The Parable of the Norsemen and Eskimo: musings on Resilience

If you work with communities it is hard to get through a single day without multiple mentions of the term resilience. It is of course a concept deserving of great attention. And as with any rich concept part of what we need to attend to is how it gets misused, misinterpreted and misdirected.

Resilience made its early entry into the Development world in the 70s via Biology, in particular through the study of ecological succession, more recently the fields of Community Development, Social Studies and Applied Psychology have found utility in the perspective and have added to the literature is all kinds of interesting ways. Personally when thinking about resilience I find the original framing from the natural sciences most useful, although more recent articulations from emerging fields like bio-mimicry are also really helpful, and I would commend the work of Janine Benyus in this regard. Worth also checking out the website:

The natural sciences as I’ve said explain resilience as a process ecological succession or the process through which, following ecological disturbance, a community of plants and/or animals moves towards the most stable community possible (called a “climax community”). This kind of succession is built into the blueprint of nature itself, and is the process by which natural communities respond to disturbances and changes. This process holds true for all communities, regardless of which of the 30,000 species on the planet (of which humans are one) we are referring to.
Ecological Disturbance to communities can be caused by natural, climatic phenomenon such as fires, avalanches and droughts, but they can also be triggered by human interference. Monocropping is a good example of a human-made ecological disturbance, where a solution to one problem — whether economic, environmental or political — results in the creation of a number of other problems which are worse than the original problem the solution was invented to address. Of course in the same way that ecological succession following a forest fire does excuse pyromania, inherent resilience within a community does not excuse the abdication of responsibility by outside agencies to do no harm and contribute some good.
Resilience in any species is finite, relentless ecological disturbance can create community collapse. It is a seeming paradox that one of the consequences of yielding a desert from what once was arable land is that monocropping stops. It is only when the disturbance ceases that the renewal can begin. But often in the absence of stewardship, that very renewal triggers yet another cycle of monocropping.

Primary, Secondary and Cyclical Succession

Using monocropping as an example, let’s look more closely at this succession process and search for overlaps between that and how services delivered by professional helpers impact on human communities and their individual members. Over the period of forty years or so monocropping can turn a viable productive ecology into a desert, in much the same way that the provision of services for things that people can best do for themselves and each other can transform a community into a neighbourhood of strangers, and citizens into supine receivers of services.

Yet if the monocropping stops, built into the design; deep in the fabric of that desert resides -from the edge of seeming oblivion-the capacity to recover. The processes of recovery are known as succession:
Primary ecosystem succession is when a community first forms in what appears to be an inhospitable environment such as a bare rock surface, or an emergent environment such as a new lake created by flooding.
Secondary succession occurs following human-made disturbance or naturally occurring disturbances. This kind of succession tends to be much more rapid than primary succession because the conditions for growth are more hospitable: some vital elements such as soil, nutrients and seeds are already present.
Cyclical succession happens when a community is changed by recurring events: cyclical forest fires or changing interactions with species of plants or animals.

This form of succession in human communities is where we must now turn our attention. How is it then that we can support such succession-which is tantamount to a recovery of ‘a culture of community’ within our neighbourhoods-despite the almost ubiquitous disturbances of consumer culture across the western world?
To answer this question we need to better understand what happens to human communities that do not make it to the start of succession, let alone climax: human communities that effectively disappear from the face of the planet. In the same way that a study of the effects of monocropping or other such disturbance reveal the succession cycle that renews a desert, an understanding of the total collapse of human civilizations may help us discover where the seeds of recovery for community life and culture are to be found.

While it is true to say that succession is a process that is happening all around us all the time it is also true to say that not all communities ‘bounce’ back from disturbances. Certainly in human communities ‘resilience’ in the face of disturbance is neither inevitable nor infinite, as is clearly evidenced in the work of the renowned Geologist Jared Diamond.
Diamond’s work while sensitive to the natural world’s capacity to recover from disturbance, and mindful that all ecosystems (including human communities within them) have their own natural patterns of succession, nevertheless provides a probing inquiry into the phenomenon of the total collapse of human communities.

Diamonds’ inquiry as to what makes some societies more fragile than others helps us to understand what happens when societies create disturbance to their ecology so great that the disturbance outweighs the innate capacity (or carrying capacity) of the human community to renew (succession) itself.

In Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Diamond sets out a five point framework to explain how societies collapse, noting there is no single factor that leads to societal collapse; they’re are multiple factors at play. He’s five-point framework is as follows:
• Human impact on environment: people inadvertently destroying the resource base on which they depend.
• Climate change: climates can get warmer or colder, dryer or wetter. Some societies can thrive in harsher conditions while others perish.
• Relations with neighbouring friendly societies/allies that prop up that society economically etc.
• Relations with competitors and hostiles.
• The Political, economic, social and cultural factors in the society: that make it more or less likely that society will perceive and solve its own problems.

Through a myriad of case studies that range from the Mayans of the Yucatan Peninsula to modern day China and Rwanda, Diamond seeks to illustrate the five-point framework at play. While he notes that not all five play an equally significant role in all collapse and indeed some may not even feature, human impact on the environment always does. Where Diamond’s grand theory frays around the edges in my view is in the lack of clear definition regarding what he means by ‘collapse’ and ‘society’. Using the term ‘society’ to describe an island, nation, a state as large as China and a Viking settlement is problematic, as is his use of the term ‘collapse’ to compare and contrast genocide and civil war (Rwanda) with population crash (Easter Island). Notwithstanding, his commentary on the collapse of the Greenland Norse is truly illuminating, especially when set against the survival of Inuit.
Looking back it is clear that the Greenland Norse ‘died the death of a thousand cuts’ and by their own hand. The Norse followed a number as non-sustainable practices including:
· Chopping down forests to use wood for fuel, furniture and houses, and charcoal to aid in iron smelting (centrally important to an Iron Age Society)
· Using cleared land for grazing cows
· Building houses out of 6-foot slabs of turf, which meant a home, consumed about 10 acres of grassland
· Their steadfast dedication to their faith obliged them to erect places of worship akin to those in Norway but non-sustainable for the Greenland environment.
· Their antipathy towards the Eskimos fractured relations, which made trade impossible, and exposed them to retaliatory attacks when they were at their weakest, and undermined their import channels.
Consequently, according to Diamond, the Norse like many other ‘communities’ of one scale or another that sabotaged their chance to prevail and prosper effected12 harms to the Greenland environment: destruction of natural habitats (mainly through deforestation); reduction of wild foods; loss of biodiversity; erosion of soil; depletion of natural resources; pollution of freshwater; maximizing of natural photosynthetic resources; introduction by humans of toxins and alien species; artificially induced climate change; and, finally, overpopulation. Is it any wonder that their neighbours (Inuit people) harboured murderous intent?

And Yet the Greenland Eskimos Prevailed
As temperatures dropped dramatically in the 1300s and 1400s in Greenland, the Inuit’s survived while the Norse perished. By comparing the inverse fate of each Diamond illustrates his theory in action. More importantly he proves that while some collapse, yet other communities can prevail in similarly harsh conditions if they chose to be good stewards of their environment, maintain cooperative relations with their neighbouring allies and perhaps more importantly their hostile neighbours. And ensure their political, economic, social and cultural frameworks enable those relations to be sustained and deepened even to the point whereby they change the things they believe and practice so as to adapt to the environment.
The Inuit entered Greenland around 1200 AD and by 1300 ventured down the western coast. They had long ago mastered Arctic conditions, their ancestors had survived in the Arctic region for thousands of years, and they had a wide range of hunting strategies and everyday practices that favoured survival.

Jared Diamond’s final conclusion
Jared Diamond notes two generalisations prevail with regard to societal collapse:
1) The rapidity of collapse accelerates after society reaches it peak in other words there is a tipping point before which societies appear to be more prosperous and exceeding all other growth indicators than at other time before. After the tipping point collapse is remarkable fast, typically spanning no more than a few decades.
2) It is very hard for society to make good decisions when there is conflict involving strongly held values that are good in many circumstances but poor in others, such as the Greenland Norse commitment to religious observance in keeping with practices in Norway of the time. Conflicts of interest between the short-term ambitions of those in charge and the long-term interests of the society as a whole.
Many scholars who try to explain why societies collapse find explanations, which attribute collapses to “acts of God” outside the community’s control. Some point to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Some point to climate change, weather it was either too hot or too cold for survival. Some point to the decimation of communities by disease such as what happened to the Native Americans through small pox.
But Diamond attributes collapses to human failure to perceive their dependence on basic resources and human failure to change rigid thinking.

In the final analysis, he concludes, we must be sure our social values coincide with our need to survive biologically. We must protect our water sources, watersheds, soil, and forests. They are our most basic biological resources. They are tangible and finite.

So are you and yours Vikings or Eskimos? When people speak of your resilience are they unwittingly lauding your Thor like persistence not to change, or are they validating your capacity to adjust to your environment and behave as an apprentice to the nature, and the ecology of the place you’re in?

I can’t help but wondering in today’s society who are the equivalents of the Greenland Norse and the indigenous Eskimos, perhaps we all have a little of each within us as we traverse the thin ice between collapse and resilience. There is a parable here, I suppose we could call it the Parable of the Norseman and the Eskimo, substitute for ‘Norseman’ and ‘Eskimo’ what you will. Regardless, it is important I think that current thinking around ‘resilience’ is not permitted to inadvertently act as white noise which distorts the clear message that communities who collapse, and indeed those that prevail are teaching us: if we keep stabbing or otherwise deflating that which bounces, it will eventually collapse, and often when you least expect it. But if we learn to be good stewards we will the reveal the actual abundance that so often lies hidden behind seeming scarcity, and we will prevail.

Cormac Russell

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