For my special blog post on Collapse: How Societies Choose to fail and Succeed by UCLA professor Jared Diamond I selected the chapter on the Mayan empire and its particular brand of self-destruction.
How the Mayan empire collapsed, according to Diamond, first four points of the five-point framework on empire collapses that Diamond has developed: Damage to environment, climate changes, inter-empire hostilities and political/cultural factors.
Simply put, the Mayans are not completely responsible for the demise of their empire. However, the environment and climate changes are not completely responsible for the demise of the empire either. The answer lies somewhere in the middle.
The southern region of the Mayan empire, the heartland, collapsed in a manner Diamond labels a “Classic Mayan Collapse.” To start, the southern region had several disadvantages, compared to the northern half of the empire, which spurred the collapse of the southern region. First, the very climate and terrain of the southern region put the area at a severe disadvantage. The soil in the southern region was dryer than the northern region and thus limited the amount of ground water that the region had. Thus the area was limited to rain and reservoirs that they had created. Still, during periods of great drought, the southern region of the Mayan empire was severely pressed for water. To make matters worse, crops require rainfall and not reservoir water which the southern region (which would be too difficult to properly irrigate the region).
The amount of land available for farming also contributed to the decline of the region. This is where the human aspect of the collapse enters. The farmland in the southern region, limited by the climate, essentially comes in two forms: farmland on flat land and farmland on hills. Farmland on flat land in the southern region of the Mayan empire is fertile and relatively easy to grow on but limited in amount. Hilly farmland is difficult to grow on and is very lose and dry. To make matters worse. during an early period of growth the Mayans began to destroy much of the usable farmland by chopping down much of the trees in the hills to use for plaster. The deforestation loosened the poor soil in the hills, destroying a lot of the farmland in the hilly regions and forced people to compete for the limited farmland on flat land. This process continued until the collapse of the southern region.
Diamond is never explicit in blaming either trend for the destruction of the Mayan heartland and instead points to several interesting historical facts that coincide with these factors. He notes that there were great periods of unrest in the region during periods of time when there was severe drought in the region. Discontent stemmed not only from the lack of food but also the fact that the legitimacy behind a Mayan ruler was that he spoke to the Gods in order to obtain great rainfall. Thus during periods of drought, the legitimacy of Mayan rulers are threatened. Diamond also notes that the growing trend of movement of people from the hilly regions to the flat land followed a trend of a collapsing region. These two factors were primary contributions to the collapse that ended the great Mayan empire.
What does any this mean for the United States? While the Mayan collapse teaches us that even advanced societies can collapse from the most primitive needs (water and food). However the application of the Mayan collapse to the United States would be a grand oversimplification for one reason: much of the world relies on the United States.
Despite the “America sucks” kind of attitude that is relatively popular, much of the world relies on the United States. The United States produces around 14.3 trillion dollars through its economy, a figure that, should it disappear from the world economy, would leave a giant hole in the economic production of the world (which is estimated at58.2 trillion dollars). The collapse of the United States would be something, at least economically, that the world would not be interested in.
Also, the United States provides military backing for much of the free world. South Korea relies on the stationing of US troops to keep a North Korean and Chinese coalition from overrunning the region. Japan and Israel similarly relies on the United States for protection against enemies in their respective regions. Even the current international system relies on the United States military backing of Western Europe, while Russia backs the eastern half of Europe.
Simply put, much of the world cannot afford to have the United States collapse. If ever the United States appeared to be on the verge of collapse, there would likely be efforts by the rest of the world to prevent such a collapse. But there are still some important lessons to take from the Mayan collapse that could be applied more generally.
First, the Mayan collapse stresses the importance of basic necessities in relation to the survival of human institutions. With the rapid population growth in the world (specifically China and India), it is not reasonable to think that without adjustments to the use of resources that there will be enough resources for everyone. The Mayan collapse tells us that tremendous culture and innovation cannot save a civilization that cannot feed its own people. While currently there is less of an issue with being able to feed the world and more of an issue with the willingness to (the world certainly has the technology to feed Africa but does not) there is still the fact that there is a finite amount of resources available in the world which can run out. The amount of drinkable water is constantly being threatened by tainted ground water (the main source of drinkable water), global warming (destroying the icecaps) and pollution. The amount of available food depends not only on the finite amount of land that can be farmed upon, but also the issues with water listed above.
Alas the end of the Mayan empire does not equate to the end of the American empire but there are lessons to be learned about conservation and the importance of basic necessities. Without them, the rest of society simply cannot function or grow. This important concept is the final gift from the Mayan empire.