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Mind the Gap

Utne Reader Editor in Chief Christian Williams on finding common ground politically, spiritually and culturally.

The Mayan Warning We Should Heed

Mayan Warning 

If you read this before December 21, good luck to you. Rest assured my wife and I will be preparing for the catastrophe of epic proportions predicted to unfold on that fateful day. In other words, we’ll probably be jockeying for position at the bathroom sink getting ready for work.

I’ve never been one to take end-of-the-world predictions very seriously, mostly because, well, they’ve only been unequivocally wrong 100 percent of the time. One thing I’ve always wondered is what’s the point of trying to be the person who correctly predicts the end of the world? If you’re right, who’s left to give you any credit?

When it comes to the Mayans, scholars much more familiar with their culture than conspiracy theorists and Hollywood writers are have long ago dispelled the notion that the now infamous Long Count Calendar predicts a sudden global demise. Unfortunately, it’s yet another example of conjecture making the news while actual science waits to be considered sexy enough to pay attention to.

While everyone has been distracted by mystical messages hidden in an ancient calendar, we’ve neglected a different Mayan warning that’s actually very real. As environmental analyst and 1995 Utne Visionary Lester Brown reminds us in his new book Full Planet, Empty Plates (read an excerpt) the Mayans precipitated their demise by undermining their food supply, specifically through activities that created catastrophic soil erosion. As Brown puts it, “they moved onto an agricultural path that was environmentally unsustainable.” He goes on to connect the dots to contemporary humankind, and—you guessed it—clearly shows that we’re headed down the same environmentally unsustainable path as the Mayans.

So right now, considering that we’re damaging our soil through factory farming and overdevelopment, misusing our natural resources by turning nearly half of the corn we grow into inefficient fuel for our cars, and all the while continuing to contribute in countless ways to climate change, I think it’s good to be reminded of the Mayans. Of course, whether or not we heed the warning their demise represents remains to be seen.

Take the loaded question, “can we feed the world?” The knee-jerk response to this is “no,” but that’s the wrong answer. In a traveling lecture that directly addresses the question, farmer/author Joel Salatin offers some surprising statistics to illustrate just how inefficient we’ve become with food and land use. Aside from the fact that for the first time in human history we’re not eating 50 percent of the food we produce, Salatin points out that a staggering 40 million acres in the United States are tied up in lawn turf, while another 36 million acres are devoted to recreational horses.

My takeaway is that we have the space and capacity to feed the world, but we simply choose not to. We’d rather consume, waste, and consume some more. The culprit, I believe, is a flat-out inhumane obsession with development and progress no matter what the cost. We continue to tolerate and encourage policies and practices that reward greed and neglect human decency. From paving over our world’s most fertile soil to the commoditization of food we’re simply not taking care of the planet, which ultimately means we’re not taking care of each other. 

While we’ll never know exactly what the details were regarding the ancient Mayan civilization’s collapse, the indication is that they weren’t responsible stewards of their natural resources, and the earth stopped giving them what they needed. Maybe they didn’t understand the limits of this planet and humankind’s role in maintaining it, but we do. Here’s hoping the real Mayan warning doesn’t fall on deaf ears.

Follow Utne Reader Editor in Chief Christian Williams on Twitter: @cwwilliams  

Image by cjuneau, licensed under Creative Commons.  

jared blackburn
8/12/2013 11:07:15 AM

"...waste, and consume some more... We continue to tolerate and encourage policies and practices that reward greed and neglect human decency..." -- that's just capitalism, it create a kind of survival of the wickedest, where those who fail to adopt the greedy, selfish, indulgent, amoral, cut-throat ways (or do so to a lesser degree than their competition) parish and are replaced by those who do. Its the "American way," and that does not reflect will on the U.S. or its culture.

lisa mccain cole
12/22/2012 10:41:14 PM

I have a lot of respect for Mr. Salatin, his book on pastured beef prompted me to raise my own. I would differ with him, though on what constitutes a waste. It all depends on what one considers important. Speaking as one who moved from a metropolitan area to have horses, I would hardly consider the use of my land to support them wasteful. Hardly a waste to keep horses and donkeys in the world, a world without donkeys is not one I want to live in. Maybe someday after peak oil hits, I can ride them on roads without taking my life in my hands. In the West, many hay crops are grown on non-irrigated land or grown in rotation with food crops to improve soil. Not a waste. My soil grows grass and nothing else. Cut and baled, this grass feeds my guys and a few others with minimal carbon useage. I could do without golf courses though. Now there's a waste of good pasture! And since golf courses are located close to urban areas and already have irrigation if they need it, they're definitely a waste of cropland too. People can just play Wii Golf, right? And what about the land wasted growing tobacco? Or okra? I hate okra.

jeana emge
12/22/2012 4:58:47 AM

Christian - Of course your article is correct in all details. Thank you for putting the concept in print. My question is how could the population at large be in this much denial. Follow my list here; cause and effect, behavior and consequences, sins of the father ... can we see a pattern emerging ? What will it take to wake people up? I just read about WalMart building a store near the ancient pyramids of Teotihuacan near Mexico City. Do they need more money? What could possibly justify ......

michael neri sr.
12/22/2012 3:48:18 AM

I agree with the article and the other comment here. At 66 and with an amazing list of illnesses I've survived with amazing help that arrives "just in time", I'm trying to realign my life and its focus to that/those offered as good examples/ideas/suggestions in Utne and Dr. Leila Denmark, a Georgia (USA) female doctor who died last April at age 114. She stopped practicing medicine at 103. She was amazing and worthy of a person's googling her. I'm surprising my kids at my doins these last 5 years and I expect to make 99 years old and be very unrepresentative of the unpleasant to be around, stereotypical "geezer". UTNE started me on this path 25 + years ago and I appreciate deeply the content and intent of all the information. Sadly, most people will never know of UTNE or the type of content offered by it and similar sources.

melissa robins
12/20/2012 6:15:00 AM

Thank you for the article. I am sure the mayans did not realize they were making themselves - unsustainable; just as modern people cannot imagine the possibility that we are, in fact, doing just that to ourselves. I see this date - 12/21 as a hopeful one. As we collectively begin to realize that technology is not the answer to our dreams, and the climate change demands our attention; we can shift our focus to the higher power that generates life and begin to get out of the way. Good health, calm spirit and carefree soul is a natural state of being when we are living according to loving principles. Just as nature can correct many severe imbalances, humankind can survive by letting nature do it's thing - for the earth and for us. By working harmoniously with the earth we may discover a very dear and loving friend.