The Nazca's folly: a pattern that won't go away?

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15 March 2010

Some might say that archaeology is all about potsherds and old bones. But digging into the past can be a way of uncovering patterns of human behaviour with real relevance for our own time. And recently a group of archaeologists did just that, by unearthing an earlier culture that is an uncomfortable echo of our own.

A study by this University of Cambridge group claims that the Nazca — a people famed for creating the gigantic ‘Nazca Lines’, patterns on a Peruvian desert that can only be seen from a plane — precipitated their own decline through excessive deforestation.

The fate of the Nazca gives us insight into today’s environmental predicaments, and a clear indication that every society is ultimately dependent on its natural resources. This reality needs to be taken into account by governments, who must ensure that the recovery from the global recession does not entail a return to an unsustainable economic model.

According to David Beresford-Jones from the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at Cambridge, the Nazca’s decision to convert forests for agricultural use proved disastrous.

In particular, the mass clearing of huarango trees led to a drying of the climate, soil erosion and increased vulnerability to volatile weather, all of which seem to have caused the decline of the Nazca civilisation from around AD 600 on.

Liquidated capital

The land transformation could be seen as a short-term drive for more wealth that liquidated the natural capital regulating climate and soils. Since production was based on these factors, long-term productive capacity of the environment was reduced.

This has a significant correlation with the issues modern civilisations face on the linked issues of deforestation and climate change. Just because many of us are no longer farmers, we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of natural products as the ultimate basis of our globalised economy. We all need to eat.

If Beresford-Jones and his team are right, it seems likely that the Nazca would not be the only civilisation in history to have crossed an ecological threshold and suffered the consequences.

As Jared Diamond argues in Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed, there is evidence that the Anasazi of what is now the American Southwest, the Greenland Vikings, the Maya, and most famously of all the people of Easter Island all suffered dramatic declines after overexploiting their resources or attempting to use technologies that were badly adapted to their environments.

Even if globalisation makes latter-day societies less vulnerable to local environmental degradation and resource scarcity, it also increases the possibility of unprecedented global (non-local), human-induced environmental damage. And the importance of maintaining local environmental resources cannot be completely discounted. Exploitation of local resources provides livelihoods and a safety net for the majority of people in the developing world. As noted in a previous blog, a paper from the Stockholm Resilience Centre recently claimed that humanity has already overshot three out of nine ‘planetary boundaries’. In a more connected world the failure of one apparently insignificant system may have very far-reaching effects.

What next?

But even if we accept what the archaeologists tell us, what should we do with this information? How should we use it, how should we turn it into something that actually helps our civilisation from suffering a similar fate?

For a start, we can accept that the evidence of such ‘collapses’ goes a long way to dispelling any notions that serious environmental degradation is the sole preserve of modern capitalist society. This may come as something of a shock to some environmentalists, many of which have long harboured ideas that many non-Western peoples have always lived in harmony with nature, and even contributed to biodiversity.

This view has often been comforting: even if ‘we’ in the profligate, over-consuming West cannot live sustainably, we can still derive comfort from the idea that indigenous people have been living sustainably for millennia.

Indeed, as Diamond himself points out, the idea is not wholly without foundation, and there certainly are examples of societies who have been environmentally ’sustainable’ for centuries. The picture, therefore, is clearly a complex one, and defies any blanket assertions about humans being instinctively unsustainable, or about indigenous people being inherently eco-friendly.

Perhaps the hardest pill to swallow about the fates of the Nazca, Mayans and Easter Islanders is what it means for people who like to talk about ‘sustainable development’. All of these groups were, in their own ways, remarkably developed.

They had formed complex societies capable of creating surpluses and building marvelous monuments that still enthrall us today. Prior to their declines, they had, like us, used their ingenuity and knowledge to harness their environments to build up and develop their societies.

Development and downfall

Yet that very same ‘development’ may ultimately have brought about their downfall. All of this leads us to the unresolved question of whether it is actually possible for humans to continually improve their living conditions without crossing an ecological threshold. That question is unlikely to be comprehensively resolved within our lifetimes (and certainly not in this blog). What we might do, though, is to draw some general conclusions from previous civilisations´ downfalls.

Perhaps the most obvious one should be a reaffirmation of an old environmentalist principle that is commonly referred to, but rarely used in practice: the precautionary principle. According to Beresford-Jones, the Nazca were not aware of the role of the forests in preserving soil fertility and moisture, and therefore concluded that converting the land to grow crops was the right way to go. In the 21st century, we certainly know a lot about the way our ecosystems work, yet there are still many things we do not understand.

The safest option, surely, would be to construct an economic model that would restrict the level of interference in the planet´s systems to within where we think planetary limits are, and then add a significant buffer to account for the inevitable limits to our knowledge. Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, we must understand what the evidence of ecological collapses tells us about the evils of short-termism.

The quick buck and the free lunch in all their forms usually have consequences. This is particularly relevant during a period of economic downturn, and when the world´s governments are focusing all their energies into returning to rapid growth as quickly as possible.

When one considers the Nazca´s fate, it is hard to escape the idea that a golden opportunity to fundamentally rethink the relationship between the economy and the environment is being missed. Whether or not that failure will lead us to an ecological collapse is impossible to say. But is it really worth taking the chance?


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