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.

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