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Nature and Environment

News about the health and beauty of the natural world that sustains us.

The Linked Health of Civilizations and the Environment

By Aly Van Dyke

Tags: environment, government, overpopulation,

Maya Temple

I read this really interesting article for my Environmental Studies class. Unlike me, you won’t be quizzed over it, but I do think the article is worth reading. It’s about eight pages long, but I promise it’s worth the time.

The article presents the argument that the demise of empires and governments is conspicuously correlated with the depletion of the environment. Jared Diamond, the author of the article, used the Maya civilization in South America as a case study of this argument.

Essentially, the Maya civilization fell because it exceeded the carrying capacity — or the number of individuals able to be supported by the environment without depleting resources — of its ecosystem.

The Maya relied heavily upon corn for their food, and in order to produce healthy crops, the Maya used what we now call the slash and burn technique. However, as the civilization expanded and population grew, more corn was needed. To meet the growing demand for food, they stopped burning the fields and allowing time for regeneration — either as frequently or altogether. Eventually, the fields could no longer produce as much food as the population demanded, and the civilization died out.

The scary thing about the article is the number of parallels between the warning signs of the Maya civilization — follies we all profess to recognize from this side of history — and the current status of the United States. We are at the peak of our power. We have exponential population growth. We have environmental problems ranging from limited water supplies in some regions to vanishing topsoil. So when do we reach our carrying capacity? When do we become too many in number for our environment to sustain us anymore? Are we already there and waiting for the effects to catch up to us?

Diamond also lists three misconceptions that lead people to dismiss these warning signs today.

One is that the environment exists solely to satisfy human needs. Rather than seeing the environment and humans depending upon each other for mutual benefit, people tend to see the environment as a commodity in surplus. Using some of that logic against them, Diamond says, “our strongest arguments for a healthy environment are selfish: we want it for ourselves, not for threatened species.”

The second is that technology will solve all our problems. He points out that all of our current environmental problems are byproducts of earlier technologies and that each new technology comes with its own set of problems that may not be realized until five to 30 years later.

The third is that people tend to view environmentalists as “fear-mongerers” who have overreacted in the past and are doing so now. Diamond makes the point that if you ask an ecologist which countries have the most environmental problems and a politician which countries are the most politically unstable, they will both give you the same list of countries, among which are Afghanistan, Rwanda and Somalia. 

Definitely something to think about …

10/15/2008 2:04:16 PM

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barbara pleasant_3
10/1/2008 12:14:40 PM

I've been studying the Dark Soils of the Amazon for a future article for Mother Earth. Can I add an interesting story? A large civilization occupied towns along the Amazon River (in Brazil) for 1,000 years before Europeans arrived, using composting and burning as successful soil-building practices. Slash-and-burn was made possible later, by the introduction of metal tools from Europe. Before then, aboriginal tribes there achieved self-sufficiency in settled communities using only stone axes as tools to cultivate deep, fertile soil that persists today. The civilization's decline was caused by exotic diseases. Slash and burn agriculture came later and made things worse.