At 100 seconds to midnight, the Doomsday Clock is closer than ever to the end, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists reported. Threats of nuclear war and climate change—and their ineffective prevention—are to blame. Can we learn from past civilizations?
According to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Doomsday Clock, since it was first debuted in 1947, is at its closest point to reaching midnight—representing a symbolic way of tracking the end of humanity. While nuclear war and devastating climate change are two of the biggest threats to the human race, they’re multiplied by “cyber-enabled information warfare” and the fact that “world leaders have allowed the international political infrastructure for managing them to erode.”
Most major religions have some kind of belief regarding the end of the world; secularists consider such scientific hypotheses as the Sun burning out or causing extinction-level solar flares. While nobody can predict the future, we often state the importance of learning from past mistakes. Some of our greatest societies have fallen to ruin, offering guidelines on what to avoid.
To Ur Is Human
The city of Ur in Mesopotamia was one of the earliest cities to develop, once humanity developed agriculture—even known as the home of Abraham in Abrahamic faiths—and yet, it suffered an unpleasant fate.
“The short of it is that shifting climate patterns and an overuse of resources and the land pushed people to migrate further from the region,” said Dr. Scott M. Lacy, Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Fairfield University. “Abraham, for example, moved northwest to Haran and then southwest from there into Canaan. But then, Ur was abandoned and left for ruins in B.C.E. 4th century—ruins that wouldn’t be uncovered and restored to the historical record for a couple thousand years.”
Although we often think of great cities and civilizations falling to war, Ur’s abandonment was far less violent and far more subtle. However, despite its prosperity, Ur may as well have never existed, until evidence of the city was found after several millennia.
“One of human’s first urban centers could have been wiped from history; yet through archaeology, we recreate their story,” Dr. Lacy said. “If we’re wise, we’ll note that the shifting climate and Ur’s unsustainable consumption of natural resources almost erased this important city from our history books.”
“In the heart of the Mississippi Valley, not far from modern-day St. Louis, a great civilization was born,” Dr. Lacy said. “For millennia, the climate record shows that the Cahokia site experienced violent and frequent floods. Then, as these floods tapered off, people settled what would become the magnificent Cahokia—humans were quick to dig in and cultivate the rich, local soil once the floods primed the region for human settlements.”
According to Dr. Lacy, the population boomed and by the mid-11th century, Cahokia was the first well-known mega city in North America. In fact, Cahokian civilization became so great that the citizens built pyramids that rival those in Egypt and wooden equivalents of Stonehenge.
“But with every house, temple, and wood henge built with wood, Cahokians eventually depleted the forests that supported the rapid rise of this civilization,” Dr. Lacy said. “It was this deforestation that altered the Cahokia watershed, bringing back the unforgiving floods.”
Like a children’s fable, Cahokia is a cautionary tale of irony and overindulgence—in this case, one that remained lost until the 20th century.
“The collapse of Cahokia is certainly a complex phenomenon, but there’s no doubt that deforestation and the return of violent floods undermined everything that once made it the largest North American city on record, a title it held all the way up until the 1700s with Philadelphia,” Dr. Lacy said.
“Unlike Philadelphia, though, Cahokia vanished from history.”
Dr. Scott M. Lacy contributed to this article. Dr. Lacy is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Fairfield University in Connecticut, where he teaches anthropology, environmental studies, and black studies courses. He earned his Ph.D. in Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.