Ignorance is devestating

Society doesn’t usually collapse in one fell swoop. It takes the culmination of various actions for a society to vanish. Usually people make ignorant decisions which end up hurting themselves in the long run. 

The Vikings in Greenland are an example of ignorant people who by their actions hurt themselves and ended up “vanishing”. They, as cited in the book review “The Vanishing” by Malcom Gladwell, did not properly adapt to their surroundings in Greenland. The Vikings did not follow procedures done by the Inuit who effectively adapted to the environment. The Inuit hunted seals for their blubber, which they used for various purposes. The Vikings did not have a good opinion of the Inuits and continued to apply their European practices like raising cattle and other things that were not appropriate such as cutting grass to make pastures. The Vikings strictly adhering to their culture caused them to go extinct, due to the fact they ran out of food in Greenland.

The inhabitants of Easter People were also ignorant, but in a different capacity. They did not care for their environment by cutting down trees and raising farmers and livestock on the areas that the trees are. Unfortunately, the environment of Easter Island was very susceptible to deforestation so they ended up “vanishing” as well. Even modern “vanishing” in Rwanda has also come down to environmental factors. Lots of environmental degradation has occurred there, which helped spark the conflict between the ethnic groups there.

It seems the common variable between multiple ethnic civilizations “vanishing” is the lack of concern for the effects of their actions on the environment. A lesson to take, is when developing a civilization you should always take note of possible environmental effects. People should not always completely follow their biases, and be open minded to the point to find the best solution for their culture and the environment.

Culture Kills

This weeks reading was a New Yorker book review article of the book “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed”, which was written by Jared Diamond who is very famous for writing Guns, Germs, and Steel. This is a book that also focuses on the ecological and cultural differences between societies in order to analyze if they “succeed” or not. In his first book, succeeding meant domination. In this book, succeeding simply means surviving.

Diamond looks into a couple different societies and mainly focuses on the Norse colonies in Greenland, which were established by vikings led by Erik the Red 1000 years ago. This colony ended up not surviving and dying out after a cold winter. Diamond argues that this is due to cultural reasons- the Norse, and specifically their culture- were too at odds with the land of green and were not willing to adapt to it at all. Another example of this is how the people of Easter Island have chopped down every tree they could down to the stump. This was a little different though, with Diamond talking about how the location, among many other physical factors, made their society at very high risk to not survive. Diamond also talked about Measure 37, a law that we recently passed here in Oregon that scaled back on zoning restrictions that had previously been protecting wildlife and coastal areas for years. This is another example of how the cultural aspect of our societies being at odds with where the societies are located can have dire consequences. It will be interesting and extremely depressing to see how Measure 37 proves Diamond’s point. We can only pray that it doesn’t.

This got me thinking about the focus of this class. In my view, our current cultural values are diametrically opposed with the will of nature. Well, I go as far as diametrically, but you get the point. Are we going to starve once the cold winter comes? Or are we going to eat the fish? I would think that once it comes to eating cow hoofs we would change our ways but I don’t really know. The capitalist society that is currently dominating the world might not find it economically feasible to eat the fish, which is a scary thought.

Missing the Forest for the Trees?

This week’s reading was a really cool one for me. I really appreciated the new perspective the article gave on how societies can collapse. While I never had heard of the Western Settlement and I don’t know much about the vikings, I really appreciated the new way of thinking. To me the way that this story of this civilization has been taught would make a lot of sense and I probably wouldn’t have questioned it. But when you take a deep look into the culture of the civilization and realize how they weren’t willing to let go of silly, inconsequential things such as eating or not eating fish, it shows that culture can play a large role in the outcome of a society. 

I also think that this way of thinking or analyzing stuff, looking at how a culture is unwilling to let go of something seemingly small but with a large payoff, can definitely be applied to today and our climate crisis. Just like how the vikings were unwilling to let go of small aspects of a culture today we have those things too. In my opinion something like taxing fossil fuel companies more and using those funds to build green energy is something that is really small, but there seems (in certain groups) to be resistance to the idea of more taxation and green energy solutions. Maybe my opinion is wrong, but it seems like the fossil fuel industry is in its death throes and trying all it can do to milk the last bit of profit it can out of a dying cash-cow. Maybe my idea for a solution isn’t the best, but the sentiment behind it is what I want to convey.

And again, maybe I’m wrong in my opinion but to really learn from the past and to avoid repeating the same failures of societies before us is important. I think that the small loss in the short term is way better than the huge loss in the long term if action isn’t taken. This short term loss does have support, it’s not like it is a pipe dream, it can easily be a reality yet I still feel like a lot of people miss the big picture. The big picture is doing our best to mitigate the effects of climate change, and the consequences it brings.

Will The last Tree Ever Be Chopped

This summary got me thinking quite a bit about our future on this earth and who’s going to deal with the mess we are creating. My whole life when thinking about the apocalypse and the end of humanity it’s always been about social struggles between humans and other humans. This has been a general mindset ever since the start of globalization. We no longer had to worry about starvation if food can be transported across the entire globe in a week. If all your crops fail you don’t just starve anymore. Money gets tight and maybe you go homeless but even then there is no such thing as starvation in a first world country. Following the world wars and creation of nuclear weapons it seems like a safe bet to say that the world might just end in a massive explosion. This thought is obviously very common among the older generations who experienced the affects and cultural shift of the time, and are therefore bound to be common in todays youth since their culture gets taught to us. This fear of the near explosive apocalypse has pushed the fear of running out of trees far out of our minds. No one is worried about starvation when there’s a nuclear bomb dropping in an hour. This cultural ideology is what’s at the root of our lack of motivation to figure out sustainability. Why worry about the distant future when right now in this very moment that money could go towards people in need somewhere else in the world. It just seems like a waste to invest in solving a problem that hasn’t had consequences yet.

After this reading it just seems more and more likely that the death of the human race will be a slow gradual starvation brought on by our aspirations. In the end when we all realize that there’s only one forest left, the effort we put in the save that last forest will be twenty times the amount of effort that we could use right now to prevent that future. An ounce of sustainability is worth of pound hopeless last attempt endeavor at the end of the world on a planet that no longer can sustain life.

So I guess there’s two ways to look at it, the world will end in ice or fire. Our cultural and political failures due to differences of opinions will result in mass chaos thus destroying our civilizations (fire). The slow inevitable strangulation of our planet until our sheer population mass can no longer be sustained and we desperately try to turn back time (ice). The “collapse” brings great insight into this death by ice, and hopefully we all are aware of death by fire. I’d like to think there’s a third option, where we don’t go out with a bang and never have to chop down that final tree.

End of an Era

This reading was quite interesting, as there is something so mysterious about a civilization disappearing in what seems like a very very short time. Especially when we begin to rethink what might have caused it in the first place. When thinking of the destruction of westernization and colonization, I can only think that we are still living in an era where similar things could continue happening. Sea levels will begin to rise, forest fires continue to cause destruction, and although these are acts of nature, they ultimately may have been caused by the actions of humans.

Another situation of a civilization disappearing with no obvious explanation was the infamous lost city of Roanoke. Although with the Norse habitation of Norway was shown to be left (whether by travel or death) over more than a few weeks, the lost city of Roanoke seemed like it disappeared almost overnight. Of course there is no proof for this as no one had come in or out of Roanoke for many many weeks. There are still no confirmed explanations for this, other than some with the elements involved, the indigenous populations on the nearby Croatoan island, and more. But it is another example of European Settlers causing destruction and mass death (although in this instance, presumably of themselves).

It is hard now to imagine holding on to some of the things the Norse did before their demise, such as not wanting to eat fish and keeping large wooden artifacts that had spiritual or social significance. But back in the times of these Norse Settlers, it was all they had. They didn’t have the modern science to know why these environmental events were happening, why they couldn’t fix everything, so they had to rely on their beliefs and their way of life until they physically couldn’t do it anymore.

Out With a Whimper

This week’s read was fun for me because I really like history. It was also one of the more uplifting reads we have done recently, although that may be because it was published in the happy year of 2005. I had learned of the Viking expeditions to the “New World,” but I never really knew why they disappeared. I thought that Diamond’s take on a slow, self-imposed destruction much more interesting than the “Act of God” sudden calamity. Relating the decline of the Viking settlements to a refusal to break cultural norms also stood out to me. The local Inuit peoples survived through the times the Vikings did not, which Diamond puts in part due to a refusal to eat fish. He also points out the Greenland was settled by the Vikings for some 450 years, much longer than the US has been around for.  

The idea of us walking slowly towards an avoidable cliff, in this case climate change, is on one hand terrifying and on another hopeful. Climate change is no sudden disaster, nor will its effects happen all at once. Something can be done to prevent it. And if Climate change is inevitable, or nothing is done to prevent our current trends, then something can be done about those later effects. The end will not happen quickly, it will be a gradual process of decline until some geological homeostasis is achieved. I don’t really know how to properly explain how this makes me feel. All too often it can be distressing or depressing to read about the current situation. While this read didn’t really change my opinion on the bleakness of our time, it maybe fueled some hope that not all is lost. 

Oregon doesn’t suck (yet)

The subject of land use has been, and continues to be, one of the most contested political topics in Oregon. 16 years ago, it was Measure 37, which allowed landowners to be recompensed for regulations that the state put in place, and today, it’s solar panel companies fighting with farmers and the legislation to be able to utilize Exclusive Farm Use land to set up solar farms, or urban sprawl leaking into forests or pastures, causing issues for farmers across Oregon. With agriculture and forestry being two of Oregon’s biggest industries, it’s no surprise, but without human expansion across the landscapes of Oregon, how will we grow? The key to the current issue is compromise, but what level are we, as a state, comfortable with? 

Jared Diamond, a professor of geography at UCLA writes about a failure to compromise between social and biological survival in his piece “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed” where he writes about the Viking civilizations in Greenland that ended up dying out due to their inability to let go of social and cultural rules to be able to survive. It seems that Oregon is facing a similar issue of a smaller scale today. The Western values of expansion and growth at all costs are clashing with Oregon’s historical trend towards land conservation. While this issue isn’t one of biological survival of humans like that described by Diamond, it is one of the biological survival of land, which translates to the economic survival of Oregon. Oregon’s land is ideal for forest growth and the growing of multiple specialty crops. Hazelnuts are just one example, only growing in great volumes here in Oregon, with 95% of all American-produced hazelnuts being from Oregon, making hazelnuts a large contributor to Oregon’s GDP. While the survival of the human population in Oregon is not currently at stake, it doesn’t take too many steps after losing our arable land to get to a point where Oregon is no longer a viable place to live.

A Balancing Act – Cultural vs. Environmental 🐟

I was very excited to dive into this topic for the week, as this kind of discussion into ancient cultures and societal reasons for change is exactly what I find so fascinating about history. How people interact with their environment, through the use and misuse of resources and other additional factors, helps me better understand how our modern world works, and how humanity has gotten where it is now in terms of society, geopolitics, and ideology. I am actually very familiar with the book that is being reviewed, Jared Diamond’s “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.” The anecdotal evidence of collapsing societies found in these Greenlandic settlements caught my attention, especially the geographic significance of their location.

Since I am currently pursuing a geography major, it’s no surprise that I gravitate to these kinds of analyses. I am well versed in the Norse history of exploration and colonization, and it’s impressive to think about how they settled even the most inhospitable of locations, such as Greenland. Of course, it is also abundantly clear that these adventuring men and women did not place the care or sustaining of their environment at the forefront of their concerns. They did not realize that as they chopped down all of the trees for construction materials and for the warmth they sealed their fate. They did not realize that by replacing the forests with fields of grain the soil was ruined, and each subsequent winter became harder. Or maybe they did, it’s hard to say for certain. But even if they did, Diamond argues that they would most likely have continued their practices. And it wouldn’t be out of spite or a genuine distaste of the environment. No, it would be because they valued the preservation and unique identification of their culture over any sense of adaptation or intermingling with the native Inuit population.

Learning how empires rise to greatness is all well and good, but seeing how they collapse and vanish into nonexistence is equally if not more fascinating. But it’s important to realize that not every civilization or culture collapses in a fiery burst of magnificence (for example, the Roman Empire). More often than not, it is a slow burn, taking decades or even centuries of gradual decay and decline. Many historians attribute the collapse of late Bronze Age civilizations in Western Asia and North Africa to a sudden invasion by mysterious “sea people” from the Mediterranean, or earthquakes and other natural disasters. But some, myself included, posit that in addition to this there was a slow decline, as mass migrations, changes in warfare, and a general change in the political systems of the time led to the defeat of these once-great societies.
Diamond has a similar approach to the Greenland settlements. While some would say it was due to the Little Ice Age and decreased temperatures, he believes that the cultural abstinence of the Norsemen led to their downfall. They refused to eat fish, despite it being plentiful. Even as the last cow was devoured, and they starved to death, they refused to break their taboo. Why this taboo existed, no one can say for sure. But it clearly existed, and shows that cultural and sociological processes are far stronger and more influential than many would realize.

It’s an interesting picture to paint, and upon taking this mindset and glancing at the world around us, some concerning conclusions can be constructed. How powerful are our societies and cultural processes? Are they powerful enough to overwhelm the necessity of preserving our survival and the persistence of a sustainable ecology? Are we doomed to a slow and unavoidable collapse? I can’t deny that the threat exists, but as long as we remain aware of the danger, and balance the preservation of our humanity with the preservation of the environment, neither will be at any risk of destruction.

Gladwell, M. (2004, December 27). The vanishing. The New Yorker. Retrieved October 26, 2021, from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2005/01/03/the-vanishing-2.

The Death of Western Society

In modern society, the common perspective is that humanity is separate from nature. We spend nearly all of our time in entirely human constructed and controlled environments. Even when we go outside, we are in an area with dominant human influence. The food we eat comes in neatly organized packages and contains ingredients that we oftentimes don’t know the source of. We emit large quantities of pollutants and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, either directly or indirectly, and we consume and produce waste at a massively unsustainable rate. What we often overlook is that we are in a closed system. We are on a single planet that is not too big to be impacted by our actions. We are part of the global system, not separate from it. 

In his article, “The Vanishing” (a review of “Collapse” by Jared Diamond), Malcolm Gladwell discusses numerous extinct populations: such as the Vikings of Greenland and the Easter Islanders. He and Diamond assert that these populations did not fail because of some “act of God” or random bad luck, but because of their insistence on the survival of their culture, even when they could have otherwise survived by shifting to more sustainable practices. They make the assertion that these societies used up resources until they were gone and “they slit their wrists and then, in the course of many decades, stand by passively and watch themselves bleed to death” [1]. 

Humanity’s problem is the belief that our habits, actions, and normal practices are one in the same with who we are. This, as Diamond and Gladwell point out, is what led the Vikings to starve. They didn’t eat fish and continued to not eat fish even if it meant they would starve to death. We must not hold on to unsustainable practices or denounce better alternatives if they fly in the face of what we hold dear. In order to reach true sustainability, everyone will need to give up something they value. This is an unfortunate, but true fact for nearly everyone is Western society. Just because we have a culture of overconsumption and waste, does not mean that we have to stick to that culture until our society collapses. We must learn from past societies and understand that ourselves and our culture are separate entities. Looking at modern society, it is becoming more and more apparent that our culture is going to inevitably die, but we have the choice if we are going to die with it. 


[1] https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2005/01/03/the-vanishing-2

Learning From Our Past

Humanity today is in an age of decision making; we must decide to take action and begin to save our planet, or we must come to terms with our inevitable downfall. The most vital question now isn’t of what we can do to ensure we don’t overuse or misuse our resources – although it’s still important to consider – but we’ve passed that point. Gladwell’s review of Jared Diamond’s “Collapse” discusses the history of societal collapses. Although our focus today is more on what we can do to prevent our world from becoming uninhabitable, it’s still valuable to look at past societies and learn from their mistakes. The Norse in Greenland, as Gladwell pointed out, were more focused on their cultural values than their ecological values, which led to their extinction. They refused to eat fish, even up until the very end, and wouldn’t even begin to think of learning from the Inuits. They also didn’t realize that Greenland, having a much different environment from the European continent, had to be treated differently. But they managed their surroundings with no consideration of this, and this ultimately led to their death.

Gladwell’s points at the end regarding Measure 37 had some good information to mull over. I’ve personally always felt a kind of pride for Oregon’s treatment of the environment, and I hope that cultural or economic standards of the present day don’t negatively effect our practices involving the environment. It would be a shame to watch our communities be pulled in to the economic debates that directly impact our surroundings. This is a time where the lessons we can learn from past societies are incredibly important. Although both are certainly important, we shouldn’t put more value into our economy than our environments. We can’t forget the history of our planet and place our cultural or economic values above our world.

Climate change solution: a shift in values and reconnecting to the environment

In his The New Yorker book review entitled “The Vanishing,” Malcolm Gladwell summarizes the main points in Jarred Diamond’s book “Collapse.” Diamond argues that when cultures mismanage their environments and prioritize the survival of traditions and culture over biological survival, they will collapse. 

I agree with some of Diamond’s points, but not with others. I agree that when societies mismanage and exploit their environment they are dooming themselves to fail. Mismanagement can fall into many categories. Two forms of mismanagement I will use for this post are: 1) The exploitation of land because of reasons such as those Lynn White laid out in “The Historial Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” and 2) a lack of understanding of the land. Those on Easter Island fall into the latter category. They happened to live on an island that had a very fragile ecosystem, which they probably did not realize. The Vikings, as Diamond discusses, were a combination of both. They held Christian beliefs at the time of these colonies, and they had very little understanding of the land (ex. plants grew very slowly in Greenland). Because of this, they destroyed their land and starved.

However, that is not the whole story. Although Greenland is plentiful of fish, archeological records indicate very little evidence of fish bones in the Viking colonies. Diamond argues that the Vikings did not eat fish because of their cultural values. However, if they had eaten fish, they may have survived. This is one of the reasons Diamond claims that cultures collapse when they prioritize the survival of traditions and culture over biological survival.

I do take issue with this claim, as I think its validity depends on the culture. Yes, Diamond’s claim makes sense in terms of the Vikings; they chose to starve themselves. However, many cultures have cultural traditions and beliefs that are inherently connected to the environment in which they live. There are many cultures that hold strong beliefs about protecting and caring for the environment. These beliefs might include: believing one is part of nature, that humans are no more special than any other life form, or that exploiting the land is unethical. Many cultures that hold these beliefs (or similar ones) have lived in their locations for hundreds or thousands of years, and their cultures have adapted to their environment. For example, the Vikings’ culture did not fit with their environment, because although fish was a massive food source, they did not believe in eating it. Compare this to multitudes of North American indigenous tribes who consider a lot of food items that are in their environment to be sacred and crucial to their cultural values.

Because of this, I would argue that prioritizing one’s cultural values is not the problem. What is a problem is when one’s cultural values are out of sync with the environment in which one lives. This raises the issue that the majority of modern-day people, especially Americans, are incredibly out of sync with their environments. Well, I suppose we can see how that is going for us, can’t we? 

Destroyed From Within

This reading looks at geography, specifically human geography. Geographer, Jared Diamond, examines how societies rise and fall based on how they use and manage environmental resources. Diamond believes that the fall of the Norse society was because they cut down their forests. Diamond creates a bigger statement, claiming that societies do not fall due to outside circumstances, they destroy themselves from within, committing societal suicide. Instead of adapting to their changing circumstances, they stayed set in their ways that no longer suited the environment. Is Diamond suggesting that instead of trying to stop and slow climate change, we should adapt to our environment as it changes? What could that possibly look like? 

I thought it was very interesting that the author brought up that Oregon has done a great job limiting new construction sprawl, but now the legislation surrounding that has changed (that was 2005, where do we stand now?). As an Oregonian who has seen Oregon grow and eliminate small family farms and rural farmlands, I’m well aware of this problem. A major issue in Oregon right now is that so many Californians dislike the political state and current housing situation of their own state that they move to Oregon, but then turn Oregon into another California. Other states like Texas are also experiencing this. To accommodate them, farmlands are bought up and new houses are built. In Wilsonville, where I am from, an equestrian center was sold, demolished, just to be replaced with hundreds of cookie-cutter houses. Other traditional farms had been bought out to build another massive, sprawling neighborhood, Villebois. I am not surprised that Oregon’s legislation has changed because of how Kate Brown, governor, has been ruining Oregon from within. Upon reflecting on this, I do agree with Diamond that societies destroy themselves, although I feel that governments and people in power are far more responsible for the destruction of their societies.