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Thursday, 2.24.05: Facing Facts

A story from a new book out, called Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed:

A thousand years ago Eric the Red and his Vikings discovered some protected fiords on the coast of Greenland and decided to settle in two colonies 300 miles apart. They thrived -- raising livestock, hunting, building churches, trading with Europe. They lasted for 450 years -- then vanished.

What went wrong?

To make a long story short, they refused to believe they weren't in Norway anymore. They disliked the native Inuit people and refused to learn anything from them. They worked the land as if it weren't the fragile slow-growing ecosystem that it is. They loved spending their precious resources on church ornaments. And along came a cold spell and they all starved to death. Archeological studies of the tooth-scarred bones they left behind show that they ate their last cow down to its hooves and they ate all their pet dogs.

But outside their doorstep was a fabulously rich fishing area -- so rich you could reach in a pull out fish by hand. And yet archeologists can't find a single gnawed on fish bone. Apparently the Norse thought fish were disgusting. The dirty Inuit ate fish. Vikings didn't.

They gambled with their biological survival in favor of their cultural survival. They chose (only half consciously, I guess) to die as Europeans rather than integrate with and learn from the Inuit, who survive today.

Makes you think.

What cultural ideologies do we cling to, the consequences be damned? That real estate developers have an absolute right to build over wetlands and forests so that yuppies can own McMansions? That the freedom of multi-national corporations to do business with whomever they like is more important than our national interest? That our national interest is more important than genuine collaboration with Europeans? That SUVs are more important oil independence? That cars and airplanes are more important than trains?

I tend to be the kind of person who says that hedgehog virtues of Vision and Focus are more important than mere "opportunism." But when does stubbornness about Who You Are guarantee your self-destruction? When are the scrambling opportunists actually the resilient cockroaches of civilization?

 

NOTES

The Vanishing, a book review by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker 1.3.05

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond.

 

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