The most glaring omission from Diamond’s account is the violence involved in the imperial grab for power. As Eric R. Wolf wrote in Europe and the People Without History (1982): “Europeans and Americans would never have encountered these supposed bearers of a pristine past if they had not encountered one another, in bloody fact, as Europe reached out to seize the resources and populations of the other continents.” Wolf was a Marxist, writing at the dawn of the neoliberal era; his work will never be made into a PBS documentary series as National Geographic did with Guns, Germs, and Steel. Diamond’s bowdlerized account of empire, in contrast, left out the inconvenient history and captured the triumphalist zeitgeist of the fin de siècle. Diamond’s next book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005), was a fitting companion to the previous one. If Guns, Germs, and Steel played to the racial liberalism of upper-class professionals, Collapse flattered their environmental concerns. It purported to illuminate the dark side of the story told in the earlier book. If the haves acquired wealth through geographic accident, Diamond claimed, the have-nots lost it by squandering their own natural resources.
more from Jackson Lears at Bookforum here.