November 2 was an avoidable disaster for America. The election resulted in reactionary and militant Republican takeover of the House of Representatives. Granted the effects won’t be felt for months yet, and, as disasters go, it pales in comparison to misery suffered by the peoples of Haiti after its devastating earthquake and of Pakistan after its disastrous floods this year, but the long term effects will be felt by the entire world. The immediate effect is America’s middle class will continue to be decimated. Why does this matter? I believe that a strong middle class has been the hallmark of modern America for the last 60 years. It really was delivering life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But this middle class is also very destructive to the global environment. If everyone lived like middle-class Americans we’d need 5 or 6 Earths to sustain them.
Now maybe it’s more faith than reality, but I believe in what Buckminster Fuller said that we can live with a high standard of living using resources more efficiently. Bucky’s credo was "doing more with less". For example, a fiber optic cable can replace thousands of bulky copper wires at a cheaper cost and carry vastly more data. The copper can then be re-purposed. The fiber optic is made out of glass which is made out of dirt-cheap abundant sand. Not everything can see that much of an improvement, but you get the idea. Land available for farming is finite. Intensive agriculture can increase the yields only so much but at a cost of ultimately degrading the land and making it unusable. Permaculture may be one way to save it. But I digress.
As the world population grows and demands placed upon the natural systems come under increasing stress, the US not only faces collapse so does the rest of our global civilization. Now, there are lessons to be learned from past cultures when they faced collapse. Jared Diamond wrote about this very thing in his same titled book. So I’m going to quote the last two paragraphs from Chapter 8: Norse Greenland’s End in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005), pp. 275-276.These I believe are the most applicable to our current situation.
After almost 5 centuries the Norse who settled Greenland died out. Yet the Inuit who lived in Greenland at the same time survived. Jared Diamond examines a number of societies in his book. Some of those societies chronicled did adapt to their changing environment and survive. Or rather they realized they were destroying the support systems of their own environment. If there is a lesson to be learned that applies to America today it is the fate of the Norse in Greenland. The lesson fails if you don’t accept there is a climate problem, a water problem, a land problem, a general overuse of resources problem or that power and wealth concentrated in the hands of a few is a problem. For those of us who do they’ll note the structural similarities between Norse society and American society today. Emphasis mine:
Finally, power in Norse Greenland was concentrated at the top, in the bands of the chiefs and clergy. They owned most of the land (including all the best farms), owned the boats, and controlled the trade with Europe. They chose to devote much of that trade to importing goods that brought prestige to them: luxury goods for the wealthiest households, vestments and jewelry for the clergy, and bells and stained glass for the churches. Among the uses to which they allocated their few boats were the Nordrsesta hunt, in order to acquire the luxury exports (such as ivory and polar bear hides) with which to pay for those imports. Chiefs had two motives for running large sheep herds that could damage the land by overgrazing: wool was Greenland’s other principal export with which to pay for imports and independent farmers on overgrazed land were more likely to be forced into tenancy, and thereby to become a chief’s followers in his competition with other chiefs. There were many innovations that might have improved the material conditions of the Norse, such as importing more iron and fewer luxuries, allocating more boat time to Markland journeys for obtaining iron and timber, and copying (from the Inuit) or inventing different boats and different hunting techniques. But those innovations could have threatened the power, prestige, and narrow interests of the chiefs. In the tightly controlled, interdependent society of Norse Greenland, the chiefs were in a position to prevent others from trying out such innovations.
Thus, Norse society’s structure created a conflict between the short-term interests of those in power, and the long-term interests of the society as a whole. Much of what the chiefs an clergy valued proved eventually harmful to society. Yet the society’s values were at the root of its strength as well as of its weaknesses. The Greenland Norse did succeeded in creating a unique form of European society, and in surviving for 405 years as Europe’s most remote outpost. We modern Americans should not be too quick to brand them as failures, when their society survived in Greenland for longer than our English-speaking society has survived so far in North America. Ultimately, though, the chiefs found themselves without followers. The last right that they obtained for themselves was the privilege of being the last to starve.