond. For a young man living in his hometown, having joined the Army, worked my way through college and now working 60+ hour weeks as a professional, I may have been more than a little self-righteous in my view of the world. I worked hard -- always had -- and I followed the rules. Of course good things were going to come to me, as they would anyone who had done similar. 

Guns, Germs and Steel was eye-opening and, in many ways, changed my life at just the right time. The book starts with a provocative question by a colleague/acquaintance of Diamond's in New Guinea: Why are white people able to bring stuff here to us but we are not able to bring stuff there to them? The answer evolves from a fascinating set of starting conditions and is amplified over centuries by a series of feedback loops that Diamond explores throughout the book. I have only one word for the read: humbling.

A couple of years before the housing crisis, I came across his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, which taught me again how to think systematically about places, people and societies. The mental image of the Norse Greenlanders, too stuck in the hierarchy of their culture to consider changes necessary to their survival, refusing to eat seal or fish and perishing from starvation while the Inuit, living in parallel, demonstrated a viable way to survive, was powerful. To think of the Eastern Islanders tearing, down every tree on their island (growth at all costs) until they could not even build a boat to leave when the society -- tens of thousands -- descended into starvation and cannibalism cutting their numbers to a few hundred, is chilling. These case studies are powerful because we're the same people with the same motivations and likely to make the same rationalizations until it is too late.

I read Diamond's The Third Chimpanzee, which is interesting but not essential, but his latest book is a must read. The World Until Yesterday: What We can Learn from Traditional Societies came out in 2013 and is one of those books I keep going back to. Whether it is diabetes and human health, religion and the basis of belief or the value of economic redundancy, the knowledge embedded in "less sophisticated" societies in many ways dwarfs what we pretend to know about the world. I'm back to where I started: humbled.

If you want to understand Strong Towns thinking, start with these three books by Jared Diamond. Don't let their length intimidate you. All of them are really good read as well as in audio book form.

Top image from Wikipedia.