Five bummer problems that make societies collapse


Collapse guru Jared Diamond says we should heed the warning of the Greenland Vikings, whose record was nowhere near as good as their Minnesota namesakes. Photo: Katherine/Flickr CC.

“If anyone tells you that there’s a single-factor explanation for societal collapse,” says collapse guru Jared Diamond, “you know right away that they’re an idiot. This is a complex subject.”

So, forget about peak debt, peak oil, peak climate, peak Harry Potter or even peak everything as the single most important problem that could bring today’s whole pulsing, beaming and txt-mssgng mess down into a lifeless pile of shorted-out microchips, rusted carburetors and busted sporks from Taco Bell.

In a TED talk that Diamond gave in 2003 with eerie relevance for this very minute, the author of two books on collapse, the solid-gold hit Guns, Germs and Steel and the more recent Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, outlined five factors required for any advanced society to give up the ghost.

Norse: It could be worse

For each factor, Diamond gives an example from the Greenland Norse. These were the unlucky Vikings who, when it came time to diversify out of raping and pillaging into the more profitable business of running a civilization, missed the boats to Sicily or Normandy, where their more fortunate countrymen set up colonies.

Instead,  starting in the year 984, these poor schlubs wound up on an un-aptly named island in the North Atlantic with precious few trees but plenty of rocks and glaciers. Maybe not the brightest torches in the longboat, the Greenland Norse were at least smart enough to eke out a basic European lifestyle on their huge, sparse island for about 500 years, until the last of them died off around 1450.

Why’d they fail? Here’s their Fatal Five:

  1. Human impacts on the environment. The Vikings unintentionally caused erosion and deforestation by reckless farming and logging. This deprived them of both food and charcoal, the latter leaving them as an Iron Age culture with no freakin’ way to make iron.
  2. Climate change. Yup, they had it too, though as climate skeptics like to point out, it went the other way that time — things got colder starting in the 1300s. Yet, more cold and ice wasn’t fatal to the Vikings’ neighbors, the Inuit, who weren’t such babies about a few more blizzards every season.
  3. Friendly neighbors going. The Greenlanders always relied on trade with the motherland. But when the seas started to ice up more, ships from Norway became fewer and farther between. Not that they were ever that hot and heavy to start with. But still.
  4. Hostile neighbors coming. That would be the Inuit again. They killed the Vikings (doing which makes you pretty darn butch in the warfare world) and may have also blocked Norse access to fjords, sending the price of seals, which the Vikings thought were finger lickin’ good, through the roof.
  5. Dysfunctional political and cultural practices. As devout Christians, when times got tough, the Norse glorified God by cutting the food and defense budgets to fund the cathedral-building budget. And since they had nothing but scorn for the tribal Inuit, they refused to learn from them how to adapt to colder weather and dwindling resources.

It doesn’t take a genius

Were these people so stupid that they didn’t know what was going on? And if they did know, then were they too fat and lazy to do anything about it? Diamond’s students at UCLA ask these questions all the time about the societies they study in his collapse class (why wasn’t that offered at my college?), from the Yucatan Maya to the USSR.

You do have to wonder, couldn’t Joe and Thjodhilde Viking tear themselves away from Greenland’s Got Talent long enough to see that some abbot was cutting down the last tree to carve a honkin’ big crucifix for the Good Friday procession?

These guys gave new meaning to the phrase “everybody complains about the price of blubber but nobody does anything about it.”

Diamond thinks a big problem was that the rich and powerful were so into keeping up with the Joneses — “flogging” the land (that’s over-farming to you and me) to compete with other chiefs for who could bring in the most crops and support the biggest posse of loyal retainers — to do anything to stop the madness.

Or, as Diamond puts it, there was a conflict between the short-term interest of the elites and the long-term interest of the whole society. And, since the chiefs and bishops were largely insulated from the problems that their reckless consumption created, they didn’t see how messed up things were getting until it was too late.

Plutocracy anyone?

If you think this sounds a lot like today’s big corporations — squeezing all the cash they can out of foreclosing mortgages, shuttering factories and cheating on their taxes, all while buying politicians who will do anything from invading Turkmenistan to erecting a monument to Clean Coal on the National Mall just to keep the fossil fuels coming fast and cheap, climate change be damned — then you’re just not thinking like a good Greenlander.

By living in gated communities and drinking bottled water, the rich can keep their high times going a bit longer while the rest of us start getting pretty hot and bothered, thinks Diamond.

Diamond’s not just trying to spoil your afternoon. He’s trying to scare us all straight. Society can address the problems ourselves, trying to minimize suffering. Or we can just jolly well wait and see what happens, which we seem to be doing a pretty good job at right now.

We know how that turned out in Greenland. And it was cold (!) comfort that, when the last peat fire fizzled out and the last strip of seal jerky was gnawed, the chiefs died along with the peasants. A reminder that the Koch brothers will probably go down with the welfare moms, eventually.

Click here to watch the video at the TED website.

Editor’s Note: Thanks to El Erial De Olduvai for posting this video on the Transition Voice Facebook page.

— Erik Curren, Transition Voice

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  1. Auntiegrav says

    I love it when someone says, “If they say…then they’re an idiot.”
    Especially in academia, where a long history of idiots seems to be the norm.

    Net Useful or Bust!

    Besides, it’s not like humans do things intentionally, anyway. What difference does it make to see collapse coming if we aren’t going to do anything to stop it?

    Jared: You’re an idiot. You’ve spent your life teaching people things they will never apply to their future.

    (Just kidding. I love your work.)

    • Erik Curren says

      I just wish we had more idiots like Jared Diamond, instead of the kind of idiots that we seem to have in plentiful supply.

      • Thorfinn Finnlandsson says

        One Jared Diamond and his cherry-picked nonsense is one idiot too many.

        The culturally identical Icelanders and Faroese Islanders managed to survive—even thrive–to the present day despite the same crappy weather, negligent contacts with the “home country” and religious and political zealotry.

        But those easily-checked facts would have demolished Diamond’s simplistic checklist, so he pretended they didn’t exist.

        The simple fact is that Greenland was an outlier. A very marginal place at the best of times—which is when the Norse arrived there. There was no option of adopting Inuit hunting practices. The Inuit “toolkit” was extremely specialized, and even so, it’s notable that the modern Inuit are the descendants of the only one of the historical Inuit cultures. The rest of the Inuit cultures? Gone. Unable to adapt to the environment in spite of all those things Diamond natters on about.

        Diamond is a crank. A glib panderer to popular prejudices, selling books about how terrible Western culture and technology is to the plump over-fed intellectually lazy beneficiaries of Western culture and technology, as they sit in their warm dry houses.

        The son of a bitch should be dumped on an ice floe and left to explain his nonsense to a hungry polar bear.

        • Brian says

          You’re obviously not familiar with Jared Diamond’s book, where he deals with all the North Atlantic Norse societies—Shetland, Orkney, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, and Greenland, going into detail on Iceland in particular as an example of a success story. Icelandic soil was much more fragile than in Norway or Britain, so the first inhabitants unwittingly destroyed their environment by following the same practices that had served them well back home. So Iceland became one of the poorest and environmentally damaged countries in Europe, but eventually they changed their practices and prosper today.
          Everything you bring up is addressed in the book. Diamond knows that Greenland is an extremely marginal place, where several waves of inhabitants came and died out before the Norse and the Inuit. These predecessors are not called Inuit, by the way, but are recognized as separate pre-Inuit people such as the Dorset people who might have interacted with the Norse. Inuit technology was more advanced than the Dorset culture, and included kayaks, which the later Danes who came to Greenland eagerly copied unlike their Norse predecessors.

  2. Jb says

    Love the sense of humor in this piece: “Greenland’s Got Talent” – very funny. The ‘Greenland Norse’ link was facinating – thanks!

    • Erik Curren says

      Thanks JB. Lindsay made me cut out some of the cheesier remarks so I hope it wasn’t over the top. And I found the GL Norse history pretty fascinating too. The whole thing about elites spending resources on status consumption while the society starved really hit home.

  3. Jb says

    I think it’s fascinating that many Norse people stayed; I guess it’s the whole ‘frog in a pot of water’ thing. They just kept hoping that things would get better. How do you know when it’s time to ‘abandon ship’ and leave? After you’ve eaten the dog? It’s a gutsy thing to do and forces you to see through your normalcy bias.

  4. Heh says

    Jared Diamond is himself an idiot. He’s a cultural marxist, a man of great intelligence yet a fool. Or, to be more precise, he is an ideologue who puts his ideology ahead of science and academic objectivity.

    Much like a Steven Rose or a Stephen Gould. Same kind of nonsense.
    He’s right about one thing though: there isn’t any single cause.

    But even an idiot is right once or twice.

  5. says

    There is a lot of push back against Jared Diamond by the various specialists his work cross connects with.

    I have seen a fair amount on Easter Island recently that indicates that the natives actually did a pretty good job of sustainable farming. The collapse there appears to have been the much more familiar one of outside groups bringing death and disease.

    The collapse of marginal areas during climate-weather shifts, such as the one that wiped out the Norse, have many examples.

    It is all very easy to say that they should do something, but there is a reason that it is called marginal land. If the fluctuation in weather that wipes out your settlement lasts 5 years they say you are unlucky. If it is the start of a mini-ice age, you are accused of fiddling while Rome burns.

  6. says

    Russell, can you give references for your Easter Island claims? I have looked into it in detail, and it seem pretty clear that when the Dutch discovered the island, it was bare, a treeless plain.

    Considering that the remaining natives today, have been piling their garbage on top on of the only remaining aquifer on their island, the old stories seem of woven from the same thread.

  7. Ilpalazzo says

    Excuse me, but what the hell is this article trying to convey? That all economies are flawed or will collapse due to a story of unintentional choices of Vikings on Greenland? I think Diamond is simply trying to say that there are “too many factors to attribute to problems” and that there is never just one explanation/factor. Right? I wholeheartedly agree with that and have been saying it long before Diamond. Sadly, many people have trouble phrasing what they’re getting at, like the author here.

    And if anything, it’s pretty much just Butterfly/Chaos Theory. There’s AT LEAST 6 Billion factors (if you just go by human count), but the real number of factors is infinitesimal.

    • says

      Are you saying that cause and effect don’t matter? I knew people who had fun with chaos theory in college too. But then they either put their bongs away and went on to more practical things — or they went on to become astrophysicists. And while I respect the latter, I’m not sure how much they have to add to a conversation about what ails our society and what we can do about it before it’s too late.

      Diamond has picked out five factors that, taken together, seem pretty likely to push a society over the edge. They could just do it with US society, as we seem to be gaining momentum on each factor. Plenty of butterflies may be flapping across the Pacific, but I’m more worried about peak resources, climate change and pollution, the withdrawal of support from our allies, the increasing hostility of our enemies and our dysfunctional political and social order that is keeping us from learning any useful lessons — like for example, that we need to power down from fossil fuels now.

    • says

      “And if anything, it’s pretty much just Butterfly/Chaos Theory. There’s AT LEAST 6 Billion factors (if you just go by human count), but the real number of factors is infinitesimal.”

      First off, by context here the real number of factors would be “infinite”, not “infinitesimal”, which means vanishingly small.

      Second, while you can identify many factors involved in any collapse, the one factor common to all collapse scenarios whether monetary in nature or biological in origin is the Exponential Growth which precedes the collapse. Just have a look at the graph of the population of Deer on St. Matthews Island to grasp this relatively simple point.

      Biological organisms will exploit an environment to depletion unless they are in some way checked by competiton with other organisms. Jared Diamond correctly identified many of the reasons a particular culture of Homo Sapiens was able to exploit the global environment in his book, “Guns, Germs and Steel”. Basically by getting there first, Europeans and the Industrial way of life out-competed every other form of human social organization in very rapid fashion and grew exponentially as a result. I find it kind of odd that he chooses to identify 5 factors when they really all fall under the general rubric of being the consequences of exponential growth.

      Reversing the trend demands that the Top of the Food Chain organism self limits its consumption of resources, aka know as “conservation”. Issue is, no biological organisms DO this spontaneously of their own volition. They all have to be limited by some external predator or force of nature or they invade an ecosystem and consume until the ecosystem can no longer support them. The fact Homo Sapiens is Sentient enables us to be self-aware and OBSERVE the phenomena in action; it does not however enable us to stop the dynamic in action by as a species engaging in conservation of resources volutarily. You always have the effect where Predators evolve, in our society the Predators are the Banksters. Unless these predators are kept in check by something ABOVE them, eventually they will consume all they predate on, and they also will end up going Extinct.

      Fortunately for the future of Homo Sapiens, there IS something ABOVE a Bankster at work here in the global ecosystem. Mother Nature. The methods and means of predation are the conduits of Energy and Money, and both are running thin at the same time, because of course one is dependent on the other for its existence. Mother Nature will take down these Predators, you can see it happening in real time here by just pulling up the charts off the NOAA website. There is simply no way in the absence of cheap energy that the Conduits created through the Age of Oil used to command and control the vast population of Homo Sapiens it enabled can be maintained. The Conduits will fail, the Population will crash, and in the aftermath there will be something different. What that will be is anybody’s guess, but the CAUSE of it is is clear. Exponential Growth.


  8. says

    I haven’t even finished reading this yet but just wanted to say thanks for the much needed laugh. Hopefully it was supposed to be funny…in some points :)

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