Jared Diamond, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel—which described how quirks of geography and environment (rather than, say, racial or cultural superiority) helped some cultures succeed—has a new book out.  This one analyzes why some cultures fail; it’s titled, appropriately enough, Collapse.  In this week’s New Yorker Malcolm Gladwell’s reviews the book, giving an interesting twist that’s very relevant to the Northwest.

As a caveat:  I haven’t read either of Diamond’s books, though I have read a brief version of his "collapse" arguments here.  Essentially, Diamond argues that cultures often fail because they mismanage basic resources:  soil, trees, water, and the like.  The review highlights an interesting case:  the failure of the Norse colonies in Greenland in the 1400s.  Apparently, the Norse re-created European culture (including agriculture) in two of the more livable corners of the island; but eventually they exhausted the fragile arctic soils, which caused their cattle-based agricultural system to enter terminal decline. Ultimately the settlers were forced (gruesomeness alert!) to eat their pets before they finally starved to death.

  • What’s curious about all this (and I will get around to the point eventually) is that, even when the going was terrible, the Norse colonists never ate fish.  Archeologists simply can’t find fish bones—or at least, hardly any—in their settlements.  Apparently, a cultural bias against eating fish prevented them from even considering them as an option, even at the end.  Diamond’s lesson: the residents of the outposts valued their culture (which, at the time, apparently looked down on fish) more than their very survival.

    The Northwest connection?  In his review, Gladwell mentions the passage of Measure 37 in Oregon, which pitted a cultural preference for land-use decisions unfettered by regulatory meddling, against a far-sighted set of laws designed to protect Oregon’s landscapes for the long haul.  Here’s what he says…

    It is hard to read “Collapse,” though, and not have an additional reaction to Measure 37. Supporters of the law spoke entirely in the language of political ideology. To them, the measure was a defense of property rights, preventing the state from unconstitutional “takings.” …

    The thing that got lost in the debate, however, was the land. In a rapidly growing state like Oregon, what, precisely, are the state’s ecological strengths and vulnerabilities? What impact will changed land-use priorities have on water and soil and cropland and forest? One can imagine Diamond writing about the Measure 37 debate, and he wouldn’t be very impressed by how seriously Oregonians wrestled with the problem of squaring their land-use rules with their values, because to him a society’s environmental birthright is not best discussed in those terms. Rivers and streams and forests and soil are a biological resource. They are a tangible, finite thing, and societies collapse when they get so consumed with addressing the fine points of their history and culture and deeply held beliefs…that they forget that the pastureland is shrinking and the forest cover is gone.

    I don’t know that I believe that the ultimate effects of Measure 37 will be so dire.  But it is clear that this is a case where a clearly articulated set of cultural values—those regarding the sanctity of private property—trumped a less-clearly articulated set—maintaining the integrity of the landscapes that support and enrich us, and that will allow our children and grandchildren to thrive.