January 9, 2005


THE VANISHING: In “Collapse,” Jared Diamond shows how societies destroy themselves. (MALCOLM GLADWELL, 2004-12-27, The New Yorker)

A thousand years ago, a group of Vikings led by Erik the Red set sail from Norway for the vast Arctic landmass west of Scandinavia which came to be known as Greenland. It was largely uninhabitable—a forbidding expanse of snow and ice. But along the southwestern coast there were two deep fjords protected from the harsh winds and saltwater spray of the North Atlantic Ocean, and as the Norse sailed upriver they saw grassy slopes flowering with buttercups, dandelions, and bluebells, and thick forests of willow and birch and alder. Two colonies were formed, three hundred miles apart, known as the Eastern and Western Settlements. The Norse raised sheep, goats, and cattle. They turned the grassy slopes into pastureland. They hunted seal and caribou. They built a string of parish churches and a magnificent cathedral, the remains of which are still standing. They traded actively with mainland Europe, and tithed regularly to the Roman Catholic Church. The Norse colonies in Greenland were law-abiding, economically viable, fully integrated communities, numbering at their peak five thousand people. They lasted for four hundred and fifty years—and then they vanished.

The story of the Eastern and Western Settlements of Greenland is told in Jared Diamond’s “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed” (Viking; $29.95). Diamond teaches geography at U.C.L.A. and is well known for his best-seller “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” which won a Pulitzer Prize. In “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” Diamond looked at environmental and structural factors to explain why Western societies came to dominate the world. In “Collapse,” he continues that approach, only this time he looks at history’s losers—like the Easter Islanders, the Anasazi of the American Southwest, the Mayans, and the modern-day Rwandans. We live in an era preoccupied with the way that ideology and culture and politics and economics help shape the course of history. But Diamond isn’t particularly interested in any of those things—or, at least, he’s interested in them only insofar as they bear on what to him is the far more important question, which is a society’s relationship to its climate and geography and resources and neighbors. “Collapse” is a book about the most prosaic elements of the earth’s ecosystem—soil, trees, and water—because societies fail, in Diamond’s view, when they mismanage those environmental factors.

There was nothing wrong with the social organization of the Greenland settlements. The Norse built a functioning reproduction of the predominant northern-European civic model of the time—devout, structured, and reasonably orderly. In 1408, right before the end, records from the Eastern Settlement dutifully report that Thorstein Olafsson married Sigrid Bjornsdotter in Hvalsey Church on September 14th of that year, with Brand Halldorstson, Thord Jorundarson, Thorbjorn Bardarson, and Jon Jonsson as witnesses, following the proclamation of the wedding banns on three consecutive Sundays.

The problem with the settlements, Diamond argues, was that the Norse thought that Greenland really was green; they treated it as if it were the verdant farmland of southern Norway. They cleared the land to create meadows for their cows, and to grow hay to feed their livestock through the long winter. They chopped down the forests for fuel, and for the construction of wooden objects. To make houses warm enough for the winter, they built their homes out of six-foot-thick slabs of turf, which meant that a typical home consumed about ten acres of grassland.

But Greenland’s ecosystem was too fragile to withstand that kind of pressure. The short, cool growing season meant that plants developed slowly, which in turn meant that topsoil layers were shallow and lacking in soil constituents, like organic humus and clay, that hold moisture and keep soil resilient in the face of strong winds. “The sequence of soil erosion in Greenland begins with cutting or burning the cover of trees and shrubs, which are more effective at holding soil than is grass,” he writes. “With the trees and shrubs gone, livestock, especially sheep and goats, graze down the grass, which regenerates only slowly in Greenland’s climate. Once the grass cover is broken and the soil is exposed, soil is carried away especially by the strong winds, and also by pounding from occasionally heavy rains, to the point where the topsoil can be removed for a distance of miles from an entire valley.” Without adequate pastureland, the summer hay yields shrank; without adequate supplies of hay, keeping livestock through the long winter got harder. And, without adequate supplies of wood, getting fuel for the winter became increasingly difficult.

The Norse needed to reduce their reliance on livestock—particularly cows, which consumed an enormous amount of agricultural resources. But cows were a sign of high status; to northern Europeans, beef was a prized food. They needed to copy the Inuit practice of burning seal blubber for heat and light in the winter, and to learn from the Inuit the difficult art of hunting ringed seals, which were the most reliably plentiful source of food available in the winter. But the Norse had contempt for the Inuit—they called them skraelings, “wretches”—and preferred to practice their own brand of European agriculture. In the summer, when the Norse should have been sending ships on lumber-gathering missions to Labrador, in order to relieve the pressure on their own forestlands, they instead sent boats and men to the coast to hunt for walrus. Walrus tusks, after all, had great trade value. In return for those tusks, the Norse were able to acquire, among other things, church bells, stained-glass windows, bronze candlesticks, Communion wine, linen, silk, silver, churchmen’s robes, and jewelry to adorn their massive cathedral at Gardar, with its three-ton sandstone building blocks and eighty-foot bell tower. In the end, the Norse starved to death.

Well, sure, except that at least the same number of Europeans and Americans remain in this European land, having conquered the environment even more forcefully and still running roughshod over the Inuit.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 9, 2005 11:18 AM

Sure, technology and global markets have a lot to do with being able to survive in marginal regions. People don't need to live off the land anymore. Though don't the Scandinavian settlements benefit a lot from government subsidies?

Posted by: Robert Duquette at January 9, 2005 1:21 PM

The economies of the North are still based on subsidies from other lands, whether from Ottawa, Copenhagen or Washington. The only reason to be there is resource extraction, which is why their economies collapse whenever the resources run out. Back then it was church vestments and such. Today it's satellite TV dishes and bags of Doritos.

The Norse mistake was that they tried to do all it themselves, and didn't extract enough. To say that they could have survived if they'd gone native is to miss the point of their being there.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at January 9, 2005 1:52 PM

Oh, and one more thing. Let's neglect to mention the part that "Global Cooling" and the Little Ice Age played on agriculture throughout the European world. It caused contraction everywhere, so it's not surprising that the fringes suffered most of all.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at January 9, 2005 2:03 PM

Star Wars

Posted by: oj at January 9, 2005 2:33 PM

I don't get why they couldn't just sail south. It seems unlikely that they actually starved to death.

Posted by: pj at January 9, 2005 4:17 PM

Nice title.

Posted by: carter at January 9, 2005 5:30 PM

This explains why America succeeded. The early settlers focused on managing their environment by becoming nomadic hunters and gatherers rather than wasting time cutting down trees and building churches.

This guy is soooo... nuts.

Posted by: Peter B at January 9, 2005 6:12 PM

The Norse Greenland colonies began at the onset of the Medieval Climate Optimum (1000-1300 A.D.) and died out as the climate again cooled. Coincidence?

Posted by: jd watson at January 9, 2005 6:36 PM

That link leads to the CIA World Factbook.

I'll be getting this.

Guns, Germs and Steel was pretty good.

Posted by: Ali Choudhury at January 9, 2005 6:53 PM

Not too many people wanted to live in the American Southwest, either, until air conditioning and water aqueducts arrived. Technology can alter what is and isn't habitable up to a point, though admittedly there's only so much water to go around in the desert and if Mother Nature wants to expand the ice sheet southward, all the greenhouse gasses humans can produce in the world isn't going to stop it.

Posted by: John at January 9, 2005 9:30 PM

It was the climate change. No doubt about it. Except for the PBS version: they said it was the Church's fault.

Posted by: Lou Gots at January 9, 2005 10:00 PM

A few minutes of thught reveals this book to be the Club of Rome and Paul Erlich recycled. I thought that Julian Simon had put that crap to rest forever.

As for the Vikings, any folk that eat lutefisk and blubber won't starve to death for lack of seafood. Matt Yglesias who is usually amongst the dingbat left was right to sink this one. The Maya are a weak case and entirely inferential. Easter Island is also circumstantial. As for Rwanda, anybody who lived through the 20th century and who thinks that genocide is caused by environmental degradation is a dope. If I could find Mr. Diamond. I would say it to his face.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at January 9, 2005 10:45 PM


It's also significant that the Norse disppeared as a significant force in Europe as well once the Little Ice Age started up. While they didn't disappear, they certainly went from the scourge of Europe to backwater rustics.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at January 10, 2005 12:51 AM

" they certainly went from the scourge of Europe to backwater rustics."

I would suspect that their conversion to Christianity played a part, too. Provides an interesting contemporaneous counterexample to rebut the people who are constantly citing the Crusades as an example of Christianity inspired violence.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at January 10, 2005 2:19 AM

AOG They took over Europe and ran it. By the middle of the 12th century they dominated France, England, the low countries, Italy and the Middle East. Its just that byt that time they had learned some of the local languages and we called Normans.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at January 10, 2005 4:32 AM

The history of the European exploration of the Arctic is a repetition of arrogant Europeans scorningn the Eskimo, until they started to starve and then being saved, if they gave up their prejudices, or dying, if they didn't.

Christians didn't penetrate the North, but secularists did.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at January 10, 2005 3:34 PM

Who do you think runs Thule?

Posted by: oj at January 10, 2005 4:24 PM

Buy Greenland from the Danes, open it up to private sector exploration and watch the population explode.

Posted by: Bart at January 11, 2005 6:30 AM