I made good on my threat to read Jared Diamond’s Collapse – I’m delighted to say that it is easier to read than his Guns Germs & Steel. Not that reading about how society’s have chosen ways to annihilate themselves is entertaining, but the style is easier to read. I might finish this one in under 6 months. But I digress.
But I got to the bit about how Iceland’s Viking culture came unstuck when they mistook the island’s fertile environment as being what they knew from their experience in Norway & the British Isles. Turns out not. It was ‘Brittle’ – in an interesting way. In Savory’s Brittleness scale, Alan Savory defines brittleness as being the state of a lack of humidity in a landscape at some time or all of the year, where microbial bacteria are unable to process decaying material, and rest leads to desertification. Whilst Iceland would not normally strike one as a brittle environment with 286 days of rain a year, in some ways it is. It’s brittle in that once the trees and grass cover was removed, the environment was not able to reestablish itself. It quickly denuded and the fertility that lay in the soil rapidly eroded. It isn’t the lack of water that made it brittle – its the short summers, cold climate and inhospitable winters. The soils are fertile because of volcanic ash, not weathered clays, and their fertility they built up up over a long period. The Viking farmers could not have known this when they first arrived – it looked at first glance much the same as Norway and the British Isles. But they unwittingly liquidated the asset base of the island’s environment. So whereas the sustainable agriculture that they had been practicing in their previous locales was about generating wealth through ‘Solar Dollars‘ (as Savory puts it) what they were actually doing in Iceland was a form of mining – creating ‘Mineral Dollars’. These frequently give a short term bonanza but create long term mayhem with the environment and once the assets are finished, you’re left with nothing.
This is a clear reminder to us (as the book goes on to sketch in lurid detail,) of the risks of overshooting the carrying capacity of a production system – especially an ecosystem services system, to put it crudely.