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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.