14 October 2013

Columbus and the destruction of endless resources

Today is Thanksgiving in Canada and Columbus Day in the US.[1]

Both of these holidays touch on the topics of indigenous people, resource use and sustainability -- and not in a good way.

Native Americans (First Nations here in Canada) definitely got screwed by European settlers (the Oatmeal's summary of why Christopher Columbus was a nasty imperialist should be required reading for all Americans today), just as many peoples were conquered and exploited by colonists. I'm relieved that most Europeans think it's a bad idea to invade countries to liberate their peoples and exploit their resources, but sad to see that some other countries (Russia, China and the US) still seem to think that Their Way is the right way.

Britain has NOT invaded the white countries
What caused a change of heart in Europe? And how is it possible that the ancestors of today's "civilized" Europeans were different? The Belgians, e.g., are now known for beer, chocolate, and unstable governments but it was only 60 years ago that they ran one of the most brutal colonial regimes on the planet.

I'd explain these differences in three steps:
  1. Humans will use abundant resources if they can
  2. They can do that if the "owners" of these resources have a different version of property rights (i.e., communal rather than private ownership) and are too weak to defend their property
  3. Europeans fought so much that they got strong enough to take everyone over, until colonial subjects got strong enough to kick them out and domestic opposition to colonialism ended support for it at home
The result of going through this process, combined with the horrors of wars that resulted from listening to exceptionalist nationalists, has led most Europeans to conclude that it's condescending, foolish and inhumane to continue to occupy people against their will.[2]

As you can see from my wording, Americans, Chinese and Russians (and perhaps others) may still suffer from these weaknesses. They have developed with an expansive view of resource exploitation, and they have not directly experienced the follies of nationalism. The Americans did not internalize the failure of Vietnam; the Chinese have a sense of manifest destiny that includes everyone who eats rice; and the Russians have a similar post-imperialist, post-badass need to justify their greatness.

These three nations, in other words, are full of people who lack the humility and experience of failure necessary to counteract their chauvinistic impulses.

These are big themes, so let me clarify two things. Canadians, Americans, Russians and Chinese see resources as something to exploit because they have not really had to live with a limited set of resources. Europeans are better at resource conservation (and by extension, environmental protection) because they've hit their limits. These differences explain how policies and outcomes are so different in exploiting vs conserving cultures.

Exempting Canadians, these three countries are also less respectful of others' rights to resources (or a clean environment) because they don't have a history of peer-to-peer detente or experience of having their resources taken from them.[3] Many people from these countries have mistakenly interpreted their "exceptional" luck with an "exceptional" excuse to disrespect and/or exploit others.[4]

Will these trends reverse? Only if the citizens and leaders of these countries gain some perspective on the importance of conserving resources and respect for the rights of other peoples. From what I've seen in their (lack of) response to various resource and environmental disasters, I'm not sure that they are making any progress.

Bottom Line: History is only destiny for those too lazy to learn from others' failures.
  1. I'm guessing that the Canadian holiday is earlier because the harvest (and first frost) are earlier in Canada [NB: It's way more complicated than that]. I'm also guessing that the Canadian Thanksgiving is similar to the American one in terms of family reunions and eating pumpkin pie and turkey; I don't think they've got the same crazed shopping crush, but maybe that's only because there are SO MANY shopping days left before Xmas
  2. Many post-colonial countries -- in Africa especially -- still struggle with these issues because their tribal loyalties justify exploiting citizens from other tribes
  3. They have a longer history of being under British control and non-history of colonialism, so they tend to shy away from ruling over others. That said, some Canadians think it's a great idea to USE resources, as they come from a culture of exploitation
  4. I'm willing to blame some of these countries' dysfunctional domestic politics on taking this attitude towards others. As one recent example, consider how Azerbaijan's rulers announced election results even before the election took place!


  1. This is a great observation:

    "These three nations, in other words, are full of people who lack the humility and experience of failure necessary to counteract their chauvinistic impulses."

    We all tend to learn more from our failures than successes, but only if we are willing to look at them as such. Without stepping back, and really understanding what happened nothing changes. And in fact things will get worse.

    You can see it in organizations where accountability is devolved to the "program" and not those in decision making positions; and in governments where blame is laid at any of a number of faceless institutions.

    Humility is a trait that is unrewarded and typically seen as a weakness. Bizarrely, it is also the trait which gives one the inner strength and resolve to go on!

  2. I wonder how you'd place Australia and New Zealand among your countries.

    Also, an interesting question could be asked about intra-British colonialism experiences: how differently do Scots, Welsh, Irish (and Northern Irish) act compared to the English? (And do the Cornish act differently, too?)

  3. @Umlud -- I'd say that the non-English Brits may be more conservative with their resources, given that they've been on the receiving end of English power. The Aussies are pretty close to Canadians (population density; resource exploitation), but the Kiwis may be different, given their Scottish background (conserve or die). Just my pop anthro ideas...


Spam will be deleted. Comments on older posts must be approved.
If you're having problems posting, email your comment to me