When I was growing up, before I consciously chose to become an atheist, I attended, with my family, a stone church built in 1732 in my hometown of Saugerties in the Hudson Valley of New York State. I was always impressed by the fact that people over two hundred years earlier had managed to build such a long-lasting place of worship, and it felt special to be in such a building every week. Of course, as I got older I started to understand that in the grand scheme of things the church wasn’t really that old. But I was still impressed by the fact that men and women who had left Europe and come to the New World looking to start anew were able to not only survive, but to thrive, because only people who are thriving can put up such an impressive piece of architecture.
Some of the items stored in display cases at the front of the church interested me as well. They were the belongings of some of the early parishioners of the church who had been captured and dragged off by hostile Native Americans during the French and Indian War (the North American part of the Seven Years’ War). If I remember correctly, most of the kidnapped were rescued and returned to their families but I don’t think that I ever saw anything about what happened to the kidnappers. History is, after all, written by the victors.
What does all of this have to do with my visit to the ancient Mayan center of Copan? Seeing buildings and monuments that had been built over fifteen hundred years ago, without the aid of draft animals or machines, that had been abandoned, grown over by jungle, uncovered and excavated, and still stood…well, I was impressed. Amazed, really. And, of course, I wanted to know why the culture that created the immense structures which put my old church in the shade was not still in charge. The answer, though complex, comes down to an ecological collapse. As the city grew and depleted the surrounding natural resources the size of the population became unsustainable and collapse was inevitable. The trees and the vines grew over the abandoned stone buildings and by the time the Spanish arrived in the 16th century all that was left was a jungle-covered ruin and a remnant population, which disease and warfare soon decimated further.
While visiting the ruins, which sit nestled in a river valley with a pretty view of the surrounding hills, one can hardly comprehend how people so advanced to be able to build such marvelous structures could fail to realize that they were chopping down all of the surrounding forests, which allowed their soil to erode, which left them with no way to sustain their way of life. Maybe some did realize that it was going to end badly, but I doubt a culture that supported blood sacrifice was big on dissent, especially when the dissenter would have been trying to prevent conspicuous consumption in a culture in which the king stayed king, at least partly, by orgies of conspicuous consumption (for example, by sanctifying an alter with the sacrifice of fifteen(!) jaguars).
But standing in the ruins of Copan in the present day one can still see the surrounding hills, and they are currently nearly denuded to provide room for grazing animals and for crops. Some fields in the river valley are covered in plastic so that only the selected plants will grow, and they must be slathered in pesticides and fertilizers. Not that I am picking on the good people of the region, for this is how land is used and agriculture is practiced pretty much everywhere in the world.
In upstate New York, the Native Americans were mostly killed or driven off and the land stolen and cleared by people like those who built my childhood church (stealing land and driving off the inhabitants might explain how they managed to have enough time and energy to build such a church). Not overexploiting the land did not help the natives of upstate New York any more than exploiting the land had helped the Mayans. If any culture makes the decision that they are going to exploit a resource it is virtually impossible to prevent it and woe unto those who try to get in the way (or who are just slow getting out of the way). In addition to destroying native cultures and people those who settled upstate New York cut down vast hemlock forests in the Catskills for use tanning hides, extirpated the elk, the moose, the mountain lion, the wolf and a host of other creatures, and treated their own people so poorly that eventually an Anti-Rent War broke out.
Fortunately for the long-term health of upstate New York’s landscapes, cheaper land further west moved the center of American agricultural production to the frontier and now, in the present day, there are many forest preserves and parks where the land had been stripped bare. Sure, some agriculture is still practiced in New York but most of the crops that upstaters eat are produced on giant factory farms elsewhere in the country or in developing countries like Honduras. The environmental problems upstate come from lingering industrial pollutants and from sprawl and suburbia. The latter is camouflaged by nice landscaping and false names like Cherry Tree Lane where one would find few trees and fewer cherries or Winding Brook Road where the nearest thing to a brook is a drainage ditch for storm water run-off, and the former is either forgotten or clean-up is fought furiously. After all, if there are squirrels and robins and deer everything must be fine, right? The worst ecological damage is kept out of sight, out of mind, and out of country, as those profiting from the damage like it.
I am writing this blog post in New York City, one of the biggest cities and most technologically advanced places in the world, but I know that if some kind of worldwide environmental collapse occurred, this place would become a jungle too. It would be impossible to sustain the population of New York City without regular deliveries of all the necessities. Panic would ensue, the subways would flood, people would flee, the buildings would crumble and some would tumble, and soon forests and fields would cover what was left, with perhaps a skyscraper here and there poking up to remind the scattered survivors of what once was. As Alan Weisman paraphrases Jameel Ahmad, a civil engineer, in The World Without Us, a book that imagines what the world be like if humanity disappeared:
Plugged sewers, deluged tunnels, and streets reverting to rivers, he says, will conspire to undermine subbasements and destabilize their huge loads. In a future that portends stronger and more-frequent hurricanes striking North America’s Atlantic coast, ferocious winds will pummel tall, unsteady structures. Some will topple, knocking down others. Like a gap in the forest when a giant tree falls, new growth will rush in. Gradually the asphalt jungle will give way to the real one.
Is this scenario likely? I hope not. But like the ancient rulers of Copan that held on to power and led their people on a path to ecological destruction and calamity through overconsumption, we, the people of the modern world, are going down that garden path. We consume and consume and consume and don’t take the time to look at how we have turned the entire world into one giant denuded hillside.
And the catastrophic collapse, should it come, will be much much worse now than it was for the Maya fifteen hundred years ago. Instead of effecting one city-state, or several city-states, the rapacious greed of the first world lifestyle will effect the whole world. Already, as of April 10, the U.K. has used more resources this year than it can produce. And compared to the United States the United Kingdom is a paragon of conservation. Once second and third world populations catch up to the first world in terms of consumption patterns (and they are trying hard to get there), well, look out! We have only this one world and we are stretching its resources further than we ever have before, from overfishing our oceans, to chopping down our forests, to filling the air with carbon dioxide, to filling landfills with plastic containers once-used, and the list goes on and on and on.
Jared Diamond, in the closing passage of Collapse, his book on societal collapses throughout history, gives some reason for hope:
Our television documentaries and books show us in graphic detail why the Easter Islanders, Classic Maya, and other past societies collapsed. Thus, we have the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of distant peoples and past peoples. That’s an opportunity that no past society enjoyed to such a degree. My hope in writing this book has been that enough people will choose to profit from that opportunity to make a difference.
I am more pessimistic. Though the climate change deniers are at last out of power in the executive branch of the government of the United States it will take a whole heck of a lot more than reducing greenhouse gasses to get this world back on a sustainable track. And I’m not sure most people are willing to give up their plastic crap, their bottled water, their suicidal lifestyle. Heck, there are those who intentionally used more power recently, just to be, well, jerks (check the comments thread if you want to see what the world is up against)!
Who will be left to dig up what we leave behind out of the jungle? And will they have learned our lesson? Or will they be busy overexploiting every resource available and driving their own civilization to collapse?