August 15, 2005


Why nations die (Spengler, 8/16/05, Asia Times)

Why people read a certain book often contains more information than the book itself, and there is rich information content in the brisk sales of Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Diamond picks out of the rubbish bin of history a few cases of nugatory interest in which environmental disaster overwhelmed a society otherwise desirous of continued existence. According to the publisher's notice (I do not read such piffle), Diamond avers that the problem was in breeding too fast and cutting down too many trees.

The silly Vikings of Greenland refused to eat fish, disdained the hunting techniques of the Inuit, and consumed too much wood and topsoil. As a result their colony collapsed during the 15th century and they all died. One feels sorry for the Greenlanders, though not for their cousins on the Scandinavian mainland, who just then stood at the cusp of their European power.

Something similar happened to the Easter Islanders, who chopped down all their palm trees and the Mayans of Central America, who burned their forests to build temples. Diamond thinks this should serve as a warning to the inveterate consumerists of the United States, who presumably also face extinction should they fail to erect legal barriers to suburban sprawl.

Ideological reflex is too mild a word for this sort of thinking; perhaps the term "cramp" would do better. Given that America returns land to the wilderness each year, the danger to American survival from deforestation must be on par with the risks of being hit by a large asteroid. The world is not breeding too fast - birthrates are everywhere falling - and the industrial countries (except for the Anglo-Saxons) fail to reproduce at all.

Why should the peculiar circumstances that killed obscure populations in remote places make a geography professor's book into a bestseller? Evidently the topic of mass extinction commands the attention of the reading public, although the reading public wants to look for the causes of mass extinction in all but the most obvious place, which is the mirror. Diamond's books appeal to an educated, secular readership, that is, precisely the sort of people who have one child or none at all. If you have fewer than two children, and most of the people you know have fewer than two children, Holmesian deductive powers are not required to foresee your eventual demise.

After rejecting revealed religion, modern people seek an sense of exaltation in nature, which is to say that they revered the old natural religion.

They're looking for revealed nature.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 15, 2005 8:40 AM

The man is brilliant.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at August 15, 2005 8:47 AM

The silly Vikings of Greenland refused to eat fish, disdained the hunting techniques of the Inuit, and consumed too much wood and topsoil. As a result their colony collapsed during the 15th century and they all died.

Could I humbly state one other factor - that they settled in friggin' Greenland!!

Posted by: Robert Duquette at August 15, 2005 11:10 AM

I have Diamond's book G,D & S but after watching the PBS special, I don't know if I can stand to read it. Piffle is not too strong a word if the special was true to the book, especially part 3 dealing with Africa. All sentiment and cherry picked "facts".

Posted by: Patrick H at August 15, 2005 11:12 AM


Thule, typically, is thriving:

Posted by: oj at August 15, 2005 11:16 AM

Robert: Greenland was perfectly inhabitable when they settled there. Then the climate changed and it became impossible to survive. If only Medieval Europe had burned more coal, they'd have made it...

Posted by: b at August 15, 2005 11:29 AM

...or if the Vikings had imported more cows to fart them into the temperate zone.

Posted by: Peter B at August 15, 2005 12:05 PM

That's the reason it's been sitting on my shelf for over 2 years. I bought it on the recommendation of a friend.

Posted by: Patrick H at August 15, 2005 12:26 PM

Let's not forget Greenland's imperial ambitions over Canada as demonstrated by the competing claims to Hans Island.

And from that article on Thule:

"kids played kickball"

I guess the product of the Berkely School of Journalism doesn't recognize metric football when she sees it. But she's still qualified to discourse on the evils of American Military Imperialism.

And I like that attitude that the outside world shouldn't intrude into their little icy paradise, except to keep that half billion dollar in Danish kroner subsidy coming in.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at August 15, 2005 1:24 PM

Or had the Greenland colonists adapted the locals' habits. Despite b's claim, Greenland obviously did not become unihabitable, as the Innuit survived there. The climate change (also known as "The Little Ice Age": ) made "European style agriculture untenable": but that's not quite the same thing.

What I take away from this and my previous readings is that societies don't chose to die, they (as OJ goes on about) fail to chose to survive. The Greenlanders are an archetypical case. They could have survived, as the Innuit did, but failed to chose to change enough to do so. Western Europe could have more children, reform their welfare states, etc. It's not physically impossible. It does, however, appear to be psychologically impossible. Like freezing to death in a snow storm, it's easier to just stop. Going on, surviving, is what's hard.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at August 15, 2005 2:18 PM

AOG: We went through this already:

I shall repeat what I wrote before:

A few minutes of thought 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 sank this nonsense with a few minutes of historical resaerch on Google. 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 August 15, 2005 2:58 PM

No society should have to eat fish to survive. It's inhuman. Suicide is the honorable thing to do in such situations. How can you condemn your progeny to such a fate?

Posted by: Robert Duquette at August 15, 2005 5:01 PM

Mr. Schwartz;

Fair enough, but I never mentioned eating fish, which is what Yglesia talks about. The fact remains that the Innuit in Greenland survived and the Vikings didn't. Unless wants to argue for significant genetic differences, it would have to be cultural differences, right?

P.S. Having not read Diamond's book, I have no comment in it in particular. I was theorizing in general from the facts that the Viking Greenlanders died out and the Europeans appear to be doing the same in situations where survival is possible.

P.P.S. Regarding our previous go around, since the Little Ice Age didn't get heavy until the mid to late 1300's, dominance in the 12th Century isn't particularly relevant. However, I will concede that the end of the Viking scourge could be explained by the Vikings having won.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at August 15, 2005 6:32 PM

I am almost speechless, so in awe am I of the blinding, numbing stupidity of the idea that cultures such as the Innuit are to be held up as exemplars because their survival tactic is to cling to existence on land that no one else can use.

Posted by: Lou Gots at August 15, 2005 8:16 PM

Again, I'd point out that we've found it quite useful at Thule AFB.

Posted by: oj at August 15, 2005 8:24 PM

Mr. Gots;

I'd say it beats dieing, in a protracted and painful way, on land no one else can use.

I wasn't holding up the Innuit as exemplars, but the Viking Greenlanders as anti-exemplars. Is comparing Pinochet favorably to a communist dictatorship the same as holding him up as an exemplar (ignoring OJ for the moment)?

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at August 15, 2005 9:36 PM

Pinochet was perfectly adapted to the environment in Chile.

Posted by: oj at August 15, 2005 9:39 PM

So you're what you're saying is the Vikings should have learned to (1) eat fish, or (2) watch for Russian ICBMs coming over the Pole.

Posted by: joe shropshire at August 15, 2005 11:34 PM


No, that they did the latter.

Posted by: oj at August 15, 2005 11:43 PM

What I am saying is that attempting to survive in Greenland, or New Guinea, or the Kalahari, is not a winning proposition. The winning proposition is to board the ship, or the wagon train, and set out for better lands.

Repl. Obj. 1: AFB Thule is not a place we choose to live in. We live in the choicest land on the planet, which we defend with outposts on key terrain.

Repl Obj. 2: The stupidity I spoke of is Diamond's, not any of our correspondents, whom I had no intention of offending. Diamond does in fact hold than marginal peoples are to be emulated.

Posted by: Lou Gots at August 16, 2005 6:54 AM


We aren't leaving.

Posted by: oj at August 16, 2005 8:10 AM

Wouldn't even if you had called us stupid -- that's just preaching to the choir around here.

Posted by: joe shropshire at August 16, 2005 12:01 PM

AOG: If the Vikings wanted to live like the Inuit, they could have stayed. I assume that those that did not want to live like that, probably got in their boats and sailed back to Iceland. I am sure that a few Norwegian Bachelor Farmers probably stuck it out until they died in a truly stupendous display of Scandinavian Stubbornness. But I am willing to bet big money that no Viking died because he would not eat fish.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at August 17, 2005 1:59 AM