Home' Technology Review : April 2005 Contents 10
From the Editor Jason Pontin
A . ., a Viking called Erik the Red dis-
covered two clement fjords that ran into the ice
mass of Greenland. On the lower slopes of the
fjords there were green pastures; above, dark for-
ests. It looked a little like Norway. Within a few
generations there were 5,000 Norse colonists living in Green-
land. They built a cathedral, traded walrus tusks for European
luxuries, and farmed cattle as they had at home.
But Greenland is not Nor way. It is desperately inhospitable.
Consider, for example, how the colonists raised cattle: they built
low barns in which they lived with their cows for nine months of
the year. Each cow was kept in its own tiny stall. The Viking cows
were dwar ves, just over four feet tall. During winter, they were
fed hay the colonists harvested during the short summer. After
bad harvests, the hay would run out. Then the colonists would
force the cows to eat seaweed, which made the cows sick. When
the ice melted in May, the cows were too weak to walk; they were
carried outside to eat the new grass.
It ended badly. The colonists cut down all their trees; the thin
soil eroded; the hay har vest shrank and with it the Vikings herds;
the Little Ice Age of the Middle Ages made the winters longer and
the seas impassable; one year the trading ships didn t show---and,
after 500 years, the Greenland Norse just vanished from history.
Jared Diamond, a professor of geography at the University of
California, Los Angeles, tells the story of the Greenland Norse in
Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, published ear-
lier this year, and asks, Why did the colonists raise cattle at all?
His answer is depressing: because in Scandinavia, cows were
proof of wealth. Diamond s thesis, traced from Easter Island to
moder n Los Angeles, is that environmental strategies that work
for a society at one time and place may be maladapted when cir-
cumstances change. If people won t adopt new strategies, if their
environment is fragile and deteriorates, their society collapses.
Diamond is famous for an earlier book, Guns, Germs, and
Steel: The Fate of Human Societies, which won the Pulitzer Prize
by arguing that European civilization triumphed through geo-
graphical luck. Collapse has become a sensation, too. But at 575
pages, Collapse is long, life is short, and most commentators have
grappled not so much with the book itself as with shadows of the
book---in particular, with a simplistic summary Diamond pub-
lished in the New York Times on New Year s Day, 2005, titled
"The Ends of the World as We Know Them."
Environmentalists liked the summary and, therefore, Collapse,
because they thought it ser ved the cause; likening our own time to
the periods preceding previous historical collapses, Diamond de-
clared, "We can t continue to deplete our own resources as well as
those of much of the rest of the world." Conser vative commenta-
tors have been unifor mly hostile to what they think the book is
about; they complain that Diamond does not understand "the
tragedy of the commons"---that is, the phenomenon whereby
commonly shared resources are under valued and, very frequently,
r uined by those who use them. In short, Collapse has been drafted
into the battle between neo-Malthusians, who believe our eco-
nomic life is wickedly destr uctive and must be constrained by gov-
ernments, and Cornucopians, who think wealth can grow
inde nitely and who adore the unfettered power of markets.
This is a pity, because the book is more ingeniously argued
and profoundly researched than Diamond s summary of it sug-
gests. The book s prescriptions, for instance, are pragmatic; Dia-
mond understands that useful environmental regulation occurs
only after complex calculations of costs and bene ts. Collapse
also considers and dismisses the tragic commons by demonstrat-
ing that some resources cannot be owned. But about technology
itself, Diamond is less convincing.
In Collapse, Diamond describes himself as being a "cautious
optimist"; really, he is gloomy. He writes, "Our world society is
presently on a non-sustainable course." He dismisses technology s
ameliorative powers, writing, "All of our current problems are
unintended negative consequences of our existing technology."
But Diamond does not fully understand technology. The col-
lapse of the Greenland colonies was a technological failure: the
Norse did not adopt technologies within their grasp, like shing
or silviculture, to their new environment. In this, we are a little
like the Norse: oil companies now possess the technologies to
drill with limited environmental impact, but for a variety of rea-
sons are not required to do so (see "Wild Profits," p. 74). But more,
technology also lear ns and evolves. The Norse scarcely knew
how bad things were, and their technologies were very primitive.
We know more about our environment and our technologies are
more powerful. Perhaps Viking farming is not a very good meta-
phor for our environmental predicament.
The last chapter of Collapse is titled "The World as a Polder."
Diamond explains how the elds of the Netherlands, reclaimed
from the North Sea, have taught the Dutch that they share a com-
mon fate. Holland, he says, is a model for global sustainable de-
velopment. So it is. Communitarianism may be the necessary
condition of environmental action. But what Diamond does not
add is that the polders of the Netherlands were a technological
innovation. In this month s "Global Perspectives" package, we
explain how the Dutch engineered their country into existence
(see "The Netherlands," p. 51) and how they hope to sell new en-
vironmental technologies to a planet that needs them. The same
package describes how di erent nations are working on other
technologies that could save the world. We needn t collapse.
Write to me at email@example.com. ■
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