Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

by Jared Diamond
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In Collapse, what lesson does Diamond draw in comparing the fates of the Gardar dairy farm in Norse Greenland and the Huls dairy farm in modern Montana?

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The dairy farms and Scandinavian culture the Norse established in settlements in Greenland lasted for about 450 years, a very good track record. However, what happened to the Gardar dairy farm shows that, rather than adapt to the ecological conditions of Greenland, the Norse were determined to keep using Scandinavian farming techniques in their new environment. They were able to do this successfully until they wore out the land with overgrazing, the climate began to cool, and Viking ships stopped arriving to shore them up with supplies.

Unlike the Inuits, who were able to adapt to their environment and learn to survive through fishing in waterproof kayaks, the Norse refused to adapt. They could have learned from the Inuit, but they were determined to impose their own cultural norms about how life should be lived on the environment. That did not work, so the Norse disappeared. As Diamond states,

The Norse were undone by the same social glue that had enabled them to master Greenland’s difficulties.... The values to which people cling most stubbornly under inappropriate conditions are those values that were previously the source of their greatest triumphs over adversity.

In contrast, Diamond says, the Huls dairy farm in Montana is thriving:

Huls Farm, a family enterprise owned by five siblings and their spouses in the Bitterroot Valley of the western U.S. state of Montana, is currently prospering.

The lesson Diamond draws it that though thriving now, the Huls should take heed of what happened to the Gardar farm and be willing to adapt to the local ecology.

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Diamond's comparison is meant to point out that, like the Norse in Greenland, who once had a thriving society but were totally wiped out, the Huls in the United States face the same environmental threats that could lead to the same economic and social crisis. He mentions many similarities between the two farms, including especially their northern latitudes, which make for a short growing season.

Diamond is careful to point out that he is not predicting the collapse of dairy farming in Montana, or in the US in general; rather, he argues that the past societies that faced collapse, like the Norse, did so because of a complex and interconnected set of responses to environmental conditions. In the case of the Norse, overgrazing meant that cattle consumed pasture at a rate greater than it was able to regrow; Diamond's argument is that unless we learn from societies like the Norse in Greenland, we are liable to face the same fate.

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The major lesson of Collapse as a whole is mirrored in the lesson that Diamond draws from the respective fates of the Gardar farm and the Huls farm.  The basic idea, to Diamond, is that the society that was home to the Gardar farm made choices that harmed its environment in important ways.  By contrast, the society that is home to the Huls farm has not (or at least not yet) made choices that have been that destructive.

According to Diamond, the Norse who went to live in Greenland made a number of fundamental mistakes.  Those mistakes led to environmental degradation.  The most important of these mistakes was to cut down too many trees.  By cutting down the trees, the Norse deprived themselves of the ability to make things out of large pieces of wood.  More importantly, they deprived themselves of the ability to build as many fires as they needed.  This was particularly important because the Norse relied heavily on dairies and dairies need hot water to wash their equipment and keep their food safe.  The Norse also made the mistake of relying heavily on turf-cutting to build houses.  This reduced the amount of land that could be used (since the turf grew back very slowly) to grow hay to feed their animals.

In these ways, the society in which the Gardar farm existed made choices that devastated their environment, Diamond says.  Their choices made it impossible for their society to continue to prosper.  This led to the situation in which the Gardar farm failed while the Huls farm has continued to do well.

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