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Deserted cities

Written By: - Date published: 8:50 am, December 13th, 2009 - 38 comments
Categories: Deep stuff, Environment - Tags:

I think it is a pity that the currently dominant country / culture in the world, America, has had such a short history. Pakeha history in New Zealand suffers from the same limitation. All of our history has been about expansion and growth. “Progress”. It seems to us to be the natural state of affairs.

In many other countries people grow up in the shadow of a much longer history. Sometimes literally amidst the ruins of once great cities and empires. I visited a few many years ago. Vijayanagar, for example, was the seat of a South Indian empire from 1336 to 1646. The ruins of the city today are spread over 26 sq km. Temples, palaces, stables, tanks, siphons and pipework, chariots, markets – much of it still well preserved, much of it fading back into the harsh, red, rocky landscape.

Vijayanagar

Fatehpur Sikri was the capital of a Mughal empire, founded in 1570. It is a smaller site, and so perfect that it might have been abandoned just yesterday. This city was never sacked by war, it was simply evacuated by its people, abandoned just 15 years after it was built when the water supply failed. No water no people, just an empty city.

Fatehpur-Sikri

Such places impressed on me, in a way that growing up in NZ never had, that our civilisations and their works are both fragile and temporary. And I think the fact that too many people in the world today are missing this gut level understanding is one of the things that makes it so hard for us to address the global challenge of climate change. Too many people simply can’t believe, can’t even imagine, that the world that they see around them could suddenly and catastrophically change. It seems ludicrous, impossible, so those who say it is going to happen simply must be wrong. Because I have never broken my leg, my leg is unbreakable!

Well. Just rambling on a Sunday. But I wish that folk who can’t or won’t believe in the threat of global warming could spend time wandering in some of the ruined cities of the world. Or perhaps even just read Collapse (by Jared Diamond). I can’t help but wonder sometimes (when I am in a city) whether 500 years from now the people will be exploring our ruins. And if so, what they will think of us.

38 comments on “Deserted cities”

  1. Andrei 1

    They quite possibly be amazed that we threw our civilization away on the basis of the basis superstition, AGW.

    • Draco T Bastard 1.1

      It’s the deniers such as yourself that are delusional. The evidence is quite clear but you’re going around denying it. In 500 years I suspect that they’ll be asking why we took so long to do anything (we knew we had to do something back in the early 1970s) and then they’ll come across posts like yours and wonder why the rest of us were held to ransom by people who were obviously mentally ill.

      • bill 1.1.1

        Be fair DTB. We must all be mad buggers or else we would never have been arriving at this situation in the first place.

        On the action/inaction front. What’s the name of the guy who did the ‘Right Authoritarian’ studies? From memory, he shows that voters (authoritarian followers) vote in representatives (authoritarians) and that authoritarians are the worst possible person type with regards getting it together with others to sort shit out. The second worst are authoritarian followers (wishy washy can’t decide when and how to take action types….must be told what to do)

        And in 500 years I doubt if there would have been people around to wander through ruins at liesure regardless of climate change.

        • Draco T Bastard 1.1.1.1

          When presented with the wrong information we tend to make the wrong decisions which is why we’re where we are today. Wrong information such as the Catholic Church’s condemnation of contraception and peoples belief that they can have as many children as they like. Both of these fallacies and a few others have been pushed onto us by politics, business and church’s. Now, and for a few decades, we’ve been slowly realising through the help of science that these are complete BS and making changes.

          Now the CCDs are pushing another fallacy upon us against all the evidence and, unfortunately, our political leaders are either listening to them or actually are them.

          • Bill 1.1.1.1.1

            It might surprise you ( I suspect it will), But it was not just the Catholics who espoused the idea of out breading competitors.

            Some notable anarchists did too.

            See. There was a time when the orthodoxy maintained that genes (or bloodlines) were determinant factors.

            So the Catholics were not unusual or peculiar when seen in contemporaneous context.

            • Draco T Bastard 1.1.1.1.1.1

              Still doesn’t make it anything less than false information and no, it doesn’t surprise me. Many cultures still have the concept of having many children to prove yourself a man etc.

          • Andrei 1.1.1.1.2

            It is actually an individuals responsibility to raise the next generation.

            You are supposed to have children and bring them up and if people don’t they die out. This is not rocket science

            • Draco T Bastard 1.1.1.1.2.1

              There’s a difference between ensuring the next generation and over population. The world is now over populated by some 6 billion people. As you say, it’s not rocket science but you still don’t get it.

    • QoT 1.2

      Threw our civilisation away? If your idea of our “civilisation” is one based on burning fossil fuels and pillaging the planet’s natural resources, I have no problem with binning it and starting over.

  2. Draco T Bastard 2

    Haven’t read Collapse yet but I’m presently reading <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Tainter"Joseph Tainter's Collapse of Complex Societies

  3. Draco T Bastard 3

    Gah, spam blocked

  4. Olwyn 4

    I couldn’t agree more rOb; and would add to that weak sense of history (History is bunk – Henry Ford), the idea of infinite resource. While we no longer think that resources are infinite, much of our thinking follows from a time in which it seemed that way.

  5. Marty G 5

    fantastic post, r0b.

  6. outofbed 6

    500 years ? won’t the “rapture” have happened by then ?

  7. andy 7

    Detroit is a living example of an abandoned industrial city, Johannesburg SA next. IMO.

  8. rainman 8

    It’s going to be interesting to see just how rapidly our suburban infill de-skilled car culture declines, as oil becomes scarce. Won’t have to wait 500 years for that either – it’s likely to be fairly soon.

    Be nice if we had some real political leadership around here, to drive along some central mitigation activities. Sigh.

    You’re spot on about the lack of history, btw.

  9. Rob 9

    The thing that always strikes me most about books like Collapse is when the cultures collapsed. Always only a few years after their peak. Building their greatest structures, having the greatest feasts and showing off their wealth. That in its turn was what killed them. It seems to me this is what we are constantly trying to do now. Build the tallest buildings, the fastest planes the greatest of everything possible with our current technology ignoring the effects of it. How many abandoned construction programs have there been around the world now leaving the people surrounding them desolate?

    We need to concentrate on living as best we can not merely showing as best as we can. Maybe then we can make some progress on issues like climate change and poverty.

    • Olwyn 9.1

      rainman & Rob: One has to look at how many of these dependencies were inflicted upon people by vested interests, rather than welcomed with open arms. I have been told that in the early days of universalising the car, firms such as Ford bought up public transport systems in American towns and destroyed them, so that the people would be pressed into buying cars. And here in NZ there are areas in West Auckland and Manukau that were not built to be communities, but car dependent outposts. It often makes me angry when I hear petrol-head West Auckland jokes – they have had no bloody choice in the matter. I agree with you entirely Rob, that we would be better changing our focus for progress in the manner you prescribe, and with you too rainman, that this requires political leadership.

  10. outofbed 10

    I see that there are so many denier groups out there
    that an umbrella group has been formed
    It called ESCHEWED
    which I am reliably informed stands for
    Empirical SCience, Holocaust,Engineers,Warming,Evolution Deniers

    One group to bind them and in the darkness.blind them is the motto

  11. Zaphod Beeblebrox 11

    Diamond also points out that after the fall, some societies reach an equilibrium point where they learn to live in a way that allows their consumption to equal what nature can create itself over a period of time. This is invariably a much lower standard of living than at their peak.

    So its probable that our grandchildren will have to live with a much diminished GDP and quality of life. This is similar to what happened to Maori who wiped out most of their food supply (easy to hunt giant birds) and were forced to survive on scavenging shellfish and cannabilism by the Seventeenth Century. Who knows what would have happened to Maori if they remained isolated until the present day.

    The greatest survivors were the Australian Aboriginals who managed to survive in equilibrium in probably one of the harshest environments imaginable for 30,000 years.

  12. Jenny 12

    Rob, I agree with your point that what people thought was permanent could actually be pretty impermanent. The thing about these society’s collapses was that without the benefit of modern science they never saw it coming.

    Whereas apart from the wilful deniers, and the genuinely ignorant, we are aware of what will occur if we don’t change our ways.

    (Those I term wilful deniers are those in the pay of those with a vested interest in polluting who out of self interest, choose to ignore the predictive power of the scientific studies, or even claim as they recently have, that these studies were forged as part of some liberal conspiracy).

    Unlike previously failed civilisations, we still have a chance to protect and preserve the best of existing human development for future generations, rather than suffer the total apocalyptic infrastructural collapse, and a new savage dark age.

    Tha is if we act now.

    For the leaders in Copenhagen to decide on anything less than the maximum needed to prevent the coming calamity would be irresponsible. And in my opinion would disqualify them from leading.

    Rob I can’t help but wonder if the people of those ancient societies that you mention, could have taken the necessary actions to prevent the calamity that was about to befall them, would have taken those actions, if they had had the benefit of the pre warnings similar to the ones that we have had. I suspect they would have.

    What do you think?

    • r0b 12.1

      Hi Jenny. My guess is it varied. Those at Pompeii had no idea a volcano was going to wipe them out. Those on Easter Island knew very well they were cutting down the last of the trees (but they did it anyway). And surely many endings were foreseen and averted, as civilisations lasted for centuries.

      As to the future, seems to me the same possibilities apply. If the Earth ever gets hit by a big enough asteroid that’s just game over. Global warming on, the other hand, can be averted. In theory. I’m not so confident that it will be averted in practice…

      • Bill 12.1.1

        Oh ffs

        The privileged didn’t want to give up their position of privilege. This goes for any culture or any society past and present and it’s really fucking naive to lump everyone together in to (say) Easter Islanders or whatever. I mean, who the fuck do you think was left behind. More to the point. Who the fuck do you think got places in those last ocean going canoes?

        And when do you think they left?

        At any point before the last conceivable moment ( ie when their position of privilege was patently unsustainable)?

        And if there was nowhere to go do you think that that last conceivable moment would have shifted in time? Or would events have simply continued to evolve/devolve/degenerate?

        And since we are handing over a possible departure to our accepted or habitual ways of living to a privileged few ( our elected and materially rewarded representatives…..who serve not our interests but the interests of business elites ie market imperatives.) do you honestly believe that they will abandon their privileged status any sooner than the escaping elites of Easter Island?

        And since our elites and privileged can’t just paddle their way out of this (this really is a collective shit creek with no paddle!) , what chance you say for any modicum of modernity being preserved?

  13. Lanthanide 13

    The tagline of the final episode of Six Feet Under: Everything. Everyone. Everywhere. Ends.

    I like to do a thought experiment and try to imagine things around us ending. Try and imagine how your house comes to its end – is it a house fire in 2 years time, a tsunami in 22 years time, knocked down to build a new commercial complex in 29 years time, or scavenged by people looking for scrap material in 38 years time? How will your computer desk end? How will a company like Microsoft or Google end? How will the company you work at end?

    • Jenny 13.1

      We should all do as much we humanly can to prevent to it.

      But as an interesting thought experiment everyone should look in their hearts and ask themselves where would they go if the world was about to end?

      The answer will tell you why we should fight so hard to prevent it.

  14. Kezia 14

    By ‘America’ I assume you mean the United States. America, as in the American continent, has quite a long and distinguished history. And while the presence of ruins are not and shouldn’t be prerequisites for ‘civilisation’ status, I think you’ll find the American continent has many.

    I get what you’re trying to express with this post, but the way you’ve framed it is a bit offensive. We, in New Zealand, are growing up in the shadow of a long history. Just because there aren’t ruins everywhere doesn’t make that untrue.

    • r0b 14.1

      Beg your pardon Kezia, no intention to offend. I did try to be clear that it is Pakeha history in NZ that is short. Of course there is a longer history here, but Pakeha mostly have very little knowledge of it.

      • vto 14.1.1

        Pakeha history is relatively short in NZ but it is not short. Maori history in NZ is also relatively short.

        • Galeandra 14.1.1.1

          ‘History’ in a narrow nationalistic sense is an artifact. Surely by now it’s possible for us all to ‘own’ a sense of the deep past and our genetic & cultural place within it?
          If we do foment that sense of value, we may be willing to work harder to hold ALL of modern civilisation intact.

          Then the glibness of all the Andreis out there: “They quite possibly be amazed that we threw our civilization away on the basis of the basis superstition, AGW.” will find its answer.

          They, whoever they might be, will certainly notice the lack of water and other life resources, the vanished species, the slow holocaust of millions upon millions of people as human habitat shrank. The article in today’s Sunday Star Times “Following The River Of Sorrow” ( about current glacial melt in Nepal and sedimentation of cropland etc) is an article to read and to weep.
          The smart arsery of the Andreis is sociopathically sick in the light of the flow of information about the current manifestation of climate issues.
          A thoughtful post, rOb.
          Well done.

      • Deus In Machina 14.1.2

        well, technically maori history is exactly as long as pakeha history. History is by definition recorded, before that it was Maori pre-history which relies mainly on archeology and study of culture.

  15. Like its 1999

    captcha – unwanted

  16. Jenny 16

    Hear, hear.

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