Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Hurricane Sandy and the collapse of the Maya

On our whacked society
So, there are those enlightened members among us who have declared in their wisdom that hurricane Sandy is God's punishment for our tolerance of gays, for Obama (naturally--he's the wrong color), for our loose morals, and I forget what else (maybe too many liberals).  What an insight!

This hurricane sent by divine wisdom to punish us for allowing gay marriage was not aimed very precisely, however, and one wonders at His supposed omniscience.  After all, the people displaced or killed were mainly not gay couples or people sinning by the various means suggested.  They were just folks, minding their own business.  That suggests a God who's like a surgeon working with a band saw.  Can't He target his gales and floods to those who really deserve it?  I mean, some whole states that are under water and wind don't even allow the mortal sin of gay marriage.  We should expect more skill from the entity supposedly to be our savior!

Why do we bother to maintain schools in this country?  Obviously, the lessons are not sinking in.  After all, 40% or more of our citizenry thinks evolution didn't happen, and liken Darwin's ideas to misleading fantasies such as the idea of an Easter bunny (like fossils, those eggs in your lawn on Easter were just laid there to mislead you).  Maybe God Himself hasn't got much of an education, as his skill level in aiming floods and hurricanes is about equivalent to  many people who have college degrees these days, perhaps reflecting the slipping standards we in the profession have tolerated.  One begins to wonder whether the Noachian flood was really meant just to drown the Pharaoh's troops or something.  Maybe the Red Sea parted too early and should have drowned the Jews.  Who knows what blunders have been recorded as miracles?

On the other hand, there are those who are saying, after this recent flood, "WHY AREN'T PEOPLE  PAYING ATTENTION??  THIS PROVES WHAT WE'VE BEEN SAYING ABOUT GLOBAL WARMING!!"   Well, this, too reeks of ideology and tribalism, the tendency to see in an event support for one's favorite group's  pre-existing biases.  Does the tidal surge that caused so much damage on the East coast bode poorly for the future, on the grounds of human-induced global warming?  In fact, that does seem to us to be plausible -- certainly more plausible than the idea that the hurricane was God's wrath -- and the extent of the damage could be viewed as a warning sign.  Some analysis seems to suggest that the tide was higher by a foot or so as a result of global warming, than it would have been from the same storm a century ago.  Indeed, the equation that suggests that climate change is exacerbating extreme weather takes into account more moisture in the air, warmer ocean temperatures and so on -- here's an explanation of this.  But one swallow doesn't make a spring and whether this one storm should be given much if any weight, on its own, in the global warming dialog is a relevant question.

The Mayan collapse
The climate-change argument to account for Sandy's destructiveness raises an interesting thing to think about, over and above whether it is evidence of human-caused climate change (or God's wrath).

Archeologists wonder and debate about the causes of the disappearance of major civilizations, of which there are many instances.  One on the American landscape was the collapse of major Mayan urban centers in Central America.  These had declined and largely been deserted, at least as major urban centers, by the time the Spanish arrived--that is, they were not, as were the Aztecs, done in by Spanish swords or by new diseases.

What caused the abandonment of the Mayan cities?  Was it war, a catastrophic event, a decimating conquest?  Or was it gradual, over many generations, due to the diminution of the soil or climate for supporting agriculture?  If slow, did the Mayans even know it was happening, or did each generation just do as best it could, not realizing the decline in population and so on? 

We might get a hint from Sandy and global warming debates.  What if there are more and more frequent incidents like Sandy in the next few years?  Unlike priests who may blame this on the cursed sinfulness of New Yorkers (which is a true characterization of them even if unrelated to hurricanes), climate scientists might correctly blame it on global warming.  At some point, even current skeptics would begin wondering what to do to keep from ruining their shoes several times a year.

A major company might be the first to decide that at the price of sandbags, the cost of staying in Manhattan was no longer good business, and would move to, say, Cleveland where such disasters don't seem imminent.  Banks and the stock exchange might decide to move to greener pastures, so to speak, like Omaha, where George Soros lives and seems to have done very well.  The entertainment media might move to Dallas or Minneapolis.  Once enough major companies did this, in the following decade other large entities might follow suit.  Starbucks and McD would be out of customers, and would close their doors.  Nobody would be there to see Macy's Christmas displays, so they'd move to St Louis.  There could be a kind of sheep-like trend-following by which those entities just decided to do as others have done, with or without good reasons of their own.  Or, it could become apparent that the gravitational center of the whatever-business universe had moved and that anyone hoping to make it in that business had to move to where the action was.

Fencing off of abandoned buildings, closing some subway lines or even, say, the lower tip of Manhattan, could lead the movement of even more away from the City.  After a few decades, New York could become a virtual ghost town.

Of course, we keep extensive records of what we're doing, so unlike our difficulty deconstructing what happened in Central America, future historians of the 4th millennium might know what happened here directly.  Or, records could be lost and they might have to make the  kinds of guesses about New York that archeologists today make about the Mayans:  What happened to the New York civilization to lead to its collapse?  Indeed, if the climate argument is correct, the east coast concentrations of buildings might go the way of Atlantis, submerged into mythology.

Whatever the reason, if there is any particular long-term reason, for what Sandy did, it may give a hint of how events that everyone was aware of at the time led to gradual abandonment of former civilization centers, that thousands of years later could look like sudden catastrophes.

Maybe the Mayans blamed their droughts on God's anger, too.  But whether the reason was that  they had allowed gay marriage is something one can only speculate about.

1 comment:

Anne Buchanan said...

A preview of New York City in the year 2200?