Back in 2005 I saw a link to a review of Jared Diamond’s book Collapse on the New Yorker website. Malcolm Gladwell was telling the story of Norse settlers coming to Greenland a millennium ago and I found the story fascinating. Even to the Norse, Greenland was not a place that one would want to inhabit but on the southwest corner there are some Fjords that looked a lot like southern Norway and was a perfect place to settle so they got off the boats and set out to tame the land. For four hundred and fifty years they built two settlements, churches, traded with Europe and possibly even had a section of prime downtown real estate they couldn’t develop. They hunted seal, caribou and raised livestock and pets. Life was good and then one day it was all over. What happened?
Diamond’s book is full of stories of societal collapse. Easter Island, Mayans, and even the genocide in Rwanda but the Norse on is the one that I keep re-reading. Partly because I am part Norwegian but partly because I keep seeing those settlement’s demise being played out again and again today.
What happened in Greenland is what happened in most of the societies that Diamond looks at. The ecosystem was too fragile to support the population. The trees were chopped down for fuel, the soil erodes, the crops fail and society has to leave or ends up dying. He tells essentially the same story over and over again. Greenland wasn’t as green as the Norse thought it was and the same thing happened to them.
What is so odd about this chapter is that within feet of their shore is some of the best fishing grounds in the world. Diamond describes running into a tourist who had caught two Arctic Char with her bare hands so why did they not fish. For years archeologists have looked for the fish bones and no one has ever found them. They found tons of trash fully of garbage and livestock bones. When the pastures couldn’t support the cattle, the Norse ate the cattle, then their young (right down to the hoofs), and even their pets while ignoring a massive food supply right that was within feet of them. You could argue that maybe the Norse didn’t know any better but there was Inuit there but the Norse looked down at the Inuit and their hunting practices that probably would have saved their lives.
What does this have to do with today? Until last week I wasn’t that preoccupied with the U.S. debt ceiling. To be honest I was much more preoccupied with the NFL lockout. It never occurred to me that American politicians would allow the U.S. government to default on its debt. As the rhetoric flew in Washington, I realized it all sounded familiar. This isn’t about economics; this is about the survival of ideologies and political parties. In the same way the Norse wouldn’t fish, intermarry with the Inuit or even copy their ways of life because they were ranchers and because of cultural status, Republicans can’t make a deal because they can’t be seen raising taxes or Democrats can’t been seen cutting Social Security or Medicare. Michele Bachmann can’t compromise because that would alienate the Tea Party. John Boehner can’t compromise because then he looks weak. Obama can’t compromise or he’ll upset his base. They may push the United States into another recession but they won’t have compromised on their values. It’s a pile of crap and the rest of the world in this case pays for it.
This is what bothers me about ideological arguments, they ignore the cost to people along the way. Real leaders are not ideologues. They are pragmatists who are capable of making hard decisions that go against their base. In Saskatchewan how popular do you think it was for the NDP when they closed rural hospitals or cut the public sector in their efforts to reign in the Saskatchewan deficit? In Alberta during the same time Ralph Klein instituted user fees on healthcare. How popular were the Chretien budget cuts and austerity of the 1990s with Liberals. So much for the short term vision of a just society. While the Saskatchewan Party says it is a party of free market principles, they dug in (with the support of the NDP) to help save PotashCorp (an American company that for some reason we could not handle being taken over by an Australian company because that would be wrong for some reason). Leaders decide to go fishing from time to time. They also know they need to raise taxes to pay for a war in Afghanistan and Iraq, no matter what it does to their presidential aspirations or how much it hurts their base.
So why didn’t the Norse settlements eat Arctic Char (apparently it’s quite tasty, similar to rainbow trout)? Because they were so concerned with the survival of their northern European culture, a culture of churches, cattle, and trade that they never could see there was an alternative way to act. Why is the United States about to walk into financial Armageddon because Republican’s don’t raise taxes and Democrats don’t cut entitlements and they are both too stupid to realize that this polarization can’t continue.
As Gladwell points out,
The lesson of "Collapse" is that societies, as often as not, aren’t murdered. They commit suicide: they slit their wrists and then, in the course of many decades, stand by passively and watch themselves bleed to death.
I think I see blood on the floor.