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Environmental concerns

Collapsed and collapsing civilizations

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Collapsed 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 world.

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

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1.  Birch Charles, "Regaining Compassion," New South Wales University Press, (1993).
  2.  Welker Glenn, "Mayan Civilization," at: http://www.indians.org/
  3. Culbert T. Patrick & Don S. Rice (Eds.), "Precolumbian Population History in the Maya Lowlands," University of New Mexico Press, (1990).
  4. McDonagh Sean, "To Care for the Earth," Geoffrey Chapman, (1989).
  5. McHarg Ian L., "The Plight," In Helferich Harold W. (Ed.), "The Environmental Crisis," Yale University Press, (1970).

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Copyright 2006 by Vladimir Tomek
Originally posted: 2006-JUN-25
Latest update: 2006-JUL-17
Author: Vladimir Tomek

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