Sunday, February 13, 2005

IMAGINE LIVING ON TINY HENDERSON ISLAND in southeast Polynesia around 1500 C.E. after the population of Mangareva, an island a few hundred miles away, collapses as the result of severe deforestation and overuse of the land. Jared Diamond discusses Henderson in Chapter 3 of his book Collapse. On Henderson, there were no natural resources at all: no metal, no stone, no glass, no way to make tools. Only seabirds -- lots and lots of them. Without Mangareva, Henderson Islanders were completely alone in the world, and what's more, they had no way to survive as a society. And they didn't; they vanished after a few generations of eking out an existence eating birds and rats.

It's tens of thousands of miles from the South Pacific to the Southwestern desert of what is now the United States, but the Anasazis living there faced the same challenges of managing their environment. The Anasazis died out, not because they lost their only trading partner, but because they lived in an extremely fragile, harsh environment, and did not manage it well. Slash and burn crop planting, population growth that outstripped the natural resources available to support that population, and failure to understand, much less plan for, the long-term results of their decisions eventually did them in.

Diamond's larger point, though, is that societal collapse is not something that just happens to marginal cultures living in precarious environments. And the Mayans are his case in point. Mayan civilization was culturally one of the most advanced of its time (for example, they had writing). They lived in a leading center of human civilization, not in the most remote part of the Pacific Ocean. And, unlike the Anasazi, their environment was not fragile. In Diamond's words: "Lest one be misled into thinking that crashes are a risk only for small peripheral societies in fragile areas, the Maya warn us that crashes can also befall the most advanced and creative societies."

The lesson here for our contemporary world is clear, and well-taken. Industrialized, technologically advanced societies like the United States may be able to manage the environment in ways our ancestors could not; we may understand scientific and biological processes in a more sophisticated way than ancient peoples did; and we may even better understand the connection between what we do today and what happens to us in the future than the Mayans did. But in one respect modern-day America and the rest of the world is not one whit further down the road of wisdom than the Mayan kings and princes were: We still allow military rivalry, petty territorial ambitions, the desire for wealth and fame, conspicuous consumption, and the urge for short-term glory or gratification to blind us to the underlying problems that, in the long term, can and will affect our well-being.

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