Is America Going the Way of Norse Greenland?

(This essay was originally published on April 30, 2017, on the History News Network [online]

Civilizations which make bad decisions about the environment they occupy, cannot sustain themselves over the long run. By appointing Scott Pruitt, a known environmental skeptic, as director of the Environmental Protection Agency, and by signing on March 28, the executive order beginning the rollback of the Obama-era initiatives, President Trump has placed the US on such a path.

The Vikings were a warrior, sea-faring people from Scandinavia who in the late 8th century began to project their power first to the British Isles and over the next centuries from as far west as Canada to as far east as western Russia. Their initial raids consisted of only several ships; however, eventually armadas of 30 or more ships plundered the coastal and river towns of western Europe. More than simply violent raiders, they were also very courageous explorers and extensive traders, even if they generally were heavily armed. Ahmad Idn Fadlan, a 10th century Arab soldier and diplomat of Baghdad stated, “Every one of them carries an ax, a sword, and a dagger.”

In 984 a group of these Norse Vikings ventured to Greenland and established two major settlements. In his book, Collapse, Jared Diamond explains how these families from Norway eventually built churches, used iron tools, and herded farm animals. Life on Greenland was harsh, but, as they demonstrated for nearly 500 years, still sustainable. Thereafter, they vanished.

Initially, however, they prospered. They had discovered a virgin landscape suitable for livestock and had the luck of a relatively mild climatic era. They were able to grow adequate hay for their livestock. The sea lanes back to Europe were ice free, facilitating trade for needed goods. Their European kin sought the walrus ivory they were able to supply. There were no quarrelsome natives.

Greenland and Ice Caps


However, as time wore on, the favorable conditions changed. The climate became colder, shortening the growing season. The European demand for their ivory declined. Lastly, native Inuit people appeared. These factors were beyond their control; however, they did have control over how they responded to these challenges.

Regarding the Inuit, the Norse chose to view them as inferior people who had little to teach them, calling them “Skraelings” (wretches). The Christian Norse therefore chose to reject their technologies and strategies: their streamline kayaks to harpoon seals; their large boats (umiaqs) and their specialized harpoons to kill whales. They did not learn the special techniques the Inuit used to hunt ringed seals, the most abundant seal in the coastal waters. There is also little evidence of inter-marriage or trade between the Norse and the Inuit. Clearly, the Norse kept them at a distance and chose conflict over cooperation.

Regarding the environment, the Norse made decisions which gave them short term benefits, but which in the long term were unsustainable. By cutting the trees and over-grazing with their livestock, they destroyed the natural vegetation. For fuel and also for the construction of their buildings, they cut and stripped the turf. All these activities caused harmful soil erosion, leading eventually to shortages of lumber, iron, fuel, and arable land.

American civilization, the world’s second largest carbon polluter after China, now has the Trump administration leading it, one that seems intent on fulfilling President Trump’s campaign pledges to place economic growth above a sustainable environment. Appointing Scott Pruitt as EPA director in February was akin to letting the fox into the henhouse. On March 28, Trump signed an executive order beginning the rollback of the Obama-era environmental initiatives and attempting a futile revival of the coal industry. This order directed the EPA to begin the process of rewriting Obama’s Clean Power Plan of closing numerous coal-burning plants and constructing new wind and solar farms. With these actions the United States has now officially become an “environmental skeptic.”

If the world had arrested the markers of harmful climate change, perhaps the situation would not be so ominous. However, this is not the case. As reported by the National Geographic Society, the global surface temperature average in 2016 set another record. It was higher than 2015 which was higher than 2014. Last year’s average was 1.69 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the 20th century average. The Artic has warmed significantly and its ice cover continues to thin and to shrink. The world’s two largest ice sheets, in Greenland and Antarctica, continue to decline. Since 2002 the Greenland ice sheet has lost an average of 287 billion metric tons of ice each year. Over the past four decades, climate-related disasters have risen. Finally, last year the Great Barrier Reef off Australia experienced its largest recorded coral die-off.

Diamond ends his analysis of the demise of Norse Greenland by focusing on its leaders: the chiefs and clergy. These were the primary decision-makers who owned most of the land and most of the boats, as well as controlling most of the trade with Europe. They chose to devote much of the trade to importing luxury goods to enhance their lives and prestige. They might have made wiser decisions for the settlement’s longer term interests, for example, to import more iron and fewer luxury goods, and to copy the successful technology and techniques of the native Inuit. However, they had the power and privilege to decide otherwise. Diamond concludes: “The last right that they obtained for themselves was the privilege of being the last to starve.”

We should not dismiss the example of the Norse Greenland as irrelevant to our civilization, though it consisted only of several thousand people. The lessons in decision-making of this remote European outpost of the Middle Ages warn us to avoid clinging to formerly beneficial values and ways when time and circumstances have made these harmful in the long run.

Fred Zilian ( teaches history and environmental politics at Salve Regina University, RI.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Is America Going the Way of Norse Greenland?

  1. petemccall1 says:

    Fred, you have out done yourself. This will be saved for future reference. I know some others that need to read this and will pass it along.

    Take care,

    Peter McCall h-912.638.3234 c-770.329.6156


  2. Trumperica: Going the Way of Norse Greenland?
    Trumperica is saving our Western Civilization from the assault by the Socialist leftwing of
    Obama’s passed policies and EPA overreaches of the Democratic Party. Since Al Gore published An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What We Can Do About It, in 2006, based on faulty scientific evidence and research, a new group of extreme environmentalists have arisen. The political force created by these groups have forced
    20 years of government overreach with regulation after regulation, strangling private property
    rights, manufacturing, mining and a host of other environmental freedoms on our people. Many of
    these regulations have no basis in fact, but are only in the radical minds of the Eco-Nazi. They threaten our very civilization as farming, mining, manufacturing, energy and other industries move off shore in order to avoid the draconian laws of the EPA. The EPA under Obama was one of America’s leading job killers!

    I am confused by your analogy, Trumperica: Going the Way of Norse Greenland?
    The “Little Ice Age” was no match for the Vikings. According to Columbia University Scientist’s, in a December 5, 2015 article, the Viking Warriors battled the freezing conditions and may not have
    been wiped out by the cold conditions. In addition, Koch Madsen Ph.D at National Museum of Denmark wrote:

    “The study makes us realize that the Norsemen were really good at making use of the landscape
    around them and adapting, contrary to what the usual myths would have us believe.” As conditions
    got worse they abandoned their farms and became successful “hunter gathers” and makers of tools.
    These manufactured goods were used for trade with many of the islands and European coastal cities. There is no hard evidence that the Norsemen destroyed their own civilization by not following a strict form of regulating grazing land, timber and farmland. The evidence does show
    an adapted change from farming to “hunter gathering” and commerce during the worst part of
    the “Little Ice Age.”

    President Trump by appointing Scott Pruitt to head the EPA is a step in the right direction.
    Mr. Pruitt wants a pro-jobs, pro-environment EPA. The left doesn’t. He wants states to have
    more control of their resources. The left doesn’t. Mr. Pruitt could be the best head of the EPA
    ever. Trumperica is our best hope to returning to practical solutions to complex problems.

    President Trump has done more for America than the last two Presidents in his first 100 days!

    Daniel F. Meucci
    99 Coggeshall Ave
    Newport, RI 02840

  3. Fred Zilian says:

    Thanks for your comment. Sometimes I think we live on two different planets. The Vikings did succeed on Greenland specifically for five centuries. As civilizations go, that’s not bad for longevity in a harsh climate. Americans of European descent have been in America about the same time now. However, in Diamond’s analysis, they eventually made bad decisions, regarding their environment, trade relations, and relations with the Inuit, for their long-term interests.
    Your praise for President Trump is remarkable. Can you please get me a copy of his tax returns? Can you please send him a book on either Andrew Jackson or the Civil War, or both? Can you please ask him to throw his iPhone away and govern as a president? Can you please tell him to stop campaigning? The election is over. He won.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s