Extreme Weather: The Maya and Us
Mon 19th Nov 2012
Two weeks after Superstorm Sandy ravaged New Jersey and New York thousands of people are still without power, food or potable water and are dependent on the city, state and federal government, and increasingly on Occupy Sandy (the volunteers from Occupy Wall Street and related groups) for basic survival goods.
Sandy represented extreme weather conditions that crippled the emergency response facilities of the government - nationally and locally. No one had the foresight to plan ahead for such a wide spread storm disaster. Scientists and realistic politicians are now saying that Sandy like events will be increasing in frequency as the earth continues to heat up due to global warming and the use of fossil fuels (oil,coal and gas). What the people of the North East have gone through in the last several weeks may well be "the new normal."
These extreme weather events are not limited to the US but are world wide phenomena. The whole international system may collapse in we can't halt the warming of the atmosphere. It won't be the first time a civilization has collapsed due to radical changes in weather. ScienceDaily (8 November 12) published an article that details how the civilization of the Maya Indians in Mexico and Central American collapsed and extreme weather changes are the suspected cause ("Extreme Weather Preceded Collapse of Ancient Maya Civilization.")
An interdisciplinary group of scientists determined after decades of extreme weather the political system of the Maya, and the Maya population itself was basically destroyed. Bruce Winterhalder, co-author of the report (which appeared in the journal Science for 9 November 12) was quoted as saying, "Here you had an amazing state-level society that had created calendars, magnificent architecture, works of art, and was engaged in trade throughout Central America. They were incredible craftspersons, proficient in agriculture, statesmanship and warfare [always a sign of civilization] -- and within about 80 years, it fell completely apart."
Scientists correlated the written record of the Maya (using the Maya Hieroglyphic Data Base) with oxygen isotope dating of stalagmites from caves in the Maya culture area which provided them with a 2,000 year record of rainfall. The scientists found that when rain was plentiful (300-660 AD) Maya culture experienced the growth of cities and of population but during a subsequent drying period (660-1,000 AD) political instability set in, warfare increased, and the state finally collapsed. Then a drought began (1,020-1,100 AD) and the Maya population withered and collapsed likely because of "crop failures, death, famine, migration" and other extreme events.
Martha Macri, the other co-author and like Winterhalder from UC Davis, remarked, "It has long been suspected that weather events can cause a lot of political unrest and subject societies to disease and invasion. But now it is clear. There is physical evidence that correlates right along with it. We are dependent on climatological events that are beyond our control."
But there is a big difference between the Maya case and our own. The Maya actually did not have any control and could not see their end coming. But we know what is causing our extreme weather - carbon emissions and some other chemicals as well and we know it is the big corporations (and state owned ones as well) existing in a for profit capitalist economic framework that are responsible. Are these corporations really beyond "our" control - i.e., the democratic control of the people?
Dr. Winterhalder said about the story of the the Maya that, "It's a cautionary tale about how fragile our political structure might be. Are we in danger the same way the Classic Maya were in danger? I don't know. But I suspect that just before their rapid descent and disappearance, Maya political elites were quite confident about their achievements."
Yes, but we are not run by "political elites" the same way the Maya were. This past election in the US showed that people can unite and fight off the political elites representing nothing but the profit motivated capitalist corporations. The democratic people's movement has won some breathing space and now has an opportunity to push the US government into a serious commitment to fight global warming. It is one thing to go down before an invisible unknown enemy and another to know who your enemy is and know you have the power to stop him, and do nothing.
Thomas Riggins is the associate editor of Political Affairs online.