After Sandy: a shortened updated version of the essay, A Matter of Time

Posted December 3, 2012 1:55 pm


With the so-called Mayan doomsday due tomorrow, apocalypse is on many minds. But here in America, global catastrophe is the stuff of science fiction. Most of us believe the 97% of climate experts who insist climate change is real and disastrous, but we stop short at their most dire forecasts. Since Sandy, we can envision the calamity of periodic urban flooding and rising shore lines, but we still discount the more frightening possibilities: coastal cities unlivable and millions displaced, polar ice-melt out of control—in the lifetime of our children or grandchildren. If we really believed in even the chance of irreversible ruin wouldn’t we be demanding action? What keeps us from taking the peril seriously, seriously enough to ensure it won’t happen?

After all, we know that people in the past have failed to prevent apocalypse. The supposed Mayan Armageddon is the mythic end to a string of actual collapses that distinguish the history of pre-conquest Mexico. For 3000 years, in diverse environments, the major Mexican civilizations—the Olmec, Zapotec, Mayan, Teotihuacan, Toltec, Mixtec—flourished and then ended in a precipitous population decline and the abandonment of cities. Most civilizations die by slow decay or fall to more powerful nations, but apocalyptic ends, with conditions rapidly and inexorably worsening, are rare. The Mexican pattern of repeated collapse is so rare as to be unique in world history.

Again and again, inhabitants watched as their centuries-old, vibrant city-state deteriorated until it failed and their children or grandchildren were reduced to camping in crumbling buildings and depositing their refuse in courtyards. Late burials at Teotihuacan, for instance, show several generations of progressive malnutrition—declines in stature, bone disease, decreased life span, staggering infant and fetal mortality—while only one-day’s walk to the south the rich agricultural potential of the Central Valley’s great lake lay untapped. Why people didn’t save themselves is a question worth considering, especially now, when we face our own grave threats.

It’s a question I’ve been pondering ever since I first noticed the Mexican pattern and began searching the literature and excavation reports for a way to explain it. Then, several years ago, standing before the 24-ton Aztec Calendar Stone, in Mexico City—the alleged embodiment of the Mesoamerican concept of time and space—I was struck by the crushing impact of the belief system itself.

For these ancient peoples, time was a finite commodity, like rain, that the gods bestowed after the proper supplications and sacrifices. They kept the cosmos turning: the sun, the planets —whose movements were a religious and divinatory obsession— and time itself, which was recorded on a clock that completed its rotation every 52 years. Longer periods were recorded on a bigger clockwork that generated a 5,200 year cycle that ends this December 21. Whether this was the ultimate end —or just the Great Cycle’s end, as some archeologists now say— in Ancient Mexico the past and future revolved in a loop that could stop at any moment.

What a frightening world view: imagine living without an automatic tomorrow. From the very beginning, all the Ancient Mexican cultures were permeated with this singular belief system. Their cities were laid out to reflect the turnings of the heavens, creating a sense of rightness, when constellations appeared where expected, but also of being locked into a mechanism over which they had no control. Could this concept of spacetime have engendered a fatalism that proved crippling?

It seems to have undermined the ability to progress technologically. With the intellectual elite focused on studying the night skies to predict the inevitable, the Ancient Mexicans forecast eclipses but learned no navigation, made gold jewelry but no metal tools, produced wheeled toys but no wheeled transport. With the ruins of past civilizations a constant reminder of what was to come, collapse must have seemed a natural part of the cosmic order.

A culture that did not assume a future or invest in progress could hardly be more different from our own. And yet our collective assumptions about time and our place in the universe—while the reverse of the Mesoamericans’—may be just as obstructive.

If the Ancient Mexicans conceived of time as cyclical and themselves as doomed to repetitive collapse, we see time as linear—the past behind us, the future forever ahead—and progressing, in the minds of many, towards an ever brighter tomorrow. Certainly, we are not the only nation to embrace hopeful illusion rather than face impending disaster; the global financial collapse proved that. But we cherish optimism as a particularly American virtue and a key to our success: for many, it is a measure of patriotism.

If the Ancient Mexicans saw themselves as subservient to a natural world they revered and feared, we see ourselves as masters of a natural world that is ours to exploit. Our failure to see our dependence on the planet’s complex biological system is an extension of our manifest destiny. As forests disappear and ice sheets melt, as coral reefs die and species vanish, we reject international attempts at a global solution and defend our right to put our immediate economic interests first.

If the Ancient Mexicans were progress-averse, we are true believers. We trust that technology will save us. American ingenuity, from the light bulb to the smart phone, has almost magically transformed our and our recent ancestors’ lives. We’ll come up with something, we tell ourselves—didn’t we put a man on the moon?  We’re so sure of a high-tech way out, we don’t bother to implement energy policies we know would help.

Powerful forces encourage our inaction. Climate change has been politicized by the industries that profit from the status quo and buy time with disinformation campaigns. We scoff at the deniers, but the complacency of millions dampens our anxiety. The problem is beyond individual control, but our polarized politics impede governmental solutions, which many distrust. Add in the forces of human nature: we are aroused more by immediate, fast-moving threats than by slow, progressive ones that can feel far-off, in time and space. With Henny Penny the ultimate fool, we scorn what smacks of alarmism.

The grand result is to drain away all sense of urgency. We assume there will be time to solve any problem before it gets out of control.

And herein lies our potential doom. Sooner or later, deteriorating conditions will make climate change a top priority, by which time its consequences could be irreversible. Most climatologists insist that it is not too late if we act quickly, but the longer we wait, the greater the damage, and the more likely we pass the tipping point.

In the face of jeopardy, inaction, whether from fatalism or denial, leads to the same place.

The cyclic collapse of the Ancient Mexicans may demonstrate that peril is not averted without a collective belief in the future. However, a serious, collective belief in the real possibility of collapse may also be required. If the ancient Mexican civilizations were destroyed because they believed that time was finite, the greatest risk to our civilization may be the notion that we have all the time in the world.




topics: ,

share    site feed
write quick comment

Does scaring people about climate change do more harm than good?

An op-ed piece in the NYTimes (4/9/14) by Nordhaus and Shellenberger, the chairman and president of an environmental research firm, argues that it does. Perhaps ...

explore >>

An Easier, Partial Fix

Two climate scientists, D. Zaelke and V. Ramanathan, wrote in a NY Times op-ed piece on December 7, 2012, that while reducing corbon dioxide by ...

explore >>

Geo-engineering: Yea or Nay?

Hurricane Sandy seems to have clinched the national debate on whether climate change is real and perilous. Now we have to find the political ...

explore >>

Vanishing Coastlines

An article in the Sunday, NY Times (11/25/12) presents maps of New York, Boston, San Francisco, Miami, and Virginia Beach were the ocean to rise ...

explore >>