Understanding how the Maya survived and are still populous in this part of the world, speaking the same ancient languages, carries some important lessons for both ecological restorationists and collapseologists.
One reason the Maya survived, of course, is that they kept very strong ties to the natural world, never drifting very far from their farming roots and shamanic religions. Another is that even when engaged in urban professions and lifestyles, Mayan descendants are in a comfort zone that is bolstered by strong family ties and a 3000-year history, much of it involving city living.
The collapse of the Classic period, around 900 CE, is an active academic field, with many conflicting theories and a mountain of literature. While traveling here we absorbed the writings of Arthur Demarest, of Vanderbilt University, and his narrative easily lends itself for comparison to our current global situation.*
One of the terms Demarest uses to describe the Classic Maya period is a “theater-state.” The ruling elite, known as the K’uhul Ajaw, or Holy Lords, were relatively hands-off with respect to economics, social welfare and trade but devoted lots of resources to legitimizing their political and religious authority through monumental architecture, art, pageant, sports spectacles and warfare. This resource misallocation – taking away from the real needs of the populace, especially in times of stress – led to swelling of the elite class, enormous diversions to unproductive types of labor, depredations from unnecessary wars, resentment from disenfranchised youth who were relegated to mere javelin–fodder, and, of course, ecological decay — as previously elegant eco-agriculture microsystems (using 400-500 species of plants) were consolidated into monocultures and overproduced.
A basic question Demarest probes is why, in so many areas, Mayan leaders did not respond with effective corrective measures for the stresses generated by internal and external pressures they could not have failed to notice. We generally think of complex societies as problem-solving organizations, in which elaborate chains of central command and control “wire” a nation to meet its goals. Yet beginning around the Eighth Century, the Holy Lords were apparently out to lunch.
Demarest thinks the problem was structural. Since the elites of the most classic Maya kingdoms did not farm or manage production of goods, the “real” economy was decentralized to local community or family. The role of the Holy Lords was to manage a “false” economy that was derivative, its only marginal utility being that it gave their Kingdoms some sort of patriotic zeal or sense of exceptionalism. When these derivatives eventually began to unravel, the Holy Lords, like mechanics with a limited set of wrenches, did what they knew best — they intensified ritual activities, built taller and more ornate temples and expensive stages, props, and costumes, and scheduled more performance rituals, wars, and feasting. Contrary to earlier results, however, these measures only prolonged or intensified the problems, led to further disenchantment, which eventually brought about whatever cataclysm dethroned them.
Successive rounds of quantitative easing had diminishing returns. The “real” economy was suffering a century-long drought punctuated by severe droughts in CE 810, 860 and 910. The “false” economy tottered from a hefty reality dose.
Today the theater state is shown in high definition and 3-D, and it resembles in its own way the grand Berlin pageants of Albert Speer as much as the scenes from Apocalypto. Mad-Men have refined the manufacture of consent, to use Chomsky's phrase, to a fine science, and as in Classic Maya times, military recruitment is viewed as a fortunate outlet for the unemployed. Recruiters have never had it so easy. And the recent riots in London are a reminder of what can happen when a country brings its boys home too soon.
However, a “classic” period, signifying the peak of empire and also a peak in energy, productivity, and population in most cases, is never sustainable, because it is inherently unbalanced.
The Mayan preclassic food system was only marginally regional. While trade and tribute brought in salt, chocolate, hardwoods, hard stone, luxuries, textiles, and non-perishable goods, transportation of corn or other staples was largely prohibitive from an energy efficiency standpoint. Moving corn on the back of a man 25 km requires the consumption of 16% of the caloric value of the load. Transport from 100 km would have cost a third of the load in expended caloric energy. Demarest wrote, “Such high transport costs might have been maintained by a few Mayan cities at their peak, but more generally Mayan subsistence economies and markets were probably based on an area of about 20 to 30 km — a day of travel from the major center and its periodic markets.”
Joseph Tainter’s famous 1988 analysis of civilizational collapses argues that what generally occurs when a civilization over-extends is not a complete disappearance but a rapid decline in complexity. Axiomatically, it can be said that the instability experienced at the peak of a culture is a function of over-complexity.
While this might be true of the Maya in some ways, in other respects that analysis fails to satisfy. While the theater state of the Holy Lords reached a peak complexity and then declined, a different type of state followed that increased in complexity over what had existed in the classic period. The end of the theater state led to the cessation of monumental architecture and the disappearance of high status exotic goods and ornaments, but good riddance.
At the same time, although at different times and speeds in different regions, there was a flowering and transformation to the new order. Extensive ecological, archaeological, and settlement pattern studies have found a resurgence of complex agricultural regimes that were well adapted to population levels with no indications of nutritional stress. When the curtains were drawn on the theater state, the health and welfare of the people improved. With the loss of simple monoculture and central authority and the diffusion of complex microfarming diversity and decentralized councils, the new order recaptured stability.
What followed in the postclassic period were a diffusion of distinctive new variants of the classic culture, with strange costumes, long hairstyles, experimentation with new legitimating ideologies, and unusual features in buildings, sculpture and ceramics (e.g.: ubiquitous serpents, brightly colored murals, and the psychedelic temple complex of Tulum).
The Maya that flourish in the Guatemalan highlands and Yucatán today are as populous and even more vigorous economically than they were in the classic theater state, but they do not generate anything like the art and architecture of their predecessors from 1000 years ago. They don’t need to.
Demarest observed, “For at least 6000 years, the hallmarks of the Western tradition have been linear concepts of time, monocultural agricultural systems, overproduction and exchange of surplus in full-market economies, technology-driven development, a long history of attempts to separate religious and political authority, and judgmental Gods concerned with individual, personal moral conduct. As we learn from the Maya, none of these traits is universal, none of them was characteristic of classic Maya civilization, and none of them is critical to the fluorescence of high civilization.”
For the restoration ecologists here in Mérida, there is much to be seen and learned. The pre- and postclassic system of mimicking the diversity and dispersion of the forest allowed the Maya to maintain populations in the millions in the Yucatán for over 1500 years without destroying a rich but fragile tropical environment and biodiversity. They are still here —still engaged in that work. That offers hope for us all.
* Ancient Maya: the rise and fall of the rainforest civilization by Arthur Demarest, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.