Collapsed and collapsing civilizations
It is an old saying that forests precede humanity, deserts follow. In the
words of Charles Birch, it is no accident that the fallen columns and broken
statues of past civilizations often lie on devastated ground. 1 The ruined cities of North
Africa, once flowing with olive oil and honey, lie stagnant in sand. The Maowu
desert of Inner Mongolia over-took the lush pasture land with deer that Genghis
Khan choose for his tomb. When land is misused by greedy and ignorant people,
everything may collapse.
The cause for the sharp decline of the Mayan civilization in the lowlands of
Guatemala was for a long time unknown. Eventually it was found that the reason
was malnutrition, caused by the overexploitation of the rainforest ecosystem on
which the Mayans depended for food, and by overpopulation . 2,3 Internal
wars and water shortages were merely contributing factors. For seventeen
centuries the local Mayan population doubled every 400 years, eventually
reaching by 900 CE a density of 200 persons per square kilometer, which is
comparable to that of today's agriculturally advanced societies. Their
civilization suddenly collapsed, the population falling over a few decades to
one-tenth of what it had been at its maximum.
The Carthaginians, Mesopotamians, and many others suffered a similar fate.
The collapse of the civilization that occupied the Euphrates River basin of the
Great Fertile Crescent was different only in that it was caused by extensive
irrigation, introduced without adequate drainage, that eventually led to
salination and water-logging of the soil.
Similar phenomena have been at work quite recently: Countries that have
experienced extensive deforestation, such as China, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Sudan,
India, Pakistan, and the Sahel region of Africa, have all suffered crop
failures, famine, and devastating floods. 4
Are we today sleepwalking into a very similar situation, ignoring all
warnings? The answer is important, because this time at stake is the whole
The above examples concerned cultures that were mainly tribal and rural; the
bulk of the population lived in small villages. Such were the Mayas whose
central economic activity was maize production. In a slash-and-burn agriculture
they would cut down a swath of forest, burn the felled trees and plants for
fertilizer, and then cultivate the plot. Such plot would become exhausted in two
to four years. A similar situation is practiced now in the rainforests of the
Philippines and other countries.
The earth, with its plants and creatures was considered an awesome and sacred
landscape by the Mayans, and it is said that a hunter in Yucatan would try to
appease the god who protected the deer explaining his aggression to his fallen
prey by claiming "I had need". However. the Mayan religion was by our
standards extremely barbaric: Human sacrifice was perpetrated on prisoners,
slaves, and particularly orphans and illegitimate children; the Mayan elite were
obsessed with blood, and blood-letting was carried out to nourish and propitiate
gods, some ceremonies demanding the living heart of the victim.
It might be argued that rapidly destroying the very conditions that make life
possible was peculiar to uncivilized societies. That it could not happen to the
present highly civilized man-oriented urban society, with its hot-dog stands,
neon advertisement, and despoiled landscapes, a society in which man is given
dominion over all things and seeks not unity with nature but conquest.
5 Unfortunately, this would be
just wishful thinking designed to provide some comfort to those interested in
maintaining the present status quo. It would be completely false. This can be
easily seen by looking at the salient facts of life at the beginning of the
third millennium CE. We will see that no civilization has
yet set about devouring its own future with such enthusiasm as our own, and that
ongoing human existence is far from being assured. 1
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
Birch Charles, "Regaining Compassion," New South Wales
University Press, (1993).
Welker Glenn, "Mayan Civilization," at:
Culbert T. Patrick & Don S. Rice (Eds.), "Precolumbian Population
History in the Maya Lowlands," University of New Mexico Press, (1990).
McDonagh Sean, "To Care for the Earth," Geoffrey Chapman, (1989).
McHarg Ian L., "The Plight," In Helferich Harold W. (Ed.), "The
Environmental Crisis," Yale University Press, (1970).