bottlenecks and breakthroughs

Teotihucan clearly has to have been one of the most impressive cities of pre-Colombian America ever. You cannot walk down the broad Paseo de Los Muertos, the Promenade of the Dead, without experiencing a real sense of awe.

Teotihucan clearly has to have been one of the most impressive cities of pre-Colombian America ever.

You cannot walk down the broad Paseo de Los Muertos, the Promenade of the Dead, without experiencing a real sense of awe. The massive 70-metre-high Pyramid of the Sun dominates a surrounding array of ruined buildings. To its right, as the avenue rises up slowly, the Pyramid of the Moon caps this UNESCO World Heritage site.

Now one of the most visited archeological sites in Mexico, it lies in this country’s central valley just some 50 kilometres northeast of downtown Mexico City. At its height in the sixth century, though, it may have centred a metropolis, some say, of more than 200,000 inhabitants. This would have made it one of the major cities of the world at that time, however, well behind Constantinople with three times as many residents.

Even after having visited the site several times since my first foray there in 1968 my son Liam and I will climb one of those pyramids for sure this week. Every time I have gone I learn without fail something more about the site and the people who built it. I still wonder why its original citizens abandoned the site.

Though the reasons for Teotihucan’s decline and fall still are not completely clear evidence does point towards an environmental trigger in the mid-sixth century. Archaeological finds show a rising percentage of skeletal remains affected by malnutrition, which correlate well to a lengthy period of drought. Weakened, other similarly stressed rivals may have chosen this time to attack. Possibly internal discord aggravated by famine did them in.

Whatever the cause, Teotihuacan joined many other civilizations throughout human history that have come and gone. Ian Morris in his new book Why the West rules – For Now points out the interaction between human and natural forces often lie at the heart of understanding why this happens. “Bigger, more complex cores (civilizations) generate bigger, more threatening upheavals, increasing the risk that disruptive forces such as climate change and migration will set off through going collapses.” Add, as Morris says, state failure, famine and disease to the mix and “disruptions can turn to collapses, sometimes even driving social development down.”

Referring to the period of environmental stress around 800 BC, Raymond Bradley in his classic text Paleoclimatology remarks “If such a disruption of the climate system were to occur today, the social, economic, and political consequences would be nothing short of catastrophic.” Some commentators like the veteran analyst Lester Brown, now head of the Earth Policy Institute, agree and point to the rising ‘perfect storm’ we may be facing.

In an interview with Lester Brown, the BBC’s Peter Day last week introduced him by saying “Just as socialism died because it denied the economic truth revealed by the marketplace, so capitalism may collapse (he argues) because it does not allow the market to tell the ecological truth about our dependency on factors beyond the economy.”

Brown presents his exhaustive analysis in his new book World on the Edge, How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse.

“If we leave the (environmental) costs off the books we risk bankruptcy,” Brown says. Bankruptcy in this case means the potential collapse of our global civilization. He asks the very pointed question ” How many states can fail before our global civilization begins to unravel?

Lester Brown does point to ways to break through the potential environmental and socio-political bottlenecks but it won’t be easy medicine for the world to take. Next week let’s continue this conversation.

Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact

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