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?