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Page added on October 29, 2008

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The temples of doom

Population explosion, ecological disaster and weak leadership … that’s what probably killed off the Maya at the height of their powers. Are the modern-day parallels too close for us to ignore?

…”We think we are different,” says Jared Diamond, the American evolutionary biologist. “In fact . . . all of those powerful societies of the past thought that they too were unique, right up to the moment of their collapse.” The Maya, like us, were at the apex of their power when things began to unravel, he says. As stock markets zigzag into uncharted territory and ice caps continue to melt, it is a view increasingly echoed by scholars and commentators.

What, then, is the story of the Maya? And what lessons does it hold for us? According to Diamond’s thesis, this: the ancients built a very clever and advanced society but were undone by their own success. Populations grew and stretched natural resources to breaking point. Political elites failed to resolve the escalating economic problems and the system collapsed. There was no need for an external cataclysm or a plague. What did for the Maya was a slow-boiling environmental-driven crisis that its leaders failed to recognise and resolve until too late.

“Because peak population, wealth, resource consumption, and waste production are accompanied by peak environmental impact – approaching the limit at which impact outstrips resources – we can now understand why declines of societies tend to follow swiftly on their peaks,” wrote Diamond in a 2003 article, “The Last Americans: Environmental Collapse and the End of Civilization.” The idea is expanded in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. The link between environmental, economic and political stress is clear, says Diamond. “When people are desperate and undernourished, they blame their government, which they see as responsible for failing to solve their problems.”


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