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Modern man has accomplished many great things. We have been to the moon and back, we fly around the world at supersonic speeds and have even managed to alter life itself in the form of genetically modified organisms. However, if we think that modern civilisation is impervious to the changes that we are all responsible for, that mankind is so ingenious and so resourceful that we can overcome anything that nature challenges us with, then we are mistaken.
Steve Jobs said in his Stanford commencement address in 2005, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward you can only connect them looking backwards”. If we want to understand the future, we have to look to the past.
Human history is littered with the ruins of once advanced civilisations. We only have to look a few thousand years into our past to see the future of our short comings. Consider the demise of the following civilisations that left behind only monuments of their once great and mighty existence.
The Egyptian Empire
The Egyptian empire collapsed partly due to environmental change. They relied so heavily upon the Nile river and its seasonal flooding to provide fertile soil and for water to irrigate their crops. When the climate changed and the Nile ceased its annual flood, crops failed, famine ensued and their magnificent cities were abandoned. As a result, the citizens migrated away from Egypt to more favourable areas.
The Roman Empire
There have been many theories regarding the decay of the Roman empire, ranging from economic troubles (notably inflation), reliance on slave labour, ineffective leadership and political infighting. It is widely believed that the demise of the Roman Empire was a result of social and political issues.
The Mayan Empire
The exact reason for the collapse of the Mayan empire and its 19 million citizens remains a controversial topic of debate. Theories range from alien invasion to peasant revolt. In Jared Diamond’s 2005 book Collapse, it was proposed that environmental change caused drought followed by deforestation. This theory is backed up by archaeological evidence and scientific data.
Around 1200 AD, Polynesians arrived at Easter Island to find the island heavily wooded. Over the next generations, the island underwent a period of deforestation. In his book Collapse, Jared Diamond describes it as the “clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by over exploiting its own resources.” When Captain James Cook visited the island in 1774, he encountered about 700 islanders whose canoes were made from fragments of driftwood.
In Collapse, Jared Diamond listed the most serious environmental problems facing past societies as:
- Loss of habitat or ecosystem services.
- Loss of biodiversity.
- Soil erosion and degradation.
- Climate change.
- Population growth.
- Human consumption levels.
Although these past civilisations were more sensitive to environmental factors, the cause of their demise applies as much to modern humans as they applied to the Egyptians, the Romans, Mayans and the inhabitants of Easter Island. The reality is that we are not immune to the effects of the world around us. Our modern lives have exposed us to the same risks as these lost civilisations, and in many instances, have made us more vulnerable.