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Five bummer problems that make societies collapse

Print of Viking ships
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.

"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

Editorial Notes: Erik Curren is the publisher of Transition Voice. He co-founded Transition Staunton Augusta in December 2009 and serves as managing partner of the Curren Media Group.

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