Sunday, 15 September 2013

The Maya Experience

I just recently had the joy of visiting the Mexican Yucatan Peninsula, taking two weeks to travel around some well-known wonders of the world as well as some lesser-known hidden gems. Throughout my travels, I was surrounded by a rich history of Maya culture - a civilisation which has intrigued me since my early ventures into the world of sustainability.

As a student, I was always left wondering about the mystery of the collapse of the 'Classic Maya Civilisation'. The culture bloomed around the years of 200AD - 900AD, where the Mayans settled themselves as early masters of astronomy, mathematics and architecture. Did you know the Maya developed the concept of 'zero'... such a basic principle which underpins our own society. Even the Romans didn't think of that one!

Chichen Itza Pyramid of Kukulkan - an architectural marvel
In terms of architecture, the Maya built their temples with state of the art acoustics in mind. Not only with amplification of sound across unimaginable distances, but also with the ability to replicate the sound of the Quetzal Bird which was sacred to the Maya. Don't believe me, try clapping your hands at the foot of Chichen Itza's Pyramid of Kukulkan.

But Chichen Itza was only the (rather touristy) cherry on top of the cake. The deeper into the jungle you go, the more marvels you see. The site of Palenque, my personal favourite, has barely even been excavated from within the jungle's hold, and yet you can still sense how far the Mayans had come by this point. A civilisation at it's peak.

But what comes up must come down? Or so that is what my previous studies of the Maya had taught me...
Uxmal - Chaac rain god

Indeed the Maya then went through a heavy decline. The reason(s) for this have yet to be fully concluded but the population was growing at an alarming rate and resource use was increasing alongside. Here follows humanity's self-destructive nature... Deforestation is estimated to have played an important role in the civilisation's demise. As cities grew and expanded, competition and warfare ignited over resources. Jared Diamond in 'Collapse: How Societies Chose to Fail and Succeed' provides an interesting framework for collapse of great societies, including the Maya, noting the impacts of environmental damage, climate change (especially a lack of water), internal hostilities and political / cultural factors.

I could go into detail into the possible causes of this decline, however this would contradict one of the most important lessons I learnt. While I went to Mexico armed with this pre-meditated idea of the 'Mayan Collapse', I very soon realised that 'collapse' is not the right word... because collapse implies total failure. And yet the Maya culture and the Maya people are still very evidently present, with around 6 million living in Central America. There are around 30 Maya dialects still spoken, traditional native religions are still practiced, as well as various traditions (especially in weaving and textiles).

Had I not gone to Mexico, I would have written a lessons learnt story about a powerful civilisation destroyed by a lack of resilience, but I now feel this would be an injustice to this society. Obviously, there is still something to be understood from the decline of this prominent society, and this is something which I will touch on at a later date with examples of other great civilisations. For the moment though, I would prefer to focus on the fact that this culture, although significantly diminished, has survived the odds.

While it is easy to focus on the decline, I think there is a lot to be said for adaptability to changing political and cultural environments, whether from the Spanish Conquest or the current tourist trade.  And while we no longer live in a world where single civilisations grow independent of others (and where world cultures are more often than not integrated into one another) there's also a lot to learn from the innovation which this society was founded on.

Adaptability, resilience and innovation. I will touch on these subjects in relation to current civilisations at a later date. In the meantime... Dios bo'otik.

Palenque view from high on up - worth the climb!

Saturday, 1 June 2013

The ethereal nature of sustainability.

I was having an interesting discussion the other day on green buildings, when I was suddenly made witness to some jarring words. Uttered by a fellow sustainability enthusiast, I have to admit this statement snapped me out of my comfort zone:

"The word 'sustainability' doesn't actually mean anything."

I should provide some context; this was not meant in any way to deny sustainability any meaning, but was instead referring to the difficulty in pinning the concept down. Nonetheless, I couldn't help be disappointed by this choice of words.

Granted, sustainability IS difficult to grasp in any tangible form. Mostly, I'd argue, because it means so many different things to different people. If you consider sustainability by its three grounding elements (for those who haven't been keeping up, those are environment, society and economy), then that makes it rather all-encompassing! And what does a vision of sustainability look like? This will obviously change depending on whose behalf you are considering this question... your company, your country, your family, your home?

Safety, equilibrium, potential, innovation, logic, altruism, Masdar... these are just some of the words I associate with sustainability. You probably would take a different angle.

So why would sustainability not mean anything. Surely, it's the complete opposite, it does mean anything. It could even mean everything. The only thing that could limit your vision is your own perspective. (And note, I'm referring to the concept of sustainability here, not the approach to achieving it, which is significantly more constrained in reality). It all comes back to whether the glass is half full or half empty...

That is why I find those words upsetting. Vision precedes action. If sustainability doesn't mean anything, then what are we actually working towards. How can any positive concept be brought to life from a negative standpoint. I know I'm most likely being pedantic here, that person probably just used those words without thinking, and I don't want to assume I understand how that individual sees sustainability.  But it does bring to light an interesting question... how do people actually envision sustainability? And how do we make sure sustainability doesn't become something so ethereal that nobody believe they can strive to achieve it?

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Shake... and fold.

This will blow your mind away... You will watch all 4 minutes and 28 seconds of this and you will think: "Well yeah duh, I didn't need you to do a presentation to tell me that I can use less paper towels." BUT THEN... you will find yourself in the public restrooms of your choice the following day, and as you wash your hands it will dawn on you like a message from the gods.

Shake... and fold.

Note 1: I've tested it and 10 shakes also does the trick in case you are in a hurry or do not wish to appear like you are having a fit in front of friends or colleagues.

Note 2: I hope his next presentation covers the problem of removing paper towels from dodgy dispensers. Such a pain when you pull the sheet and it rips in half.

Note 3: If you're wondering whether I am absolutely serious about this or whether I am taking the piss, I'll have to get back to you as I am not entirely certain myself.