Environmental Destruction

Easter Island (Chapter 2 in Collapse)

The island is best know for its huge statues, moai, and it has been barren in modern times. This presents a paradox. The carving and transportation of the statues required a lot of resources, including tall trees. But there are none now. Archeological evidence suggests that the island had a forest of big trees but that it disappeared by over-cutting. The island is a prime example of environmental destruction. The people kept cutting down trees thinking that new ones will grow until there were no trees left. Why did they not see the looming crisis?

The Mayas (Chapter 52 in Collapse)

The Mayas were arguably the most advanced society of the pre-Colombian America. The Maya civilization extended throughout the present-day southern Mexico and the Yucatan Peninsula. The Maya area also extended throughout the northern Central American region, including the present-day nations of Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras.

They had advanced agriculture (p. 163) including irrigation canals in some areas. Cultivation of corn and beans arose around 3,000 BCE, pottery around 2,500 BCE, and villages around 1,500 BCE and cities around 1,200 BCE among the Olmecs (in the tropical lowlands of south-central Mexico). The Mayas learned from the Olmecs. Writing first appeared among the Zapotecs (SW of the Maya area) around 600 BCE. The Zapotecs had also a 365 day calendar. The Mayas picked both writing and the calendar from them. In the Maya area villages and pottery appear around 1000 BCE, substantial buildings around 500 BCE, and writing around 400 BCE. The famous Maya calendar begins in 3114 BCE, long before their civilization arose. We may note that the Hebrew calendar begins in 3761 BCE. Pure coincidence?

The Maya civilization flourished between 250 and 900 CE. (Classic period). It was centered around the city of Copan (Western Honduras). The king was overthrown and the royal palace burned around 850 CE. Other Mayan cities survived longer till about 1250. It is estimated that by the time the Spaniards arrived the Mayan population was less than 10% of what it has been at its peak (they fought the Spaniards ferociously). We have a big decrease in population and loss of institutions and culture.

Causes of the collapse: Soil erosion, deforestation, drought, internal warfare. (There was no unified Mayan state - neither was a unified Greek state in the Greek classical era.) How did a huge population of millions disappear? (p. 175)

Recap (p. 176) (1) Population growth outstripping resources; (2) Deforestation and hillside erosion - anthropogenic drought; (3) increased fighting as resources became limited; (4) severe drought in an overpopulated region; (5) Leaders were focusing on short term problems ignoring the big ones, even if they saw them.

Malthusian Destruction - The Rwanda Case (and others)

(Collapse, Chapter 10)

The Rwandan genocide of 1994 is generally described as backlash of the oppressed Hutu against the "high class" Tutsi. But Rwanda and Burundi are the two most densely populated countries in Africa with triple the density of the next most dense African country (Nigeria). Population growth accelarated after WW II: adoption of New Worl crops (corn, beans, potatoes) increasing food production; and better hygiene. The population doubled (from 3 million to 6 million) between 1961 and 1985. But food production could not keep up. Farms kept getting smaller and young men continue living with their parents into their 20's. Population density in Rwanda was 760 people per sq. mile, higher than that of UK (610), a country with highly mechanized agriculture.

In spite of the genocide, Rwanda's population was over 11 million in 2011, almost quadripled in 50 years.

In the same 50 years Italy's and Russia's populations each grew by about 20% (1.2) and France's by 40% (1.4). The US grew by 70% (1.7).

We have to think that the same phenomenon may underlie the troubles in the Middle East. In these 50 years Egypt's population grew by a factor of 2.9 (almost trippled), Iran's by 3.5; Syria's by 4.8 (almost five times; Iraq's by 4.3, Saudi Arabia's by 6.7, and UAE by 92 (almost hundredfold).


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