Diamond, a professor of geography at the University of California-Los Angeles, looks every bit the eccentric, brilliant former field researcher that he is, sporting his trademark beard with no mustache and wearing a robin-red suit jacket. He's here to talk about his new book, The World Until Yesterday, which describes his work with Papua New Guinea natives and ponders what modern people in developed areas can learn from primitive societies.
The talk and book-signing event, sponsored by Changing Hands Bookstore and Arizona State University's Global Institute of Sustainability, is so popular that it must be held at the large arts center -- prices started at $25 a head (book included). His books explain masterfully the accidents of geography that led to the dominance of Western societies and how the failure to create sustainable environments leads to sometimes-rapid declines. A reporter works his way to the professor for a handshake and question: What does he think about the long-term prospects of the Phoenix metro area?
"I'd better not say. I haven't researched the history of the place," he says, declining the question with a thin smile. "But . . ."
He turns away for a second, holding out an arm to sweep the view of manmade Town Lake. "What is that doing there?"
A few people chuckle uncomfortably as Diamond smiles at his quip. It's unclear whether he realizes he's made a social faux pas at the expense of his hosts. As he walks away to chat with others who want to meet him, the ASU faculty members who heard the exchange suggest, in hushed voices, that the esteemed professor didn't know what he was talking about.
Tempe Town Lake is a source of pride for ASU. The idea for it sprang in 1966 from the minds of ASU students, who were asked by then-dean of the architecture school, James Elmore, to think of ways to rehabilitate the dry scar of a riverbed that runs through most of Central Phoenix and its eastern suburbs.
Water in the riverbed, arguably, isn't an example of wasteful water policy -- it's the restoration of the natural order of things.
Water ran year-round through the Valley of the Sun in the Salt River until the 1940s, when canal improvements dried up the last trickles. The main flow had been stanched decades earlier with the construction of upstream dams that tamed the river, capturing water for use through years of drought and nearly eliminating the threat of damaging floods. In the process, dozens of miles of tree-lined riparian habitat running across the Phoenix area were destroyed.
When Town Lake was filled 15 years ago this summer, a two-mile section of the sad-looking, trash-ridden, dry riverbed became something like the pleasant place it used to be many decades earlier.
And it's been a money magnet.
About $1.5 billion in lakeside development either has been built or is on the way, city officials boast. The economic feedback to the city has been about $578 million, enabling it to build structures like the Center for the Arts, which opened in 2007. Professor, that's what Town Lake is doing there.