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The Maya are a cautionary example for all of us, a prophecy not by words but by deeds. A formal follow-up to a paper I wrote in 2007 and a non-technical version of which I published here, I'll be delivering this paper at the International System Dynamics Conference in Boston this July.


This paper explores the dynamics of population levels in Maya lowlands from the Late Preclassic to Post Classic, roughly 400 BC–1600 AD. Building on the 2007 ISDC paper “Maya Apocalypse: Warfare-Punctuated Equilibrium at the Limit of Growth,” this paper considers the effect of changing productivity, per capita consumption, and per capita environmental impact from constants to variables. It also considers the effect of political paradigm shifts.

 “Maya Apocalypse: Warfare-Punctuated Equilibrium at the Limit of Growth” (W-PELG)  described a logarithmic growth/slow exponential decay “Limits to Growth” mode as well as a novel logarithmic growth/fast exponential collapse “Punctuated Equilibrium” mode. The fast exponential collapse mode was triggered by climatic variation and powered by warfare. It assumed that normal food/acre/year productivity was a constant, and that the only relevant modifiers were constant per-person degradation; a constant fractional regeneration rate; and random climate variability.  Adding an analysis of variable productivity/acre, whether through technology or preferential land usage, would provide additional insight, as would a variable per-person degradation impact.

W-PELG also assumes a constant per-capita desired level of production. If the socio-political structure of society changes, such that actionable levels of consumption change, that too could provide additional dynamics.  

The political organization of the Maya changed fundamentally at the end of the Classic period c. 900 AD, which had effects on the population dynamics that are not reflected in W-PELG. All of these missing factors are considered in the current paper.

Problem Statement
It has been clear since the 19th Century that the Classic Maya civilization, with its monumental architecture, Long Count calendar, hieroglyphics, and divine kings, had flourished and declined long before Europeans arrived. What was not clear was how, when, or why. W-PELG explored the literature and formulated a model to fit the broad patterns of sustained growth to a plateau; growth followed by a slow exponential decay; and growth followed by an abrupt cataclysmic collapse. It concluded that growth to a limit combined with stress-response warfare and fluctuating climate were sufficient to cause the observed patterns.  But W-PELG made some simplifications that, while perhaps acceptable for Preclassic and Classic Maya, were not tested. They may fail for post-Classic Maya, and thereby make transferability to non-Maya contexts problematic.

Preclassic Maya seem to have relied on slash and burn agriculture, which was not sustainable for long periods of time. The Classic Maya adopted more sustainable forms of agriculture, particularly using flooded bottomlands or bajos for their agriculture. W-PELG assumes a constant technology for agriculture, as well as a constant degradation/person, without change in the baseline productivity of land or labor. What effect would steady or discontinuous changes in productivity and impact have had?

Demarest (2007) discusses the growth of the minor nobility in the Late Classic and notes their higher consumption levels. Did consumption/person standards go up, increasing the pressures on carrying capacity? W-PELG assumes a constant desired consumption/person. What would an increase have meant in either or both, especially as growth slowed in the Late Preclassic?

The most serious limitation of W-PELG is that it does not well describe the Postclassic population dynamics of lower population levels and lack of catastrophic collapses. The political system became less centralized, and warfare more common yet less intense, so that there was a smaller prosperity ‘peace dividend’ but the extreme episodic lows were also mitigated. What effect would changing the levels of military response mean, across the full range of population levels, in either continuous or stepwise manners?

Model Description and Simulation Results
A brief synopsis of the W-PELG model is that it has four levels: population; productivity; and farmed and abandoned land. The last two are dependent on each other, as they add to equal constant total land. Two positive and two negative feedback loops dominate the behavior. Population tends to increase itself, provided more food is available. Land availability provides a negative loop to limit population growth through food sufficiency. Population has a negative impact on itself through productivity degradation. Most interestingly, food shortages increase warfare which then decreases available land and intensifies food shortages.

This is the basic punctuated equilibrium mode generated by W-PELG. It matches the Preclassic and Classic boom/bust episodes, but fails to describe the Postclassic absence of that phenomenon.
The first modification: shift away from divine kings to councils at the end of the Classic period, c. 800 in Petexbatun. More specifically, warfare became endemic at low stress levels, thus having an inoculative effect on the boom/bust cycle. To accomplish this in the model, the table lookup relating resource stress to warfare was changed from a straight proportional response by adding a small positive bias at low levels of stress, and nonzero war in the complete absence of resource stress.
Accounting for a decreasing return to farming additional land – by an average of 20% when all available land is used – lowers the peak population and shortens the boom/bust cycle in the Preclassic and Classic periods. This is done via an Effect of Occupancy on Productivity Per Acre which depends on how big the desired fraction of potential land usage is.
Similarly, to account for increasingly negative productivity impacts as more fragile land is used, an Effect of Occupancy on Productivity Impact is added. It also depends on how big the desired fraction of potential land usage is, and lowers the peak population and shortens the boom/bust cycle in the Preclassic and Classic periods.
Combining the two effects reinforces both the peak lowering and cycle shortening.
If a 10% step increase in productivity is added at 300 AD, in the early Classic -- representing a uniform technical advance, or the introduction of a new, more productive crop -- the Classic peak is higher but the collapse is hastened.
And there is if a 10% increase in food demand at 400 AD – in response to an increase in the proportion of minor nobility in the population as growth slows – the Classic peak is lowered and the collapse hastened.
Finally, if productivity somehow ramped up by 0.1%/year at 200AD immediately after the Preclassic collapse, growth can be sustained indefinitely, regardless of divine kingship or council rulership.
Analysis, Inferences and Implications
This paper has expanded on the M-PELG model to explore variability in land productivity and environmental impacts; political paradigm shifts; step improvements in productivity and food requirements; and ramped improvements in productivity. Most of these changes only affected the system’s behavior quantitatively – changing the gain of the feedback loops or the frequency of oscillation. Heterogeneous treatment of the land and its productivity change the timing and height of demographic peaks and valleys, but leave the punctuated equilibria of boom and bust behavior unchanged.  Similarly, unique improvements in productivity exacerbate the cyclical responses by quickening and magnifying them.

Only two changes produce dynamically interesting behavioral modifications. One is the shift from divine kings to councillorships – from an individual god-king executive to a group of nobles. That change is embodied here by a variation in the nonlinear relationship between scarcity and warfare. Under the divine kings, war seems to have been a largely ceremonial undertaking, to establish dominance hierarchies and provide a few token human sacrifices. But at the Terminal Classic, warfare escalated and never really seems to have stopped. Substantial no-man’s-lands were created where it was unsafe to farm. Paradoxically, it created reserves of unused land -- often the most damaged and least productive, giving them time to recover their productivity. It also created a persistent buffer that could be used if there was a climatic fluctuation that reduced productivity. Whereas in Classic times drought meant that all usable land was taken and the starving had to rob each other, in Postclassic times there was always some land available.

The Preclassic and Classic Maya did not change their material way of life much. For over a thousand years, they ate the same crops, hunted the same animals, and used the same tools for all their daily activities. They had no beasts of burden, no transportation but by foot or canoe. The one innovation they seem to have made was between the Preclassic and Classic periods, when they began using flooded fields to grow crops more productively and maintainably.  Yet had their productivity per acre somehow continuously increased, they could have gotten out of their food-based boom and bust cycles. But that was not to be.

It would be possible, perhaps even desirable, to have war casualties represented in the model. But pre-modern wars, wars before firearms, were much less deadly than what we experience, and throughout the world’s history far more people have died in famines than in wars. Adding warfare to this model would almost certainly have no effect on the qualitative model behavior, just amplify the peaks and accelerate the advent of collapses.

Mentioned in W-PELG also but done neither there nor in this paper, a spatial disaggregation would be interesting – permitting immigration, emigration, invasion and expansion to other areas. Overall population in the Highlands and Southern Lowlands seems to have permanently dropped after the Classic, while population along the coast was steadier and in the Yucatan actually increased. But even in those places, the days of the divine kings were over. The Long Count calendar was abandoned, as was the hieroglyphic writing. Warfare became endemic.  So the paradigmatic shift in governance spread north, whether through conduction or convection – through migration or trade. It spared the Postclassic Maya any further major collapses, but limited the peaks of their growth.

The most interesting finding in M-PELG was that environmental degradation is not needed at all to simulate the reference mode: climatic variation can trigger apocalyptic warfare all by itself.  This paper builds on that finding by examining some previously omitted factors. The Maya themselves continue to exist to this day, speaking their languages and much of the lifestyle that their ancestors lived a millennium ago and longer. But their politics were transformed at the end of the Classic period, by their own choice, and they have never gone back. That an advanced society should adapt to its present through a substantial, persistent simplification of their political and social culture is fascinating, and is a primary motivator for this paper. It may also be a harbinger of what is in store for all of humanity.

To adapt this model to fit 21st Century Earth wouldn’t take much: indeed, it well describes where we are. One could disaggregate the landed economy into consumption and investment; disaggregate productivity into capital and labor sectors; and disaggregate the population into several classes, cohorts, and locations. The model could be articulated spatially, allowing trade, innovation, and people to flow from one place to another. But that would be unnecessary complexity to understand our global punctuated equilibrium: Earth is the only planet we have.

As dire a problem as global warming is, as epochal as the changes it has brought and will continue to bring for millennia to come even if we cease our carbon dioxide emissions right now, it will only decrease the height of the next peak and the increase the proximity of the next collapse. A mere 100 nuclear weapons detonated by anyone who has them now – China, Russia, America, Israel, India, Pakistan – would plunge us into a nuclear winter. “The combination of nuclear proliferation, political instability and urban demographics may constitute one of the greatest dangers to the stability of society since the dawn of humans. Only abolition of nuclear weapons will prevent a potential nightmare.” (Robock & Toon, 2009). Regardless of how coarsely or finely measured, our collective ability to care for all seven billion plus people on Earth would be fatally compromised in a Nuclear Winter.

The Postclassic Maya inadvertently created reserves for themselves through continuous low-level warfare. That will not work for us. We do not create reserves. We have created social, economic, and political institutions that sacrifice the future for the present at too many turns. We are also a violent species, and when our time comes we will not be as fortunate as the Classic Maya. Our next nuclear war will be our Terminal period. Humanity will surely survive – killing every last human would be hard, even for us – but Classic and Postclassic Maya will seem identical when we are compared to our Postmodern selves.


Simulations done with Vensim

Originally posted to Tom Lum Forest on Thu May 16, 2013 at 06:08 PM PDT.

Also republished by SciTech and Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  It's gonna be (16+ / 0-)

    one helluva conference :)

    Seriously, you presented me with about ten new ideas in every paragraph ... that is rare indeed.

    Thanks for the Diary.

    I hope that the quality of debate will improve,
    but I fear we will remain Democrats.

    Who is twigg?

    by twigg on Thu May 16, 2013 at 06:15:45 PM PDT

  •  I Think This Will Probably Apply to the Bottom 99% (9+ / 0-)

    of humanity, in our future.

    There is such advanced technology and such concentration of power and ownership at the top that after collapse of our present civilization, top ownership may be able to make its own permanent future independent of the 90-99%.

    They're behaving as though they're planning for it.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Thu May 16, 2013 at 06:28:17 PM PDT

    •  The 1% may believe they've sewn up survival but (20+ / 0-)

      it is as difficult for them to think outside the box as it is for the priestly-princely class of Maya.

      The appearance of hunger weakened belief in the royal caste's divinity to the point that great cities devolved into family-based loyalty clans (to simplify the phrasing).

      Likewise, the 1% has a terminal belief in the value of "money." But money, credit default swaps, derivatives, annuities, etc, only have value because the government says that money has value.

      Collapse of government or even devolution into constant conflict can make money worthless.  What becomes of value are survival skills:  gardening, farming, raising livestock, self-defense, community unity against marauders.

      The power of the 1% would likely vanish overnight. They'd be some of the most worthless people on earth if society begins to break apart.  For a limited period, their wealth may matter, but it wouldn't last even one generation after collapse. Useless money cannot guarantee loyalty or protection.

      Well, anyway, those are some idle thoughts of mine on the subject.

      "The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer." -- James Baldwin. July 11, 1966.

      by YucatanMan on Thu May 16, 2013 at 08:57:48 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  IOW, you can't eat diamonds (9+ / 0-)

        nor drink rubies.

        Irony takes a worse beating from Republicans than Wile E. Coyote does from Acme. --Tara the Antisocial Social Worker

        by Youffraita on Fri May 17, 2013 at 12:41:43 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  I've always thought . . . (0+ / 0-)

        That the future will be a huge mass of uneducated, ill-nourished, and unhealthy people, ruled over by an elite technocratic caste safely ensconced in secure, luxurious compounds.

        "[W]e shall see the reign of witches pass over . . . and the people, recovering their true spirit, restore their government to its true principles." Jefferson

        by RenMin on Fri May 17, 2013 at 10:38:46 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  With what will these compounds (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Bob Guyer

          be supported? They will have to be like siege castles with their own water and food supplies, well-paid healthy servants and security, their own hospitals and drugs, everything they will need to survive a hellish siege against the starving masses outside the walls. Money will be worthless as will precious metals and stones--you can't eat or drink them, so the servants and small armies will have to be paid in food and water. Unless the rich have armored conveyance, they will not be able to leave their castles, assuming there will be anywhere to go. If a fortress's supplies fail, who will help them? Another fortess-owner? Any scenario is possible, even pleasant ones. Who has hope of that?

    •  There will be a bodyguard class that evolves (9+ / 0-)

      to support the rich Bantustans (isn't that how the Saudi royals came to be?).  They will also have to hire tech support, auto and gun mechanics, fuel procurement departments, grow-light farmers, water purification and sewage engineers, and lifestyle maintenance personnel.  

      Their comfort level will be nonexistent, zero.  

      I work for rich people.  They don't like to do the shit necessary to keep their lifestyles going.  They will have to form City States or Corporate Enclaves or State Nations (Richard K Morgan's Thirteen and Stephenson's Snow Crash spring to mind) to support their antagonistic isolation and survival strategies.  Many such "governments" will form naturally out of the dismembered military infrastructure (both hardware and human).

      But the thing is, if a nuclear winter is loosed (and the science on what that actually means isn't as developed as with climate change), and that on top of and intermixed with the prior devastation wrought by atmospheric carbon overload, resource depletion could accelerate to the point where the Bantustans will themselves collapse in prolonged fits of stealing, pillaging and hording.  Hell, part of the materiel component of global military infrastructure will be the unspent nuclear weaponry.  Those thousands of devices, each its own special dose of doomsday enhancement, will most all soon be spent as the elite carve each other - and everyone else except those good at hiding - up.

      But after stasis returns to the planet, after all but a remnant are gone (much as after any planetary catastrophe in the past), it will be a heartbreakingly beautiful place again. Like it is now.  

      This is what I'm going to tell the kids: never forget what beauty you've seen. Make that the center of your being.

      "Well, yeah, the Constitution is worth it if you succeed." - Nancy Pelosi // Question: "succeed" at what?

      by nailbender on Thu May 16, 2013 at 09:26:37 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Saudi comment was off. (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Oh Mary Oh

        don't know where I got that in my head.  Too much sun. Not enough whiskey.

        "Well, yeah, the Constitution is worth it if you succeed." - Nancy Pelosi // Question: "succeed" at what?

        by nailbender on Thu May 16, 2013 at 10:04:41 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  It would be very interesting to see a simulation (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        nailbender, jds1978

        of a significant nuclear exchange in the presence of 400 - 450 ppm CO2.  I wouldn't be surprised to find that the CO2 has a noticeable impact on the outcome.

        •  I've actually thought about that one! (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          ....there are a lot of variables in the Nuclear Winter scenario (target selection, air burst vs groundburst, avg yield of weapons used, the amount of weapons used, time of year, weather patterns)

          I'm not convinced that all you need is to detonate 'X' number of bombs et voila!.....nuclear winter!

          I'm also not convinced that the CinC of any nuclear power (let alone Pakistan/India) will operate as well as predicted.

          In other words:  the command chain will break down long before any major power is able to completely execute it's war plan.

          Of course, It's not worth testing out  ;)

          This space for rent -- Cheap!

          by jds1978 on Fri May 17, 2013 at 02:14:12 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

    •  The 1% as we know it will disappear. (10+ / 0-)

      It takes huge quantities of resources to support them. A smaller population and smaller resource base won't do it. If the Maya are any indication, what the political and economic 1% will look like is not well described by what we have now.

    •  I think that the 1% may actually be behaving (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Tom Lum Forest, TheDuckManCometh

      like a group of people who think they can negotiate with reality.  They don't really believe, deep down inside, that the situation we're in doesn't have easy answers that they can buy when the time comes.

    •  They will (0+ / 0-)

      have to have arable land, clean water, and someone to work for them.

  •  Great diary! (8+ / 0-)

    Hope you don't mind a repost to SciTech.

  •  Which Begs Our Relationship to War (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    YucatanMan, radarlady, foresterbob

    Are we in trouble because we stopped a significant amount of war?

    •  only secondarily (10+ / 0-)

      The real issue is spare capacity. The Postclassic Maya inadvertently created it by steady warfare and the creation of no-man's lands, which could be farmed at time of great need. Not as well documented for obvious reasons, North Americans also seem to have had game reserves in the no-man's-lands between tribes.

      Not addressed in the paper, I do think the duration between major wars is limited to roughly a century. People commemorate the glories of war and forget the destruction. In the West, 1815-1914 is about as long a peace between major powers as there's been, and even then we had a lot of colonial scrambling and the creation of Germany at the expense of France and Austria. We are a violent species, and that violence will be or undoing, at least as far as civilization as we know it goes. My over/under year in the betting pool is 2045.

  •  The stars, or should I say, the scars (4+ / 0-)

    are aligned.  Brilliant study and analysis.  

    Humanity is looking increasingly pathogenic and it's slowly dawning on us.  I can now imagine the inner conflict within myself as I consider, in the foreseeable future, the compelling need to advise my children and grandchildren to stop making babies.

    Is there one hopeful (god I hate the word hope) omen in the way the Mayans evolved culturally, spurred by multiple systems collapse, into what they are now?  And did it happen during the time of the collapse or after?

    "Well, yeah, the Constitution is worth it if you succeed." - Nancy Pelosi // Question: "succeed" at what?

    by nailbender on Thu May 16, 2013 at 08:40:57 PM PDT

    •  thank you! (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      nailbender, radarlady, foresterbob

      Hopeful omen? Hmmm... they decided their government and religion didn't work for them, so they changed them in a fundamental and persistent way. They adapted socially. They had to go through a lot of pain first, but there was a lot of cultural continuity.

      There is the constant tension in all life between living for the moment and leaving a legacy for descendants. Our technology amplifies our strengths as well as our weaknesses. It's giving humans a wild ride.

      •  Well, the fact that a "great" civilization (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        can alter it's central paradigm that fundamentally and still hold on to other, more benign features is hopeful to me I guess.  

        Seems like there might be some predictive power in the implications of your examinations?

        "Well, yeah, the Constitution is worth it if you succeed." - Nancy Pelosi // Question: "succeed" at what?

        by nailbender on Thu May 16, 2013 at 11:25:40 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  Fascinating diary. I may read it two or three (8+ / 0-)

    more times through to compare with my own thoughts on the history we know or think we know.

    One note I'd make is that there is evidence from middens (basically, garbage dumps to archeologists) that diet drastically worsened in periods of great drought.  

    Many researchers believe there was a severe approximately 100 year-long drought roughly 1000 years ago. That may have been a fatal blow to the divinity of the princes and priests of the royal caste. Sacrifices, worship, and celestial observations having no effect on weakening devastating drought would have caused hungry people to simply abandon the cities - designed by and for the royalty - and seek sustenance by spreading through the land.

    Anyway, just babbling at this late hour. I want to read this again.

    "The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer." -- James Baldwin. July 11, 1966.

    by YucatanMan on Thu May 16, 2013 at 09:04:17 PM PDT

  •  Too tired to follow your paper right now (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    radarlady, ER Doc, METAL TREK

    but it looks terrific. Will read more later.

    Irony takes a worse beating from Republicans than Wile E. Coyote does from Acme. --Tara the Antisocial Social Worker

    by Youffraita on Fri May 17, 2013 at 12:40:02 AM PDT

  •  Tipped, recced, (4+ / 0-)

    hotlisted, and following. This is beautifully written and supported. I really need to go back and read the diaries you have already posted because I missed them first time around.
    Sometimes I wonder if humans have a lemming like gene that drives them to war and extreme environmental degradation. If you go read the comment section on any article about fracking, colony collapse disorder, or climate change, it seems as if a certain segment of the population is wilfully destructive.
    As to war, and the violent impulses that give rise to it, perhaps emotional instability is a side effect of crowding. I remember an experiment done with rats that seemed to suggest it. The reactions of my (very liberal) facebook 'friends' to any 24/7 coverage of a crisis such as the Boston bombing seems to confirm it. However, good analysis is a lot more satisfying than anecdotal evidence.

    You..ought to be out raising hell. This is the fighting age. Put on your fighting clothes. -Mother Jones

    by northsylvania on Fri May 17, 2013 at 01:48:01 AM PDT

  •  And the resource wars have begun . . . n/t (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Oh Mary Oh

    I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever. ~Thomas Jefferson

    by bobdevo on Fri May 17, 2013 at 03:37:38 AM PDT

  •  Gosh, thanks for cheering us up! (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    What's for breakfast?

    "Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich."--Napoleon

    by Diana in NoVa on Fri May 17, 2013 at 03:43:07 AM PDT

  •  Malthus v macrocosms (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Oh Mary Oh, PeterHug, Aramis Wyler

    I can't quite follow the conclusions, because one of the missing pieces is external "energy." Our escape hatch from Malthus and our way to increasing productivity has been the application of petrochemicals (the green revolution is an oil revolution). There are other external energy supplies that are not so limited or contentious, as we all know -- solar, geothermal, wind, etc.

    In other words, it is not compulsory that the world follow the food/war limitations. For that matter, arable land is still, believe it or not, plentiful. However, everything depends upon a non-cataclysmic change in global weather. When that happens, I should imagine that fracture would occur far sooner than national identity war.

    "...ere God made us He loved us; which love was never slacked, nor ever shall be." - Juliana of Norwich

    by The Geogre on Fri May 17, 2013 at 04:54:32 AM PDT

    •  Agreed that it is not comuplsory (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      PeterHug, The Geogre

      or predetermined, despite the tone of my closing paragraph. That's what the last simulation run is about. But we are on a treadmill, racing with ourselves, to keep ahead of our propensity to self destruct. We already use a large fraction of the available land for cities, farms, ranches, and logging. It is a finite planet. As some point we will have to reckon with our violent natures, and I am not optimistic.

      •  We have to keep the Maya Mayan (0+ / 0-)

        What you're saying is a useful sobering agent, and I love the diary. (I always comment to poke for more discussion.) No doubt, even the naive view of ecological/warfare crisis that you are replacing was an effective warning about Northern hemispheric patterns.

        The problem with extrapolation, though, is precisely what you stated: they were humanity stripped of the intervention of technology. Technology as a multiplier of energy inputs creates the 'efficiency' of the 14th century in Europe, and then the 18th century, and then the productivity of the U.S. plains after "sod busting" began. Since the twentieth century, we have had the story of fossil fuels, which is necessarily a distortion.

        My qualm is only that the Maya were unique, and conclusions aren't very portable. If we look at what happened in Europe, we typically see dissolution of states during these crises. If there is a massive disruption due to weather, I would bet on political entities becoming very, very small.

        "...ere God made us He loved us; which love was never slacked, nor ever shall be." - Juliana of Norwich

        by The Geogre on Fri May 17, 2013 at 10:26:45 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  The conclusion. (0+ / 0-)

        This is a fantastic and well research diary, which I very much appreciate.  It must have taken a very long time to work all that out and I bet your speech will be wonderful.

        I must say - though only for your benefit - that I agree with The George about following your conclusion.  Every paragraph was well written, and filled with facts.  They were all well referenced, the thing is great.  but that only underlines the second half of the second concluding paragraph, which seems to me is the whole point:

        The model could be articulated spatially, allowing trade, innovation, and people to flow from one place to another. But that would be unnecessary complexity to understand our global punctuated equilibrium: Earth is the only planet we have.
        That simply did not follow.  I am not saying you're wrong, I'm saying that maybe some sentences are missing there, or are not sufficiently backed up, or maybe are filled in by an understanding you garnered while writing the paper that was not as clearly expressed as some of the base facts.  I see the sentens about articulating the various deaggregated topics, and I'm like, 'ok.'  And I see that that would be unnecessary to understand the point and I'm like, 'ok'.  And the point is we only have one Earth, and it's like, wait, wait what?  Punctuated equilibrium affects the subject, not the environment of the subject per se, and while I can turn over in my head there a bit that there was drought, and that caused lack of faith in the priest class, and therefore... collapse/simplification... so as a metaphor to our times we've got global warming... so... maybe we'll go to war with each other and destroy the earth?  Did the whole research paper go to being a predictor for mutually assured destruction?   So I tink the conclusion could use some work there, especially that second paragraph.  I agree with everything you said in the conclusion, but that does not mean it was not a non sequitor.  Just beacues both sides are right doesn't mean they are causal or even related.

        Advocates of capitalism are very apt to appeal to the sacred principles of liberty, which are embodied in one maxim: The fortunate must not be restrained in the exercise of tyranny over the unfortunate. - Bertrand Russell

        by Aramis Wyler on Fri May 17, 2013 at 12:10:20 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Thank you! The key is violence (0+ / 0-)

          as a response to shortages. In a disaggregated model, a different outcome would be possible only if there is a non-violent response to shortages somewhere, in one of the disaggregated pieces.  While not every local shortage would grow into a global shortage, there would be a critical threshold ensuring it did.

          Put another way, having 175 violent nations leads to the same result as one violent nation. If a shortage for one leads to shortage for another - if we enter a negative-sum game - the number of players is irrelevant. We would require a response that ended the negative-sum game to come from somewhere. The Maya effectively responded by reducing their requirements via reducing their population permanently.

          If Pakistan or Israel or Russia or China or America respond to a shortage - to anything - with a nuclear salvo, all Earth's nations will be in an irreversible shortage situation. Should we somehow manage to quell that tendency, we will still have the disturbance of global warming to confront, and the shortages that will cause as fertile land is flooded and becomes uninhabitable, and as viable crop habitats shift.

          All that said, I may well do a disaggregated model at some point, if there is sufficient interest ;-)

  •  Many thanks and Guatemala today (0+ / 0-)

    I wonder what you think about the current (since about 1600) genocidal war on the Mayan people of Guatemala promulgated by the Euro-Guatemalans.

    This is us governing. Live so that 100 years from now, someone may be proud of us.

    by marthature on Fri May 17, 2013 at 08:12:08 AM PDT

    •  It's of a piece with other Euro actions (0+ / 0-)

      throughout the New World: a systematic political and economic takeover justified with racism. The USA has aided and abetted it for the last century via its corporate 'people' as well as explicitly in 1954.

      It's part of a global phenomenon where higher density populations  overwhelm lower-density ones. Agricultural societies have overwhelmed and wiped out neighboring hunter-gatherer societies since the beginning of agriculture. European agriculture was more intensive than Maya agriculture, with its domesticated animals - which were incidentally the source of many of the infectious diseases that decimated New World natives. Jared Diamond talks about this in "Guns, Germs, and Steel," though his chapter on the Maya is not quite right.

      So while I think that what has been and is happening in Guatemala is wrong and we ought to stop it, it is a sign of something pervasive in people that we are all capable of and have done many times over thousands of years.

  •  I would rather see analysis of civilizations that (0+ / 0-)

    are better documented;  Europe, China, India, even Rome, Egypt and Greece. In those places, plagues were more important for example.

    Why do we have to speculate on Mesoamerica, Peru and Easter Island so much?

    •  Those are popular because they're self-contained (0+ / 0-)

      which makes the analysis simpler. And documentation is a two-edged sword: it can be hard to sift wheat from chaff and can devolve into a discussion of the sources. Indian history, for instance, is notorious for just that. It is also helpful to have abandoned sites. Digging in Rome, Athens, and Beijing is done, but it's expensive and a lot of good stuff is buried by the intervening centuries of humanity.

      That said, I wrote a paper on China in 1998 which I'll dig out and post, but here's the abstract:

      "The Perilous Frontier:
      East Asian Cultural Ecology and Two Millennia of Chinese Dynastic Succession

      "The majority of Chinese have lived within a unitary state for most of the last 2,000 years. Yet those states have been ruled by a number of dynasties diverse in origin, strength, and policies. There have been native dynasties, frontier dynasties, and even a nomadic (Mongol) dynasty. Throughout most of Chinese history, there have been distinct entities in the Yellow & Yangtze River valleys; the Northeast (Manchuria); and the steppes (Mongolia). Despite the advent of firearms and sophisticated artillery in the 18th century, this cycle continues today.

      "The author examines the characteristics of Han China, Manchuria, and the steppes as they relate to this succession of rulers: their economic wealth, their military power, and their internal strength. It also examines the characteristic appeasement policies of the Han and the confrontational policies of the Northeastern dynasties with respect to the peoples of the steppes, and how they affected their position with respect to each other. The unique conquest of Han China and the Northeast by the steppes under the Mongols is considered

      "This paper draws primarily from Thomas Barfield (The Perilous Frontier, p. x), who applies "anthropological models of tribal and state development to the available historical data on the tribes who bordered China's northern frontier." This paper also builds on the research the author presented at ISDC '95 in a paper entitled "Sustainable Civilization: Cohesion, Capacity, and External Contacts," and ISDC '97 titled "Byzantine, Bulgarian, and Ottoman: The Dynamics of Empire at the Crossroads of Europe and Asia." It differs from those previous works in that it discusses a different geographical setting (China, Manchuria, and Mongolia), and that it treats in detail the different policies of confrontation vs. cooperation of Han and Manchu dynasties towards the nomad states."

      •  China and Ancient Rome were fairly self-contained (0+ / 0-)

        The Mongols had a limited effect as a transmitter of outside values and were suplanted by the Turks who converted to Islam and 100 years later they were
        expelled by Han Chinese Ming Dynasty and relative isolation resumed.
        It reminds me of the prime directive in Star Trek to not
        interfere in the natural development of a civilization.
        From a historical perspective that might not be valid.

        I guess I also dislike speculating about totally alien civilizations about which we have little direct knowledge.

        •  China was self-contained; Rome not so much (0+ / 0-)

          The Romans had lots of different peoples across the northern frontier, in much more abundance and diversity than that Chinese had. And the western part of their state was wiped out by those people and transformed. On the east, where they lasted much longer, they bordered the Parthians, the Persians, the Arabs, and eventually the Turks. with whom all they had many important interactions over the years.

          The Maya are a simple example. China is more complicated. Europe and the Middle East are more complicated still. I am writing an entire book which will include them all, and I am going from the simple to the complex. I've got a draft of the Roman chapter, but it's too rough to put here just yet.

        •  also this: (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          You say, "I guess I also dislike speculating about totally alien civilizations about which we have little direct knowledge." I have speculated based on what we know, which is quite a lot, and I detail it in the 2007 paper. Do you think we don't know enough for me to speculate, that my speculation has no value? One of the values of speculation is that invites more questions - and more research.

          While I picked the Maya in part also because they are as alien as can be for an agricultural culture, being alien is relative. All premodern cultures, from 10,000 BC to 1700 AD were much more like each other than like us in many important ways. For instance, famines and infectious disease were dominant causes of death. Infant mortality was tremendous. Nowadays we get our knickers in a twist if some terrible new disease kills a hundred people. What we call a nuclear family now would have been considered a sad fragment of a family. The realities of day-to-day life even in the Third World would be inconceivable to premoderns, and theirs to us.

  •  How close do you think the dynamics (0+ / 0-)

    of Mayan culture evolution/disintegration might parallel the rise and fall in popularity of TV shows in a media-rich environment such as the U.S.?

    That seems like a silly question, but I've been reading about Mayan culture for 30 years and always supposed that the various episodes of disintegration had more to do with a tipping point when average people stopped believing in the hierarchy, magisterium, etc.

    Stopped suspending their disbelief, in other words.

    Thanks for a great diary I'll have to read three or four more times (with pleasure).

    •  It's hard for me to see the parallels. (0+ / 0-)

      The Maya made a fundamental change in response to a profound crisis in which a large fraction of the population died in a sociological ecosystem.  While there are product lifecycles and market lifecycles, and market ecosystems, if you will, the fate of any particular product or show is difficult to analogize to that.

      Although we have had general circulation newspapers for longer, there has been an interesting succession from the pre-1900 live-only entertainment of predominantly agricultural populations to records, movies, radio, television, and computers entertaining post-industrial populations. That entertainment (as well as newspapers, declining though they are) has become an integral part of our economic and political power networks. We have been having our worst economic crisis since the 1930s, and are not out of the woods yet. There has been, and I hope will continue to be, a growing disillusionment with Fox et al and a richer public discourse. But most of us spend most of our time concerned with our own day-to-day lives. The vicissitudes of those in power are not engaging enough to promote any action even remotely resembling a widespread end to suspending disbelief.

      It would take a lot more pain that we've had in the last 50 years to do that. And it's not as if the Maya had a vote at some point, or a coup, to stop following divine kings. They tried different responses in place and time to their crisis, and an end to divine kings is what eventually worked for them. We will doubtless continue to adapt experimentally and situationally to our collective pain. I don't think the rise and fall of TV shows constitute a material response to our pain.

  •  Thank you TLF (0+ / 0-)

    Watching Kurosawa's Seven Samurai adds a nice perspective to your work:


    Toshiro Mifiune, the farmer-turned-Samurai mimes how the protectors need priority for the rice to be strong enough to defeat the invaders.  (Can a 1954 film have spoilers?)

    The last documentary I saw on PBS focused on Mayan water catchments and cisterns and ultimately rainfall.

  •  One prospect for hope... We've used fossil fuels (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Tom Lum Forest

    for about 200 years, but we've only had effective contraception for about 50. And widespread understanding that we live on a "small blue planet" only emerged about 40 years ago.

    The human race squandered the "gift" of fossil energy to foolishly increase our numbers  to staggering levels. But since 1960, the world population growth has fallen from 2.2% to 1.1%.

    Getting down to negative growth isn't going to be easy. But I am encouraged by the rapid evolution of public attitudes over same-sex marriage.

    We may also see fundamentalist dogma about contraception and family size rejected in the span of a generation.

    “It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing
    he was never reasoned into” - Jonathan Swift

    by jjohnjj on Sat May 18, 2013 at 10:05:51 AM PDT

    •  Agreed, but population is secondary. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Bob Guyer

      Consumption is primary. I don't see any Zero Consumption Growth advocacy organizations, and indeed don't think Democracy would survive in such an environment - though the GOP is leading the way in Pull the Ladder Up After You Climb It politics.

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