Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Cultural Suicide

The always interesting Malcom Gladwell reviews the always insightful Jared Diamond's new book, Collapse, and as a certain old English prof of mine used to say, "Fireworks, fireworks".

Collapse is about how certain soceities have committed suicide by refusing to change in the face of self-inflicted environmental armageddon. An example is a Viking colony in Greenland who cultivated the land out of existance and starved to death, all the while refusing to eat fish because of some cultural taboo.

It's easy to think of such behavior as stupid, but
Why did the Norse choose not to eat fish? Because they weren’t thinking about their biological survival. They were thinking about their cultural survival. Food taboos are one of the idiosyncrasies that define a community. Not eating fish served the same function as building lavish churches, and doggedly replicating the untenable agricultural practices of their land of origin. It was part of what it meant to be Norse, and if you are going to establish a community in a harsh and forbidding environment all those little idiosyncrasies which define and cement a culture are of paramount importance.
And hey, we all know how strongly people feel about cultural survival as we see incumbents of every stripe, from French farmers to Arabian despots whine about how evil, American led modernity is destroying their culture.

There was an additional environmental element not mentioned in the book review--cultural competition. It is quite possible that old Vikings would never eat fish but that perhaps some younger, more open minded Vikings might try some, especially if the alternative was starving. Much of the cultural whining one hears across the globe comes from parents who see their children breaking taboos, ignoring precedent, and doing whatever damn thing they want.

If cultural competition, not cultural vitality, is the key to keeping people from committing suicide, then the US is in good shape indeed. At the end of the review, Gladwell goes off the deep end arguing that
For the past thirty years, Oregon has had one of the strictest sets of land-use regulations in the nation, requiring new development to be clustered in and around existing urban development. The laws meant that Oregon has done perhaps the best job in the nation in limiting suburban sprawl, and protecting coastal lands and estuaries. But this November Oregon’s voters passed a ballot referendum, known as Measure 37, that rolled back many of those protections. Specifically, Measure 37 said that anyone who could show that the value of his land was affected by regulations implemented since its purchase was entitled to compensation from the state. If the state declined to pay, the property owner would be exempted from the regulations.

To call Measure 37—and similar referendums that have been passed recently in other states—intellectually incoherent is to put it mildly. It might be that the reason your hundred-acre farm on a pristine hillside is worth millions to a developer is that it’s on a pristine hillside: if everyone on that hillside could subdivide, and sell out to Target and Wal-Mart, then nobody’s plot would be worth millions anymore. Will the voters of Oregon then pass Measure 38, allowing them to sue the state for compensation over damage to property values caused by Measure 37?

It is hard to read “Collapse,” though, and not have an additional reaction to Measure 37. Supporters of the law spoke entirely in the language of political ideology. To them, the measure was a defense of property rights, preventing the state from unconstitutional “takings.” If you replaced the term “property rights” with “First Amendment rights,” this would have been indistinguishable from an argument over, say, whether charitable groups ought to be able to canvass in malls, or whether cities can control the advertising they sell on the sides of public buses. As a society, we do a very good job with these kinds of debates: we give everyone a hearing, and pass laws, and make compromises, and square our conclusions with our constitutional heritage—and in the Oregon debate the quality of the theoretical argument was impressively high.

The thing that got lost in the debate, however, was the land. In a rapidly growing state like Oregon, what, precisely, are the state’s ecological strengths and vulnerabilities? What impact will changed land-use priorities have on water and soil and cropland and forest? One can imagine Diamond writing about the Measure 37 debate, and he wouldn’t be very impressed by how seriously Oregonians wrestled with the problem of squaring their land-use rules with their values, because to him a society’s environmental birthright is not best discussed in those terms. Rivers and streams and forests and soil are a biological resource. They are a tangible, finite thing, and societies collapse when they get so consumed with addressing the fine points of their history and culture and deeply held beliefs—with making sure that Thorstein Olafsson and Sigrid Bjornsdotter are married before the right number of witnesses following the announcement of wedding banns on the right number of Sundays—that they forget that the pastureland is shrinking and the forest cover is gone.
What Gladwell calls "intellectual incoherance", someone more open to diverse points of view, someone more nuanced in his thinking, someone more practical and less ideological in his mindset might see a realization that 1) Oregon is too expensive, and 2) increasing the supply of houses (Q) might reduce the price (P) in time honored tradition. This person may also, while conceding their are subtle externalities associated in real estate prices, point out that a taking is a taking is a taking, and if Oregonians want acres of Pristine Wilderness they should all pay for that through higher taxes that are spent on buying off developers, instead of forcing the cost on developers who bought land to (gasp, shock) develop only to see new laws passed restricting its use and reducing its value. But hey, why even consider the average Joe when you can rail against Walmart and Target and their sin of low prices for poor people.


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