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?

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