Wise to study lessons of history - The Explorer: Editorials

Wise to study lessons of history

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Posted: Wednesday, January 6, 2010 12:00 am | Updated: 8:11 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

In October I visited Chaco Canyon in northwestern New Mexico for the first time.

It's a beautiful setting, with tall, sharp walls rising from the canyon floor and the kind of scrub brush desolation typical of the Southwest. What makes the canyon worth the visit are the Native American ruins, the remnants of a complex society that began around 600 A.D., flourished between 800 and 1200 A.D., then simply disappeared, leaving little more than buildings behind.

But what buildings! The major site in the canyon is a stone structure, once five to six stories tall and containing something like 600 rooms. Nearly as amazing is the system of roads – most are only visible from the air – in the canyon and outlying areas. The hundreds of miles of carefully engineered roads are 15 to 30 feet wide and almost perfectly straight, making sharp angled turns when they change direction.

Most probably, Chaco was the spiritual, political and economic center of an interdependent network of settlements scattered around the area. Yet, for all its organization and sophistication, the society collapsed abruptly and completely, as did a number of similar societies in the Four Corners area, usually referred to collectively as the Anasazi.

I'm reading the book, "Collapse," by Jared Diamond, a Pulitzer Prize-winning professor of geography, which looks at Chaco along with other societies around the world that grew, flourished and collapsed.

The reasons Diamond gives for Chaco's collapse and that of many other societies are convincing, fascinating and sobering. As Chaco's society grew, it exploited its fragile natural resources as if they were infinite and assumed environmental good times would go on forever. Its population grew to the limits of what could be sustained under the best of circumstances in the arid, unforgiving Southwest. Then a 50-year drought hit in the middle 1100s. The result was famine, internal warfare, death and chaos. Those who survived abandoned the area and moved on.

It's all too easy to draw a parallel between Chaco's growth and collapse in its small, fragile ecosystem and our current situation, not in the Southwest, but over the entire fragile skin of our planet.

We've become a vast, mutually dependent system of villages interconnected by highways and sea lanes and flight paths. We can communicate across the globe faster than someone in Chaco could send a message to a village a mile away.

We seem determined to extract every drop of oil and every ounce of valuable mineral from the ground, acting as if the earth's resources are infinite. We cut down our forests. We over-farm our arable land. Our technology allows us to plunder resources and alter our environment at a speed unimaginable even a century ago.

Are we doomed to meet a fate similar to the inhabitants of the Chaco area? Not necessarily. We're quantum leaps above them in technological and scientific sophistication. We may figure out a way to pull back from the brink.

History never repeats itself exactly. Too many variables come into play. But as Mark Twain once commented, "History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme."

Chaco had abundant pinyon pine and juniper woodlands nearby. Reasonable management could have eased their fate. But they cut down every tree without concern for the future. If they were alone in their foolishness, we could ignore it, but others have done the same, all over the world.

The inhabitants of Chaco wisely built rock dams to make maximum use of the sparse, scattered rainfall to grow food. But their population grew to unsustainable levels in the wet years. When the rains stopped falling, the dams were useless.

We may have advanced technologically, but we're the same shortsighted humans who populated the Chaco area a millennium ago. Making the most of what we have today is far more attractive to us than worrying about tomorrow.

Though history may not repeat itself, we would be wise to study the lessons it offers us.

Dave Safier is a regular contributor to Blog for Arizona.

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