Sunday, August 28, 2011

Theater-States and the Long Count

Here in the Mexican colonial city of Mérida, the Society for Ecological Restoration is having its Fourth World Conference. We find that a useful title, because in common parlance the Fourth World represents the indigenous peoples — those who have, so far, survived colonial genocide. Cities like this one were the military and cultural spaceport from which attacks by futuristic alien occupiers against ‘primitive’ populations were launched. — The Conquistadors’ final campaign against the Itza Maya island capital of Tayasal, near Tikal, was launched from here in 1696. As the vine and mildew-covered grand colonades with flaking plaster attest, this is also the way the spoils of war travelled their way back to Europe.

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.

Sound familiar?

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.

Demarest’s insight here is that we tend to characterize every civilization in terms of “preclassic, classic, and postclassic,” but we might do better to think of it as “stable and expanding,” “unstable,” and “shrinking and reconsolidating.” Preclassic Maya agriculture was exceedingly diverse, with agroforestry, household garden plots, rotational field crops, chinampas and aquaponic systems, and perhaps also novel farming techniques we have yet to learn about. So was the postclassic. We have only just recently begun to appreciate that the “slash and burn” found in many parts of the tropics was once a highly productive and ecologically sustainable biochar amendment system when practiced in the ancient ways.

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. 

Thursday, August 4, 2011

44 Years of Slow Collapse

"You can go to the countryside, get yourself a farm, learn how to milk cows, sew your own clothes, put up canned goods at harvest, and midwife your own babies, but it won’t save you from the spread of the deserts, bubbling clathrates, or zombie hordes fleeing starving cities."

Watching the Tea Party make hostages of the other crime families is better than anything this season from Showtime, HBO or AMC.

With the collapse of the Murdoch Crime Family, other crime families are scrambling for position. The Bush Crime Family was feeling pretty good about skating away from its crime scene Scott-free, counting on the incoming Obama gang as a covert asset. The feel-good feelings that came in with Obama, primarily hope that the Bush-Cheney bungling and transparent evil would be gone, were entirely manufactured, something akin to the “Neo” program The Architect built into The Matrix. But there is a random element built into the program that can make it very interesting, or at least rife for sequels.

Hostage-taking as a political strategy caught the Bush-Obama family by surprise. Within a few months of getting their freshmen to Washington, the Tea family went straight for the jewels, like young Vito Corleone knocking off the biggest crime boss in Brooklyn. It used to be enough just to shut down the federal government for a few days. But with the debt ceiling drama, the global economy was kidnapped and held in a dark chamber for 4 months, and the ransom paid in the end reached straight into the breadbasket of the old order. The dons are not happy about that. Michelle Bachmann and Eric Cantor should avoid small private planes and room service.

Lets face it, it had to be paid, and the US had to come to the same kind of reckoning as Iceland, Spain or Greece. How a country gets there is less important, but in a fantasyland of mythical populism, created whole cloth from Murdoch’s media, a populist scam seems more plausible than, say, a report from Bush-Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors. We are in new territory now, and as the warring gangs fight blood feuds in the ruins of the crashing empire, the smart money is getting out while the airlines are still flying. Given the latest hostages – the FAA controllers – that window may not be open long.

In 1969, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross introduced a model called the five stages of grieving, based on her interviews with more than 500 terminally ill patients. Kübler-Ross was dealing with people who were experiencing profound, catastrophic loss — their own lives — and were trying to cope, somehow. She emphasized that while these 5 stages are not complete, exclusive or chronological, they seemed typical.

The five stages, sometimes known by the acronym DABDA, are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

In some consistent but amorphous way, shape or form, we have been writing of the looming collapse of planetary ecosystems and the human civilization they support since about 1967. Over the span of the last 44 years our emotional state has risen and fallen, sometimes resuscitated by good news, other times deflated by confirmation that, indeed, collapse and mass extinction is inevitable. We described one of these deflating moments a few years ago as our Houston Moment. Houston, because that is where we were when we realized just how close Earth is now to profound, catastrophic, irredeemable collapse.

In 44 years you get to see a lot of people arriving to this point of understanding and, like Kübler-Ross, we observe some patterns. Much has already been written comparing peak oil and climate change to the five stages of grief. The similarity may only be in the flexibility, because not everyone shows all the signs, and there is inconsistent order. Lately we’ve noticed we’re getting more buy-in to the notion of collapse from people in the financial sector. Many of these, Chris Martenson and Paul Gilding for example, have made major contributions to encapsulating the big picture.

Over the years we’ve also lost some beacons who saw the way we are headed and made herculean efforts to shine their beams towards realistic, alternative routes of escape. Here we are thinking of Bob Swann, Scott and Helen Nearing, R. Buckminster Fuller, Barry Commoner, and most recently, Peter Berg, who passed away this past week.

Peter Berg was a San Francisco beatnik who was fond of turtleneck sweaters and free public art. He became one of the architects of the cultural revolution of the 1960s and later coined the word, “bioregionalism” to describe the only possible non-catastrophic way forward.

One memorable Berg installation was a wooden yellow square he called the “Frame of Reference” that he, the Diggers, and the Mime Troupe erected at the corner of Haight and Masonic on October 31, 1966. After warming up the crowd with two 8-foot-tall puppets in “Any Fool on The Street,” an improv play about what is inside or outside reality, Berg invited the crowd to dance with the puppets inside and outside of the yellow Frame and to disregard their normal frames of reference, such as the sidewalk. As individuals and groups, led by Berg, formed geometrical shapes in the street, traffic came to a halt until 5 squad cars and a paddy wagon threaded their way to the corner to make arrests. Seeing the Frame and the puppets, an officer approached and told a puppet he was creating a disturbance. The conversation was recorded by the Berkeley Barb:

Cop: “We warn you that if you don't remove yourselves from the area you'll be arrested for blocking a public thoroughfare.”

Puppet: “Who is the public?”

Cop: “I couldn't care less; I'll take you in. Now get a move on.”

Puppet: “I declare myself public—I am a public. The streets are public. The streets are free.”
The police swarmed the Frame, grabbed the puppets and the operators within, and shoved them all into the paddy wagon. The crowd surrounded the wagon, chanting “Frame-up! Frame-up!” The prisoners responded with “Pub-lic! Pub-lic!

What strikes us as a newcomers’ pattern is that, arriving on this corner scene in 2011, and noticing the yellow Frame of Reference and people in the street, the newcomers aren’t quite ready to fully associate themselves. Having shattered their way through denial, anger, and depression, they are still bargaining.  We shouldn’t cast aspersions, really, because after 45 years we do it too. In climatespeak its called mitigation and adaptation. We do not go gentle into that good night. We quest for solutions. Without the quest there is no hope, and without the hope, life is a drag. Dark humor is no substitute for even the smallest glimmer of hope.

Recent converts include billionaire fund manager Jeremy Grantham, oil billionaire T. Boone Pickens, and HSBC chief economist Stephen King. What seems to fuel their realizations is not the financial meltdown but the recognition of game-changing resource constraints, something they should have absorbed by reading Limits to Growth in 1972. Is it possible to have been old enough to read in 1972 and missed that? Grantham calls the “new era” of resource constraint the Great Paradigm Shift, without reference to Korten’s Great Turning, Gilding's Great Disruption or our own Great Change. He says: “If we maintain our desperate focus on growth, we will run out of everything and crash.”

No kidding? As Richard Heinberg says in The End of Growth, with the global economy and ecosystem both burdened by unmanageable debt, effective global default is only a matter of time. It isn’t if, but when.

When we see bankers and stockbrokers moving out of the Hamptons or South Beach and buying farms up some remote country hollow, we know that’s why. Of course, they could do better than to try to go it alone or with paid servants (a risky proposition). They could discover the benefits of ecovillage. Who knows? In pursuit of happiness, they might even accidentally turn the trend around.

And that’s the summary of 44 years watching this slow-moving juggernaut. It isn’t if, but when. You can go to the countryside, get yourself a farm, learn how to milk cows, sew your own clothes, put up canned goods at harvest, and midwife your own babies, but it won’t save you from the spread of the deserts, bubbling clathrates, or zombie hordes fleeing starving cities. The realization, acceptance, in Kübler-Ross’s terms, is not that you can buy time or bargain, but that a change in your Frame of Reference is available.

You can have a reasonably good life for little longer, maybe long enough to play with your grandchildren, if you are lucky. Chances are pretty darn slim, however, that they will have the same luxury. The future is not what it once was. Whether the end comes slowly or quickly matters only slightly. The Tea family seems to favor making it quick and painful. Tony Soprano couldn’t have planned it any better.





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