Why Did Greenland's Vikings Vanish? | History | Smithsonian Magazine

We are taught history to learn from others mistakes, but many say history repeats itself. We may think that what is happening to our climate is a first, but we would be wrong. This happened to the Norse in Greenland and to the Polynesians who lived on Easter Island. Just this time it is a lot bigger so more people are noticing.

We are aware that the climate is changing at a very rapid pace. Many of us know that the oceans are becoming more acidic, glaciers are melting, and wildfires are burning down our natural forests, but we don’t make any major changes. Why is this happening? What will it take for us to make any meaningful change? Or will we die out like the people in the history books? 

I think that people don’t like change and climate change requires a lot of it on our part. We are just like the Norse. We won’t change even when it threatens to literally kill us and everyone we know. They refused to eat fish and only ate beef, so they could be more like the people they wanted to be like. In the end it didn’t matter that they were starving- they still refused to change their ways. Will we be like this too? Refusing to embrace reality and continue to hold on to our poisonous ways? 

Only time will tell.

On a side note some researchers did a study that was published in 2002 in Europhysics News to determine if they actually didn’t eat any fish. If you want to read it I linked it below. It turns out that they did start to convert to other sources of food including fish. This makes the story even better though. They realized their mistake and started to make a change, but they were too late and still died off.

-Russell Fitch


Cultural Death

In “The Vanishing” Malcom Gladwell walks us through Jared Diamond’s book “Collapse” while giving his own take. The common thread throughout the whole article is the story of the Vikings who lived in Greenland up until the 15th century. The old story that was always told of why the Vikings died out was aptly summarized as “It got too cold, and they died”. This narrative is one in line with the way in which the demise of societies has been understood for quite some time. The analysis of why a society collapsed is rooted in a single event. For the Vikings it was a mini ice age that wiped them out. While this certainly played some role, the narrative that Jared Diamond give is much more nuanced.

The Vikings that settled in Greenland were able establish agriculture and flourish in Greenland, but the seed of their destruction was sowed as soon as Norse culture made contact with the fragile ecosystem of Greenland. Simply put, they were incompatible and the Vikings had no intention of changing their ways. Gladwell uses the comparison of Inuit to explain this. The Inuit have sustained for much longer than the Vikings did in very in a very similar environment. The key lies in the way in which they get get their food and live. The Inuit relied much more heavily on getting food from the sea. The would eat fish instead of livestock and burn walrus blubber for heat instead of lumber. These practices are not only much easier on the environment, but more time and energy efficient to do. Despite this the Vikings were set in their cultural ways.

When looking back on the Vikings it’s easy to feel as though they were dumb and shortsighted for not adapting their ways, but the changing of things as simple as diet can mean cultural death. Thinking about the ways in which culture may not be advantageous to our survival is becoming a more pressing issue everyday.

Global suicide

The environment’s impact on every person is pronounced. “The Vanishing” by Malcolm Gladwell explores that impact with regards to social survival. The preservation of a certain lifestyle and diet is simply unsustainable in most regards, as demonstrated by the Norse and the Easter Islanders. In the case of the Norse, their demise was a result of their stubbornness to maintain status within their culture. That involved not eating fish, or ringed seals, which is easily the most sustainable food source during all seasons in Greenland. As a result, the environment retaliated and could no longer meet the demands of the culture, rather than the people.

The other case discussed in the article, is the Easter Islanders, where the same type of demise hit them. The trees and soil on the island could not sustain the culture and the number of people practicing it there. The disappearance of the trees lead to the rapid degradation of humanity, and therefore living culture on the island.

Put into a modern context, the environment is not such a small island or fjord, it is the whole globe. An increasing number of people and a demand to maintain our “social glue” as a planet will lead to a similar demise. The changing climate is what determines how we live and die as a planet, as everything that feeds and maintains humans comes from it. Given its rapid degradation and inevitable disappearance on the current path, steps towards managing it for survival are necessary.

Diamond distinguishes between social and biological survival, but on a global scale, biological survival is more important. I say that because social survival needs to be cast aside for biological survival to occur. By emphasizing biological survival, social survival will take on a new form, taking on the values on biological survival.

Looking in the mirror

Standing by your values in times of adversity is one of our most treasured virtues. Standing up to bullies that are more powerful than you. Being generous when you don’t have much of your own. Speaking out when you see something unjust.

Well, the Norse who colonized Greenland stood by their values in times of adversity. And due to it, they starved. Despite many efforts, archaeologists have been unable to find any appreciable amount of fish bones in the Norse colonies. The Norse starved before they would eat fish. 

Geography Professor Jared Diamond details this in his book, “Collapse.” We usually assume societies are destroyed by outside factors, but the Norse colony in Greenland can tell a different story.

They chopped down all of their forests, leading to massive erosion. They insisted on keeping cows, even though they were very resource intensive. Every house they built needed acres of soil harvested to insulate. They sent their boats to hunt walrus for ivory, rather than fish for food. In the end, Greenland’s soil, Greenland’s ecosystem couldn’t handle the demand, and the Norse wouldn’t adapt.

Malcolm Gladwell’s book review of “Collapse” is chilling. “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.”

It’s hard to not compare our current struggle with climate change with the Norse of Greenland who died out a century ago. I wonder if there were Norse who saw what was happening, and tried to stop it? Where there Norse proto-environmentalists protesting against the wealthy farmers who clung to their cows as symbols of their wealth? Norse who tried to change their ways? Were they ridiculed? Did any survive among the Inuit?

The Vikings Committed Suicide and We May Too

The Vanishing provides a new way for us to understand the coming and goings of different civilizations. The author relies heavily on Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed as a source of evidence. 

He focuses on the story of the Vikings and how they attempted to survive on Greenland. What was the real reason for their sudden disappearance from history? Were they truly unable to maintain order and so just fell into chaos destroying themselves? Diamond says no, but he does believe they led themselves to their own end. 

Diamond argues that the Norse were wiped out because they treated Greenland as if it were a lush, green, and plentiful environment. This was not the case at all. For the most part, it was uninhabitable and temperatures were far from warm. Ice and snow were everywhere. Despite that, the Norse mowed down trees and tore up turf for fuel and building homes. It’s estimated that a single home cost about ten acres worth of land. The ecosystem just couldn’t keep up. 

In these areas, plants grew very slowly and the topsoil wasn’t very thick. The grass that once served as a protective layer from the winds was gone. This led to a decrease in hay yields and wood for fuel; winters became much harder to survive. 

Another point that Diamond makes was the Norse peoples’ refusal to adapt. Not only did they consume natural resources at a dangerous rate, but they also had too much pride in their cultural traditions. Looking at the animal remains in debris, the number of fish bones found was less than ten. In an area where fishing is one of the strongest attractions, it is quite unbelievable that they chose not to eat it; and yet they did. They prioritized their cultural survival over their biological survival. 

The author compares this to the modern-day passing of measure 37 in Oregon. Are we too sacrificing the health and safety of our lands in order to preserve what we believe to be culturally significant? The author is warning us that we may be repeating the same mistakes and not just in Oregon, but all over the world.

Oops, We Did it Again

In the article “The Vanishing” by Malcolm Gladwell he discusses the fall of Norse settlements in Greenland. I found it to be quite an interesting article. Essentially, the Norse destroyed the productivity of the land through overuse, and, when things started going south they refused to change their cultural practices. Then, they all died. Meanwhile, the Inuit native to Greenland lived sustainably and did not die. While changing environmental conditions may have played some role in the decline of Norse settlements, it is likely their society would have survived had they adapted some of the Inuit customs, such as eating fish and hunting for seal meat.

Also discussed in the article is the collapse of the Easter Island due to massive deforestation. Like the Norse in Greenland, unsustainable use of the land lead to catastrophe. But, this time there was no survivors, as Easter Island had one unified culture.

Nowadays, the Earth seems to be heading for a similar collapse due to, you guessed it, unsustainable use of resources. However, the extent to which this collapse will impact different civilizations throughout the planet is unknown. Greenland and Easter Island are both islands, which would have exacerbated their conditions. Humanity’s impending collapse could be more like Greenland’s, where more sustainable societies are able to survive, or Easter Island’s, where everyone will just, die out. Of course, there is a third option where no collapse occurs and the culture of humanity changes to promoting sustainability and responsible use of resources, but that’s probably not happening.

history repeats itself

See the source image
The Norse Settlement, Ocean Expeditions

In “The Vanishing” by Malcolm Gladwell, he discusses how the ecological mismanagement of societies, not understanding how to co-exist with the environment and disregarding the difference between biological and social survival leads to their demise. In order to uphold the civilizations of humankind, it’s seen as acceptable and necessary to exploit our surroundings. Gladwell mentions how in the struggling days of the Norse, they “ate their cattle down to the roofs” and “had to eat their pets,” but they refused to consume fish. The Norse stood true to their “values” which cost their lives. Their decision to refuse fish ecologically led to their own demise. It would’ve lessened labor and been beneficial to the land— the very land they were unable to sustain. 

But of course, how can humans change their way of life to benefit their surroundings (which would indirectly benefit them as well)? It’s absurd to even think about. Why? Because we’re entitled to our lifestyle, changing it even the slightest is “un-American.” Preserving the life around us, shouldn’t be considered un-American, but it is. Climate change is an existential crisis, and humans have fueled the damage. Our own failure to protect the land we live on will lead to our own demise, just like the Norse. You would think history wouldn’t repeat itself and we would learn from our mistakes, but that’s not the case. Climate change poses a threat to our livelihood and for future generations, and policies calling for environmental sustainability need to be enacted. The Norse showed us how ecological mismanagement will only harm the people, and it’s time we learn from this.

We are our own demise

Melting Ice in Greenland

This week we are discussing the reading “The Vanishing” by Malcolm Gladwell. In this article, Gladwell analyzes how Jared Diamond talks about humans destroying themselves. One topic that I found interesting was on the topic of the destruction of Greenland. Especially the fact that the name of the country itself is quite contradictory to what it actually is. A country that had once shown potential for life, was now showing little sign of human residency or any significant life at all to be fair. And it was all due to human infestation. Humans “destroyed” the country by creating meadows for agriculture, and chopping down trees for resources. Yet they did not realize they were harming the country until it was too late.

To be fair, this seems like the common problem with humanity today. They have consistently displayed the characteristic of being oblivious to the harm they do to our world. You would think that we would learn from our past mistakes,  but that’s just the problem – we don’t. Luckily, in our modern day world we have small glimpses of hope here and there with climate change activists and others who want to cure the damage mankind has done. But the majority of man have still yet to fix their mistakes. Until they do, our entire world will follow what has happened to Greenland.

Though that’s not to say that there is still potential. Now more than ever are we actually seeing some positive change being made to our environment. Appliances such as solar and hydropower are making our environment more sustainable. But that’s just it, the fact that we have to use the word “sustainable” to justify the well being of our planet is absurd. It is a word that acknowledges the fact that we are harming our planet and are trying to find more ways to cure it. When in reality, we should be taking care of the world the same way it was taken care of. Therefore, we must act now before we will become “The Vanished” of our future stories.