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Thursday, January 24, 2013

Review: Norse Greenland by Jared Diamond

Norse Greenland
A Controlled Experiment in Collapse
Jared Diamond
Penguin Penguin Books

When Pulitzer-Prize winning author, Jared Diamond, wrote Collapse, it became a cornerstone book about humanity’s role in the collapse of various civilizations.  He lists a number of environmental causes:  deforestation, habitat destruction, soil (erosion, salinization, and soil fertility losses), water management problems, overhunting, overfishing, effects of introduced species on native species, human population growth, and increased per-capita impact of people.  He also mentions other causes:  climate change, hostile neighbors, and friendly trading partners.  The concept behind Collapse is that examining other civilizations that collapsed will help us today as we face new environmental challenges.

The Penguin excerpt from Collapse, Norse Greenland, takes out three chapters, which is more substantial than it sounds--a thin book in and of itself.  It covers the basics of the Vikings, the flowering period, and their demise.

“The Viking Prelude and Fugues” treats their successful expansion, agriculture, importance of iron, political organization, religion, and a short history of Vinland.  The Norse were “push/pulled” by available lands and population growth.  Diamond describes this as an autocatalytic process which brings profit and discoveries that began in 793 AD.  1066 AD describes the end of the process due to an end to easy conquering.  The Norse colonists continued their European values on lands that did not support such values (such as cows although sheep and goats did better in their new lands--goats, the least popular, did best). 

Eventually, pagan Norse converted to Christianity.  The effect of this brought European values (even down to clothing that did not fit the weather) as bishops imposed values that prevented the Norse from adapting the ways of the Inuit, who had adapted to life in Greenland thousands of years earlier.  The Inuit had several technologies (kayaks, whale harpooning, and seal killing) not available to the Norse, which might have aided their survival.  

Iceland serves of a case where a Norse colony could have survived although they did not have Inuit to compete with.  Iceland soil was ash that easily exposed to erosion due to flooding, sheep or farmers.  Initially, the Norse treated the land as they would have in Norway.  To survive, they had to adapt and manage the land conservatively.

The Norse traveled to Greenland during a “warm” period, deceiving colonists into what was normal for the area (this illustrates Diamond’s idea of climate change delivering a blow to civilization).  During cold periods, rich farmers supported the poor but at a cost.  The Greenland Norse also did not eat as much fish their contemporary Norse.  Why not?  While it remains a mystery, Diamond proposes that intestinal organisms, bacteria or protozoa, caused food poisoning.

Greenland was poor in tar lubricants, iron, and lumber for furniture.  These and other items were imported in exchange for sealskins, polar bear furs, and walrus tusks for carving.  This was done during the summer came at the expense of their working  land or getting lumber.  Iron processing required more wood than was available in Greenland.  They had to use bone and spend more time working than they might have had they processed iron.  Diamond suggests that the Greenlanders would have done better to import more iron to protect themselves for their inevitable clash with the Inuit.  Moreover, Vikings were notoriously inhospitable to those different to them, killing eight of nine native Americans when colonizing Vinland.  Possibly, trade could have improved the Norse Greenlanders’ lot financially and nutritively. 

Even so, Norway became less interested in Greenland’s walrus ivory because the Asia trade routes opened back up, and ivory fell out of fashion.  The Norse ate their dog and the cows down to the hooves.  Mysteriously, the Norse remains have not been found.  Diamond explains that perhaps they were given Christian burial when discover.

Probably, more set up would aid a reader to Diamond’s purposes, such as begins Collapse, summarized above.  Nonetheless, the excerpt is self-contained and gives the reader good sampling of Collapse without having to read the entire work.  Other readers might be interested only in Viking culture and the ecological conditions for the farmers who colonized Greenland.  Whether for an illustration of civilization collapse or cultural drawbacks for Viking colonists, this Diamond excerpt or “single” should prove useful.  Other readers seeking greater breadth may want to seek the original.

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