History has recorded a number of civilizations that have committed suicide. One of the theories about the collapse of the pre-Columbian Maya, for example, is that they destroyed the forests that surrounded them and also sustained them. When the forests were gone, the people died out or were largely absorbed by other cultures.
Wallace Stegner wrote a most interesting book about his years as a child on the Canada/U.S. border which includes fascinating historical, geological, and geographical information. It also focuses on the plight of the plains Indians who peopled that area for so many years, especially toward the end of the Indian wars when many tribes sought sanctuary in Canada from the avowed American policy of extermination. Despite the fact that the Americans practiced genocide on a grand scale, Stegner makes a good case that the Indians themselves contributed to their own downfall by destroying the environment that sustained them — by killing off the buffalo, for example. Granted, they had considerable assistance in this destruction from buffalo hunters and white “sportsmen.” But native practices such as driving whole herds of buffalo off the edge of cliffs, coupled with such common practices as having each member of a hunting party of the métis killing six or eight buffalo “from which his women would take the tongues and hump ribs and leave the rest, even the hides,” most assuredly helped bring the end to thousands of Indians themselves. As Stegner points out, the men surveying the Canadian/U.S. border witnessed this sort of mindless slaughter and working their way “across the arid cactus plain . . . pushed through the carrion stink of a way of life recklessly destroying itself.” In a word, history repeatedly shows us humans bent on self-destruction, destroying the environment that sustains them. Does this sound familiar? Consider some of the things we have done to ourselves just this past year alone, in a year when the planet experienced record-high temperatures and human populations continued to spiral out of control:
At present 4 out of 10 power plants in this country have no advanced emissions controls despite EPA limits on such emissions.
Canada pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol to protect its burgeoning tar sands oil developments.
Russian government documents revealed that the country spills 5 million tons of oil a year — equivalent to seven Deepwater Horizon disasters annually. Shell Oil, in the meantime, spilled 13,400 gallons of gasoline and drilling fluid into the Gulf of Mexico and more than 100 times as much oil off the coast of Nigeria. Despite this, the Obama administration approved Shell’s plan to drill for oil in the Arctic.
Worldwide emissions of carbon dioxide rose by 5.9 percent last year, the largest jump in any year since the start of the industrial revolution.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that the United States suffered a record dozen climate disasters causing damages of $1 billion or more each.
Arnold Toynbee, in his remarkable Study of History examined 21 separate civilizations he marked out from the beginnings of recorded history, 16 of which have disappeared. He determined that there are definite rhythms that recur in each of those civilizations and that the disappearance of each followed definite causes — many of them self-inflicted. One of the major causes, according to Toynbee, is the fact that “a challenge arises which the civilization in question fails to meet.” Toynbee’s own conclusion was that our civilization is showing definite signs of deterioration and it can be saved only by recovering “the use of a spiritual faculty which we have been doing our utmost to sterilize.” Whether or not we agree with Toynbee, it is clear that we currently face innumerable challenges and the failure to meet those challenges can be catastrophic. Meeting them begins with awareness. And this begins by reading history and learning from our past mistakes and the mistakes of past civilizations that have come and gone — in many cases as a result of their own fixation on immediate needs with no thought for tomorrow.