tikal temple

Humans do not only have a detrimental affect on their natural environments, they can also destroy their own civilisation in the process as this short New Scientist article describes:

THE builders of the ancient Mayan temples at Tikal in Guatemala switched to inferior wood a few decades before they suddenly abandoned the city in the 9th century AD. The shift is the strongest evidence yet that Mayan civilisation collapsed because they ran out of resources, rather than, say, disease or warfare.

Researchers led by David Lentz, a palaeoethnobotanist at the University of Cincinnati in Ohio, sampled wooden beams and lintels from all six major temples and two palaces within the ancient city of Tikal. The first three temples, built before AD 741, used only large, straight logs of the sapodilla tree – a particularly strong wood that is nevertheless easy to carve with ceremonial inscriptions.

But after that date, large sapodilla logs were almost entirely replaced in temple construction by logwood, a smaller, gnarly tree that is almost impossible to carve. “It’s definitely an inferior material,” says Lentz, who reasons that the temple-builders would only have accepted logwood if they had run out of suitable sapodilla trees to harvest (Journal of Archaeological Science, DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2009.01.020).

Earlier studies of pollen deposits have suggested that deforestation and soil erosion were increasing in the region as Mayan civilisation neared its collapse. But the temple timbers of Tikal are the first to show that ecological overexploitation directly affected Mayan culture.

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Graywhale entangled in driftnet

Many people in Europe (and in other parts of the world) take their natural environments for granted in terms of believing that their forest, mountain, lake and river wildernesses have remained more or less untouched for hundreds if not thousands of years. That of course is an illusion. Human habitation has always changed the environment, and often very drastically. That goes for the American Indians and Australian Aborigines as much as for the Romans, Greeks and Celts. Animals were hunted to extinction or the brink thereof for food or rituals, and forested areas were denuded to build houses, ships or establish agricultural land. And, as an article in this week’s New Scientist reports, freshwater and marine life shared the same faith.

The article’s conclusion is that humans have been depleting fish stocks not just for decades but for many centuries. This finding is based on a new historical survey undertaken by marine scientists and presented at a conference being held this week in Canada.

“We are discovering that human pressure on marine life was much earlier, much larger and much more significant than previously thought,” says Poul Holm, an environmental historian at Trinity College Dublin in Ireland. “We now know that there was major commercial exploitation of fisheries, doing huge damage to fish populations, back in medieval times and even before. The idea that it is only modern fishing technology that has done damage turns out to be completely wrong.”

The Oceans Past II conference in Vancouver, Canada, is part of the decade-long Census of Marine Life, a global effort to understand the past, present and future of ocean life. The census is due to be completed next year.

To reconstruct the state of the oceans centuries and even millennia ago, researchers are combining population modelling techniques with historical records, such as ships’ logs, restaurant menus, paintings, diaries, legal documents and even tax returns. For example, in 1153 a Moroccan geographer called al-Idris wrote that the north Atlantic Ocean contained “animals of such great size that the inhabitants of islands use the bones and vertebrae in place of wood to build houses”.

Much of the work presented at the conference concludes that fish stocks were already depleted before the industrial exploitation of the 20th century made the situation even worse. “We used to think that if we could get fish stocks back up to the levels of the 1970s we would be well on the way to recovery,” says Holm. This now seems to be an optimistic idea.

James Barrett and Jen Harland of the University of Cambridge reported at the conference that freshwater fisheries in much of Europe were already in decline 1000 years ago, causing fishers to switch to marine fishing. By 1500, says Maria Lucia De Nicolo of the University of Bologna, Italy, coastal fish stocks were disappearing and deep-sea fishing began, with trawling starting in the mid-1600s. By the early 1800s, the once super abundant European herring fishery had collapsed.

Other studies show that whale numbers were also plummeting at this time. By the early 1800s, wind-powered whaling ships had virtually wiped out a population of nearly a million bowhead whales in the eastern Arctic Ocean. Meanwhile, in the 18th century there were an estimated 27,000 southern right whales off New Zealand, but by 1925, before the introduction of factory ships, they had been reduced to about 25 reproducing females, according to Emma Carroll of the University of Auckland.

What that means is not only that a few marine species have gone extinct, but entire marine ecosystems may have been depleted beyond recovery. That does not bode well for the future, especially since nowadays we’re not only confronted by overfishing but also other ecological problems such as the effects of aquaculture, the warming and acidification of oceans or marine pollution. And: we’re not exactly quick learners. Therefore: given that it has taken thousands of years for us to come to a point where our impacts on the natural ecology has become global and ubiquitous, it probably will take at least hundreds of years for the oceans to return to a new equilibrium – and they will be very different then.

[The New Scientist: Human fishing spree goes back 1000 years; Image: Bob Talbot, Marine Photobank]

saint maurice martyrdomIf you wanna make people believe in your message, inflict some form of suffering or deprivation upon yourself – or at least make them think you do so. It’s a powerful strategy religions have applied for thousands of years.

An analysis of behavioural evolution, published recently by Joseph Henrich, an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, shows that acts ranging from martyrdom to austerity being performed by religious leaders strengthen the beliefs of those following them. And the more costly the sacrificial behaviour, the more likely it is to be sincere and the stronger the credibility of the faith of those acting in faith – and vice versa.

None of this provides any proof for the content elements of people’s beliefs; the context just strengthens the imagination. And it still works – just look at the self-sacrifices on the social environments of suicide bombers. Vows of poverty or chastity also are putting their money where their mouth is and therefore too strengthen or at least maintain followers’ faith.

This phenomenon of people’s beliefs being strengthened by a leading example is probably similar to religious beliefs taking hold on some non-believers when helping out believers – perhaps they are impressed by their devotion. Once people believe, they are more likely to perform similar displays themselves.

Under the title Religions owe their success to suffering martyrs, the New Scientist explains that

Henrich created a mathematical model to test his ideas and showed that this self-reinforcing loop can stabilise a system of beliefs and actions, and help them persist through many generations (Evolution and Human Behavior).

This dynamic helps explain why so many religions involve costly renunciations. For example, Henrich notes that the persecution of early Christians by Roman authorities may have spread Christian beliefs by allowing believers to be martyred for their faith – the ultimate credibility-enhancing display.

But the theory of belief-reinforcing-loops is not just valid in religious contexts:

The principle applies to other social movements too. Studies of 19th-century utopian communes such as Hutterites and Shakers show that those making the strictest demands on their followers were most likely to persist, says Henrich. “You can see the changes in action. The number of those costly commitment rituals increases over time.”

Heinrich’s hypothesis still needs to be tested, but intuitively it makes perfect sense. If scientific proof can be found, the New Scientist article’s author ponders whether “churches that liberalise their behavioural codes may be sabotaging themselves by reducing their followers’ commitment”. The line of thought is that the dynamic of self-reinforcing-loops “may explain why strict evangelical Christian churches are expanding in the US at the expense of mainstream denominations”. My question though would be: what do the evangelical leaders sacrifice? They seem to be on the opposite track by amassing fame and fortune, which, if true, shows that believers (followers) can be led in many different ways.

Related articles (not all are accessible for free):

air_icon_specialThe Adobe® AIR™ runtime lets developers use proven web technologies to build rich Internet applications that run outside the browser on multiple operating systems.

  • Go to the Adobe website and download the Adobe Air installation file (no point in using the wget command unless you know the exact download URL, which tends to change) – the name of the installation file will be something like ‘AdobeAIRInstaller.bin’
  • Save this file into your Home folder (/home/{user})
  • Open Terminal from menu (Application > Accessories > Terminal)
  • Run this command: chmod +x AdobeAIRInstaller.bin (substitute file name if necessary)
  • Now run: sudo ./AdobeAIRInstaller.bin (substitute file name if necessary)

This will open the installer; follow the on screen instructions. Once installed just double click any downloaded air file (like Tweetdeck) and it will be installed. Enjoy!

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Thomas Berry died

Posted: June 3, 2009 in society

Thomas BerryThomas Berry, leading ecological thinker, Passionist Catholic priest and world-renowned cultural historian, died Monday at the Well-Spring retirement community. He was 94. Berry’s health had declined over the years and his family expected his death.

Berry has been one of the great minds of the 20th century, and ideas have influenced people across the world, from corporate globalization critic David Korten to Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai of Kenya. Almost his whole life, he has been a student of the earth and the human condition. In particular, he conducted an ongoing study of the ecological nature of Earth, the way everything affects everything else. He realized then that human beings are a part of a larger natural order.

One of his many achievements was to articulate a vision of an approaching “Ecozoic Era” in which human societies would live in a sustainable and mutually beneficial manner with the natural world. But for this to happen, we would have to change our relationship and attitudes to nature by learning to understand it in a new way.

“The catastrophe of our time is the loss of any real human connection to the natural world,” he told a reporter in 2005. “That’s why ecology alone is not the answer because it’s a ‘use’ relationship to the natural world. The earth is saying, ‘You used me.” Trees, birds — all living things — have rights, he wrote. They require that people treat the natural world not as an object, but as a living being. “If nothing has rights but humans, then everything else becomes the victim,” Berry said.

But maybe changes are underway. Berry’s vision certainly played a role in growing concerns about climate change, species loss, and depletion of natural resources; what 30 years ago was a small minority is beginning to transform into a mainstream sustainability movement.

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tiller murder poll

From WorldNetDaily’s unscientific internet poll, headlined, “A VIEW TO A KILL: What’s your reaction to the murder of abortionist George Tiller?”

This post was written and published on the Atheist Revolution blog in March 2009, 2 1/2 months before the appaling murder of Dr. Tiller a couple of days ago. I’ve got noyhing to add – the article says it all.

atheismI was motivated, at least in part, to start Atheist Revolution because I was becoming increasingly frustrated to see politicians and media in the U.S. obsess over Islamic extremism in the Middle East while ignoring Christian extremism at home. In the couple of years since I have been blogging, little has changed. There is still a tendency in the U.S. to see religious extremism as problematic only as long as one’s own religion is exempt from similar examination. Yes, there have been some encouraging signs that people are beginning to wake up, but our work continues.

There is little doubt that Islamic extremism currently poses a serious threat in the world today. Driven by the desire to see a Muslim caliphate and immunized against reason by an ancient religion that offers certainty and opposes critical analysis, Muslim extremists deserve the fearful attention they are receiving around the world.

At the same time, the problem must be recognized as being one of religious extremism which is not necessarily limited to Islam. Right here in the U.S., for example, we endured 8 years under a regime, headed by a Christian extremist, which committed countless human rights abuses, including but not limited to torture. Our civil liberties were rolled back as we were shamelessly manipulated by fear and lies. Science and medicine were damaged, as was our international standing. Our economy continues to reel as the costs of trickle-down economics and lax regulation is felt by a large enough portion of the population that it can no longer escape notice.

Would these abuses have occurred without the influence of Christian extremism? We do not know. What we do know is that they were committed by someone who claimed to receive his marching orders from the Christian god.

The subject of Christian terrorism is not one we hear much about. We know that acts of Christian terrorism occur, but we tend to see them as fairly isolated acts perpetrated by especially deranged individuals and regard them as far less dangerous than their more highly organized, militaristic, and highly funded Islamic counterparts.

To be sure, the lone Christian terrorist deserves our attention. However, there is a different sort of Christian terrorism that is far better organized, far more militaristic, and better funded than even the Islamic versions which we so love to despise. When acts of international terrorism are paid for by U.S. taxpayers, supported by U.S. politicians, and justified by Christian leaders within and without our government, it is difficult not to regard them as acts of Christian terrorism.

Consider the following contenders for the label of Christian terrorism:

It is not necessary to claim that religion causes terrorism; it is enough to see how much more dangerous religious motivation makes potential terrorists. Christian terrorism should not be ignored.