Betreff: Book Review: 'Collapse': How Societies Destroy Themselves
Datum: Mon, 03 Jan 2005 17:22:04 -0700

By Malcolm Gladwell
The New Yorker Magazine
Issue of 2005-01-03
Posted 2004-12-27

In ³Collapse,² Jared Diamond shows how societies destroy themselves

A thousand years ago, a group of Vikings le by Erik the Red set sail from
Norway for th vast Arctic landmass west of Scandinavi which came to be known
as Greenland. It wa largely uninhabitable -- a forbidding expanse o snow and
ice. But along the southwestern coas there were two deep fjords protected
from th harsh winds and saltwater spray of the Nort Atlantic Ocean, and as
the Norse sailed uprive they saw grassy slopes flowering wit buttercups,
dandelions, and bluebells, and thic forests of willow and birch and alder.
Tw colonies were formed, three hundred mile apart, known as the Eastern and
Wester Settlements. The Norse raised sheep, goats, an cattle. They turned
the grassy slopes int pastureland. They hunted seal and caribou They built a
string of parish churches and magnificent cathedral, the remains of which ar
still standing. They traded actively wit mainland Europe, and tithed
regularly to th Roman Catholic Church. The Norse colonie in Greenland were
law-abiding, economicall 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.

Diamond's argument stands in sharp contras to the conventional explanations
for a society' collapse. Usually, we look for some kind o cataclysmic event.
The aboriginal civilizatio of the Americas was decimated by the sudde
arrival of smallpox. European Jewry wa destroyed by Nazism. Similarly, th
disappearance of the Norse settlements i usually blamed on the Little Ice
Age, whic descended on Greenland in the early fourteen-hundreds, ending
several centuries of relativ warmth. (One archeologist refers to this as the
"It got too cold, and they died" argument. What all these explanations have
in common i the idea that civilizations are destroyed b forces outside their
control, by acts of God

But look, Diamond says, at Easter Island. Once, it was home to a thriving
culture that produced the enormous stone statues that continue to inspire
awe. It was home to dozens of species of trees, which created and protected
an ecosystem fertile enough to support as many as thirty thousand people.
Today, it's a barren and largely empty outcropping of volcanic rock. What
happened? Did a rare plant virus wipe out the island's forest cover? Not at
all. The Easter Islanders chopped their trees down, one by one, until they
were all gone. "I have often asked myself, 'What did the Easter Islander who
cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it?'" Diamond writes, and
that, of course, is what is so troubling about the conclusions of
"Collapse." Those trees were felled by rational actors -- who must have
suspected that the destruction of this resource would result in the
destruction of their civilization. The lesson of "Collapse" is that
societies, as often as not, aren't murdered. They commit suicide: they slit
their wrists and then, in the course of many decades, stand by passively and
watch themselves bleed to death.

This doesn't mean that acts of God don't play a role. It did get colder in
Greenland in the early fourteen-hundreds. But it didn't get so cold that the
island became uninhabitable. The Inuit survived long after the Norse died
out, and the Norse had all kinds of advantages, including a more diverse
food supply, iron tools, and ready access to Europe. The problem was that
the Norse simply couldn't adapt to the country's changing environmental
conditions. Diamond writes, for instance, of the fact that nobody can find
fish remains in Norse archeological sites. One scientist sifted through tons
of debris from the Vatnahverfi farm and found only three fish bones; another
researcher analyzed thirty-five thousand bones from the garbage of another
Norse farm and found two fish bones. How can this be? Greenland is a
fisherman's dream: Diamond describes running into a Danish tourist in
Greenland who had just caught two Arctic char in a shallow pool with her
bare hands. "Every archaeologist who comes to excavate in Greenland . . .
starts out with his or her own idea about where all those missing fish bones
might be hiding," he writes. "Could the Norse have strictly confined their
munching on fish to within a few feet of the shoreline, at sites now
underwater because of land subsidence? Could they have faithfully saved all
their fish bones for fertilizer, fuel, or feeding to cows?" It seems
unlikely. There are no fish bones in Norse archeological remains, Diamond
concludes, for the simple reason that the Norse didn't eat fish. For one
reason or another, they had a cultural taboo against it.

Given the difficulty that the Norse had in putting food on the table, this
was insane. Eating fish would have substantially reduced the ecological
demands of the Norse settlements. The Norse would have needed fewer
livestock and less pastureland. Fishing is not nearly as labor-intensive as
raising cattle or hunting caribou, so eating fish would have freed time and
energy for other activities. It would have diversified their diet.

Why did the Norse choose not to eat fish? Because they weren't thinking
about their biological survival. They were thinking about their cultural
survival. Food taboos are one of the idiosyncrasies that define a community.
Not eating fish served the same function as building lavish churches, and
doggedly replicating the untenable agricultural practices of their land of
origin. It was part of what it meant to be Norse, and if you are going to
establish a community in a harsh and forbidding environment all those little
idiosyncrasies which define and cement a culture are of paramount
importance. "The Norse were undone by the same social glue that had enabled
them to master Greenland's difficulties," Diamond writes. "The values to
which people cling most stubbornly under inappropriate conditions are those
values that were previously the source of their greatest triumphs over
adversity." He goes on:

To us in our secular modern society, the predicament in which the
Greenlanders found themselves is difficult to fathom. To them, however,
concerned with their social survival as much as their biological survival,
it was out of the question to invest less in churches, to imitate or
intermarry with the Inuit, and thereby to face an eternity in Hell just in
order to survive another winter on Earth.

Diamond's distinction between social and biological survival is a critical
one, because too often we blur the two, or assume that biological survival
is contingent on the strength of our civilizational values. That was the
lesson taken from the two world wars and the nuclear age that followed: we
would survive as a species only if we learned to get along and resolve our
disputes peacefully. The fact is, though, that we can be law-abiding and
peace-loving and tolerant and inventive and committed to freedom and true to
our own values and still behave in ways that are biologically suicidal. The
two kinds of survival are separate.

Diamond points out that the Easter Islanders did not practice, so far as we
know, a uniquely pathological version of South Pacific culture. Other
societies, on other islands in the Hawaiian archipelago, chopped down trees
and farmed and raised livestock just as the Easter Islanders did. What
doomed the Easter Islanders was the interaction between what they did and
where they were. Diamond and a colleague, Barry Rollet, identified nine
physical factors that contributed to the likelihood of deforestation --
including latitude, average rainfall, aerial-ash fallout, proximity to
Central Asia's dust plume, size, and so on -- and Easter Island ranked at
the high-risk end of nearly every variable. "The reason for Easter's
unusually severe degree of deforestation isn't that those seemingly nice
people really were unusually bad or improvident," he concludes. "Instead,
they had the misfortune to be living in one of the most fragile
environments, at the highest risk for deforestation, of any Pacific people."
The problem wasn't the Easter Islanders. It was Easter Island.

In the second half of "Collapse," Diamond turns his attention to modern
examples, and one of his case studies is the recent genocide in Rwanda. What
happened in Rwanda is commonly described as an ethnic struggle between the
majority Hutu and the historically dominant, wealthier Tutsi, and it is
understood in those terms because that is how we have come to explain much
of modern conflict: Serb and Croat, Jew and Arab, Muslim and Christian. The
world is a cauldron of cultural antagonism. It's an explanation that clearly
exasperates Diamond. The Hutu didn't just kill the Tutsi, he points out. The
Hutu also killed other Hutu. Why? Look at the land: steep hills farmed right
up to the crests, without any protective terracing; rivers thick with mud
from erosion; extreme deforestation leading to irregular rainfall and
famine; staggeringly high population densities; the exhaustion of the
topsoil; falling per-capita food production. This was a society on the brink
of ecological disaster, and if there is anything that is clear from the
study of such societies it is that they inevitably descend into genocidal
chaos. In "Collapse," Diamond quite convincingly defends himself against the
charge of environmental determinism. His discussions are always nuanced, and
he gives political and ideological factors their due. The real issue is how,
in coming to terms with the uncertainties and hostilities of the world, the
rest of us have turned ourselves into cultural determinists.

For the past thirty years, Oregon has had on of the strictest sets of
land-use regulations in th nation, requiring new development to b clustered
in and around existing urba development. The laws meant that Oregon ha done
perhaps the best job in the nation i limiting suburban sprawl, and protectin
coastal lands and estuaries. But this Novembe Oregon's voters passed a
ballot referendum known as Measure 37, that rolled back many o those
protections. Specifically, Measure 37 sai that anyone who could show that
the value o his land was affected by regulation implemented since its
purchase was entitled t compensation from the state. If the stat declined to
pay, the property owner would b exempted from the regulations

To call Measure 37 -- and similar referendums that have been passed recently
in other states -- intellectually incoherent is to put it mildly. It might
be that the reason your hundred-acre farm on a pristine hillside is worth
millions to a developer is that it's on a pristine hillside: if everyone on
that hillside could subdivide, and sell out to Target and Wal-Mart, then
nobody's plot would be worth millions anymore. Will the voters of Oregon
then pass Measure 38, allowing them to sue the state for compensation over
damage to property values caused by Measure 37?

It is hard to read "Collapse," though, and not have an additional reaction
to Measure 37. Supporters of the law spoke entirely in the language of
political ideology. To them, the measure was a defense of property rights,
preventing the state from unconstitutional "takings." If you replaced the
term "property rights" with "First Amendment rights," this would have been
indistinguishable from an argument over, say, whether charitable groups
ought to be able to canvass in malls, or whether cities can control the
advertising they sell on the sides of public buses. As a society, we do a
very good job with these kinds of debates: we give everyone a hearing, and
pass laws, and make compromises, and square our conclusions with our
constitutional heritage -- and in the Oregon debate the quality of the
theoretical argument was impressively high.

The thing that got lost in the debate, however, was the land. In a rapidly
growing state like Oregon, what, precisely, are the state's ecological
strengths and vulnerabilities? What impact will changed land-use priorities
have on water and soil and cropland and forest? One can imagine Diamond
writing about the Measure 37 debate, and he wouldn't be very impressed by
how seriously Oregonians wrestled with the problem of squaring their
land-use rules with their values, because to him a society's environmental
birthright is not best discussed in those terms. Rivers and streams and
forests and soil are a biological resource. They are a tangible, finite
thing, and societies collapse when they get so consumed with addressing the
fine points of their history and culture and deeply held beliefs -- with
making sure that Thorstein Olafsson and Sigrid Bjornsdotter are married
before the right number of witnesses following the announcement of wedding
banns on the right number of Sundays -- that they forget that the
pastureland is shrinking and the forest cover is gone.

When archeologists looked through the ruins of the Western Settlement, they
found plenty of the big wooden objects that were so valuable in Greenland --
crucifixes, bowls, furniture, doors, roof timbers -- which meant that the
end came too quickly for anyone to do any scavenging. And, when the
archeologists looked at the animal bones left in the debris, they found the
bones of newborn calves, meaning that the Norse, in that final winter, had
given up on the future. They found toe bones from cows, equal to the number
of cow spaces in the barn, meaning that the Norse ate their cattle down to
the hoofs, and they found the bones of dogs covered with knife marks,
meaning that, in the end, they had to eat their pets. But not fish bones, of
course. Right up until they starved to death, the Norse never lost sight of
what they stood for.