Vikings in the Paradox of Structure

M.J. Kirton

This is a tale of the failure of the Vikings to survive in Greenland when climate change wiped out their settlement while others survived.

Jared Diamond, Collapse, Penguin, 2005, is the reference of the best explanation of these events I have come across. He was a Professor of Physiology and now is Professor of Geography and Environmental Health Sciences, University of California. This follows up an earlier book: Guns, Germs and Steel, 1997, (that I quote in the A-I textbook) showing the effect of immigrant hoards on native populations and the effect on the hoards of (say) local germs and conditions! In all the cases given, the invaders had power and different life styles that led to contempt for the natives. We could suppose that the invaders had more than the general A-I mean for innovation and regarded the locals as backward and entrenched (adaptors). As you will remember, I agreed in the certification course that adaptors were “in a box” but argued we are all in a box – it is made up of the (necessary) limits that help bring about our current enabling, that can become crippling if the problem changes and the limits do not: the Paradox of Structure.

So, to take the Viking example – of the many you can use that are in the books – they managed to get to Greenland, much helped by weather warming change, just before 1000 AD and set up their settlements as if they were still in Norway. They copied nothing from the local Inuit and the Inuit copied nothing from them (although the latter have changed, lately!) The Vikings prospered, at the peak having over 5,000 of them in two main settlements, using all the farming methods (crops, farm animals, buildings, etc) that they brought with them quite unchanged. When, in about 1400 AD, the climate changed back to being a lot colder, these imported methods collapsed and that was the end of the whole community. Meantime the Inuit, depending on their traditional methods, e.g., fishing that the Vikings did not do or learn to do, continued to survive!

Interestingly, although Diamond does not mention it, the Irish in their mid-19th century famine crises also ignored the abundance of fish close by their shores and in their lakes and rivers, while continuing to depend on the failing crops of potatoes – acquired from America some two centuries earlier!

So all structures (including cultural practice) can be enabling with what are, when successful, helping limits. But these limits can be disastrous if they prevent change when the current enabling begins to fail. So, the Paradox of Structure states that all our capacities and knowledge, as well as our preferred thinking style, can be enabling if appropriate to the current problem – otherwise they may be dangerously limiting.

© M.J.Kirton 2015