Vikings, Climate, and Self-Publishing

Yesterday NiCHE re-tweeted a link from Tina Loo, calling attention to a Guardian article about climate change and the Viking settlement on Greenland. Tina's comment, "Now I have to rewrite my #envhist lecture," struck a chord, because I'm preparing my lectures for Spring semester, and because I've just released Part One of my textbook, which discusses the Vikings, Greenland, and Vinland. My first thought was the same. Am I going to have to revise that chapter the first week the book is out?


I took a look at
the study the Guardian article was reporting on. After reading it, I don't think I need to rush back and rewrite. The main point of the study seems to be that the Norse were not idiots prone to "maladaptation by an inflexible temperate zone society" as the article puts it, but instead "show greater resilience [and] more willingness to expand sources of TEK [and]...ability to resolve conflicts between climate change and core social ideology" than we have so far, to quote the study's conclusion. The Vikings did manage to survive in Greenland for five hundred years, after all. They must have been pretty tough and pretty smart.

I was hoping the article would say more about fishing and Vinland. But the main thing I was looking for was an explanation for the two headlines I saw:

Vikings were not spurred to Greenland by warm weather, research shows (Guardian)
Vikings’ mysterious abandonment of Greenland was not due to climate change, study suggests (Washington Post)

The target of both articles seems to be the "so-called medieval warm period," in the
Guardian's words. The Washington Post goes a bit farther, and uses caps and quotes not only for "Medieval Warm Period" but for "Little Ice Age." The Post goes on to say the article challenges "whether the so-called Medieval Warm Period was really so warm...suggesting that the tale of the Vikings colonizing but then abandoning Greenland due to climatic changes may be too simplistic." Well, yeah. Suggesting that anybody does anything for just one reason is probably too simplistic. But it bothers me just a bit that as you scroll down this Post article, there are three Shell Oil ads inserted into the text, in addition to the big one on the sidebar.

In case you were wondering, the article concludes that although the situation was more complicated than monocausal explanations of the past may have implied, climate played a big role in the Norse experience of Greenland, and probably in the settlement's end. Here are their words:

Collectively, these environmental changes would have degraded subsistence flexibility, decreased environmental predictability, and driven threshold crossing in the marine ecosystems related to the Eastern Settlement. The small Western Settlement (with a maximum likely population of 600–800) failed sometime in the late 14th century. Although the end of the Western Settlement is not completely understood, a likely proximate cause was isolation combined with late winter subsistence failure, plausibly connected to climate change.

So, as far as I'm concerned, a lecture or a textbook that had avoided a simplistic telling of the story in the first place should be okay. I don't have to revise my chapter on European discovery of the Americas.


But I think it's worth noting that if the evidence had really contradicted what I had said in that chapter, in a really compelling way, I could have changed it. That's a distinct feature of a self-published text. I would not have had to burn a thousand copies, because there was no press run. The book prints on demand in Amazon's warehouse. Just like most of the paperback books you buy nowadays, actually. But, unlike those other books, I can upload a changed file to Createspace (which is also Amazon) anytime, day or night. My book can change instantly to respond to new discoveries or to comment on new data or interpretations. Or if not instantly, then in less time than passes between the moment you order a copy and the moment it ships. No need to wait a couple years for the second edition.

That's another part of the publishing world I think self-publishing can help shake up. So let's shake things up.