Apocalyptic Planet-Part Five: Civilizations Fall


Whether it is my innate ambition, something my parents instilled in me, or something else unknown, I try to learn something new every day.  Craig Childs starts this chapter of his book by talking about a Phoenix landmark.  Back when I travelled to Phoenix regularly, I knew this place as Squaw Peak.  Now its name Is Piestewa Peak.  The name change is probably a good thing.  I never knew before reading this how dreadfully pejorative the word squaw is.  Basically, it means Indian bitch as well as other things related to the privates of women.  All languages seem to possess an accumulation of dreadful words geared to putting women down one way or another.  Slang words for the private parts of a man rarely mean anything pejorative, at least not that I know of.  The new name, a Hopi name, a blessing word, is a word that calls water to this place.  Not a bad idea in Phoenix or most of the Southwest for that matter.

The name Phoenix fits.  Underneath modern day Phoenix, an ancient city lays buried, a quite sophisticated city with ball courts, temples, irrigation canals.  This city existed at least a thousand years ago.  Its inhabitants grew corn, cotton, beans, and agave.  Farmers, hunters, carvers, all sorts of artisans and merchants apparently lived there.  Now they are called Hohokam taken from an O’odham word meaning “ancestors”, the “ones who have gone”.  We find forgotten cities all over the world, Palmyra, Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat.  What causes these sophisticated civilizations to fall?  If you read a bit, look further, you find common themes:  environmental decay, resource depletion, conflict, disease, social problems.  Angkor Wat fell because it could not maintain its complex irrigation network.  Ur in Iraq fell because a drought caused its port to dry up.  Usually, the demise of particular civilizations occur over time, e.g.Rome.

Childs notes that human patterns often follow animal patterns, or at least mammalian patterns.  For example, when over population occurs, behavior changes.  Parental care and cooperation become replaced with aggression, violence, competition for resources, dominant behaviors.  These types of behaviors are particularly detrimental to females and the young without whom the society (or animal population) cannot replace itself.  Generally, in animal populations, when this occurs, reproduction slows for several generations and the imbalance corrects itself.  For humans, it is not so simple.  Hohokam bones indicate mass starvation and malnutrition.  Other civilizations, e.g. the Anasazi, seem to have disappeared without a trace.

Today, most of the world’s largest cities have immense infrastructures that keep them going, miles of underground sewage tunnels, water mains, etc.  Here in the US in our oldest cities, much of what we take for granted is very old and deteriorating.  New York City and Chicago have water main systems that some experts claim are near collapse or at the very best badly in need of repair.  Doubtless such conditions exist in old cities throughout the world, most of which are much older and larger than the majority of cities in the US.  Yet, they continue to prosper.  Have we passed a point when civilization cannot fall?

Childs completes this discussion by describing his visit with his wife to Guatemala.  They visited all the best known Mayan sites, visited with natives.  His wife managed to get invited to a Mayan fire ceremony, a renewal ceremony.  History books tell us the Mayan civilization is dead, ended.  But it is not.  The Mayan culture still exists.   At least six million still live in the Central America.  What would have happened to Mayan cities if the Europeans had not brought epidemic diseases and better fire power?  We will never know, of course, but no matter how many civilizations rise and fall, change continues and humans continue to inhabit the earth.

The new question is this:  can this planet we live on sustain the ever increasing numbers of humans who inhabit it??

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