September 24, 2008

Diamond's Collapse and Today

Guest Blog Entry from Readingnerd:

The following is a reflection on contemporary lessons from Jared Diamond’s "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed"

Late one night, I finished Chapter 8, “Norse Greenland’s End,” only to find a chilling

Thus, Norse society’s structure created a conflict between the short- term interests of those in power, and the long-term interests of the society as a whole . . . what the chiefs and clergy valued proved eventually harmful to the society . . . The Greenland Norse did succeed in creating a unique form of European society, and in surviving for 450 years as Europe’s most remote outpost ... Ultimately, though, the chiefs found themselves without followers. The last right that they obtained for themselves was the privilege of being the last to starve.

Diamond attributes many causes for this collapse (including environmental damage and climate change), but what I find most compelling is his description of the behavior of those in power. Chiefs and clergy used the labor of the islanders to satisfy luxury
appetites in Europe: raising sheep (wool); hunting walrus (ivory), polar bears (live bears or their skins), and narwhals (tusks). Ships exported these to be exchanged in Europe for a few necessities (iron, good lumber, tar for a wood preservative), luxuries for the church (bells, stained glass windows, candlesticks, communion wine, linen, silver, churchmen’s robe, jewelry) and other luxuries for the wealthy (pewter, pottery, glass beads, honey, salt). These luxuries enabled Greenlanders to retain their identity as Christian Europeans. However, Diamond posits, this firmly entrenched cultural identity also prohibited them from trading with, learning from, or getting along with the Inuit. Instead, they killed them. Unlike the history of American colonists’ wars against the natives, in Greenland, the Inuit survived; the “Europeans” did not.

Diamond’s subtitle reminds us of the importance of the choices every society makes. Aren’t we now choosing to bail out the bankers on the backs of the workers? Did peasant Greenlanders feel so intoxicated by their identity as Christian Europeans that their starvation at the hands of poor decision makers was ameliorated? Are modern wage earners opposing abortion, gay marriage, and “elitism” ready to support the party which facilitated our current financial disaster which resulted for many (and for more to come) in the loss of jobs, homes and health insurance?

Another cause for Greenland’s collapse was the loss of trading partners. Wonder how much more debt the Chinese can stomach?


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