Around 982 c.e., a Viking called Erik the Red discovered two clement fjords that ran into the ice mass of Greenland. On the lower slopes of the fjords there were green pastures; above, dark forests. It looked a little like Norway. Within a few generations there were 5,000 Norse colonists living in Greenland. They built a cathedral, traded walrus tusks for European luxuries, and farmed cattle as they had at home.
But Greenland is not Norway. It is desperately inhospitable. Consider, for example, how the colonists raised cattle: they built low barns in which they lived with their cows for nine months of the year. Each cow was kept in its own tiny stall. The Viking cows were dwarves, just over four feet tall. During winter, they were fed hay the colonists harvested during the short summer. After bad harvests, the hay would run out. Then the colonists would force the cows to eat seaweed, which made the cows sick. When the ice melted in May, the cows were too weak to walk; they were carried outside to eat the new grass.
It ended badly. The colonists cut down all their trees; the thin soil eroded; the hay harvest shrank and with it the Vikings’ herds; the Little Ice Age of the Middle Ages made the winters longer and the seas impassable; one year the trading ships didn’t show—and, after 500 years, the Greenland Norse just vanished from history.
Jared Diamond, a professor of geography at the University of California, Los Angeles, tells the story of the Greenland Norse in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, published earlier this year, and asks, Why did the colonists raise cattle at all? His answer is depressing: because in Scandinavia, cows were proof of wealth. Diamond’s thesis, traced from Easter Island to modern Los Angeles, is that environmental strategies that work for a society at one time and place may be maladapted when circumstances change. If people won’t adopt new strategies, if their environment is fragile and deteriorates, their society collapses.
Diamond is famous for an earlier book, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies, which won the Pulitzer Prize by arguing that European civilization triumphed through geographical luck. Collapse has become a sensation, too. But at 575 pages, Collapse is long, life is short, and most commentators have grappled not so much with the book itself as with shadows of the book—in particular, with a simplistic summary Diamond published in the New York Times on New Year’s Day, 2005, titled “The Ends of the World as We Know Them.”
Environmentalists liked the summary and, therefore, Collapse, because they thought it served the cause; likening our own time to the periods preceding previous historical collapses, Diamond declared, “We can’t continue to deplete our own resources as well as those of much of the rest of the world.” Conservative commentators have been uniformly hostile to what they think the book is about; they complain that Diamond does not understand “the tragedy of the commons”—that is, the phenomenon whereby commonly shared resources are undervalued and, very frequently, ruined by those who use them. In short, Collapse has been drafted into the battle between neo-Malthusians, who believe our economic life is wickedly destructive and must be constrained by governments, and Cornucopians, who think wealth can grow indefinitely and who adore the unfettered power of markets.
This is a pity, because the book is more ingeniously argued and profoundly researched than Diamond’s summary of it suggests. The book’s prescriptions, for instance, are pragmatic; Diamond understands that useful environmental regulation occurs only after complex calculations of costs and benefits. Collapse also considers and dismisses the tragic commons by demonstrating that some resources cannot be owned. But about technology itself, Diamond is less convincing.
In Collapse, Diamond describes himself as being a “cautious optimist”; really, he is gloomy. He writes, “Our world society is presently on a non-sustainable course.” He dismisses technology’s ameliorative powers, writing, “All of our current problems are unintended negative consequences of our existing technology.” But Diamond does not fully understand technology. The collapse of the Greenland colonies was a technological failure: the Norse did not adopt technologies within their grasp, like fishing or silviculture, to their new environment. In this, we are a little like the Norse: oil companies now possess the technologies to drill with limited environmental impact, but for a variety of reasons are not required to do so (see “Wild Profits”). But more, technology also learns and evolves. The Norse scarcely knew how bad things were, and their technologies were very primitive. We know more about our environment and our technologies are more powerful. Perhaps Viking farming is not a very good metaphor for our environmental predicament.
The last chapter of Collapse is titled “The World as a Polder.” Diamond explains how the fields of the Netherlands, reclaimed from the North Sea, have taught the Dutch that they share a common fate. Holland, he says, is a model for global sustainable development. So it is. Communitarianism may be the necessary condition of environmental action. But what Diamond does not add is that the polders of the Netherlands were a technological innovation. In this month’s “Global Perspectives” package, we explain how the Dutch engineered their country into existence (see “The Netherlands”) and how they hope to sell new environmental technologies to a planet that needs them. The same package describes how different nations are working on other technologies that could save the world. We needn’t collapse. Write to me at email@example.com.
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