Sustainability is not a new and innovative ideology, but rather a reclaimed way of thinking. Research suggests that in earlier civilizations, several communities practiced sustainable lifestyles, thus laying the foundation for this reclaimed movement. For example the Mayan civilizations are considered today as sustainability pioneers.
While sustainability appeared to draw little to no attention for the past centuries, fast forward to today, sustainable lifestyles have found new importance due to the growing awareness of the consequences of our global anthropogenic activities such as climate change.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s definition of sustainability is “to create and maintain conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and environmental requirements of present and future generations” (Arzate, 2019). Social sustainability is defined as a social system functioning at a level of indefinite social well-being while simultaneously preserving cultural diversity. Economic sustainability involves the ability to sustain economic production through eco-conscious practices and often includes employment security and community continuity. Environmental sustainability revolves around the notion of maintaining renewable resources, protecting non-renewable resources, and reducing pollution to levels that sustain and/or improve biodiversity and ecosystem integrity (Arzate, 2019).
Though practices aligned with the three pillars of sustainability (environmental, social, and economic) are often seen as more contemporary practices and creative mindsets, this way of thinking is far from new. The ancient Mayan civilization followed this way of thinking for centuries. The region spanned Mesoamerica located across Mexico and Central America (Miller, 2022). This civilization dates all the way back to 1800 B.C. with its prime during 250-900 A.D. (Miller, 2022). The largest cities supported in this era included Caracol and Calakmul which supported up to 120,000 people (The World Org, 2021). These cities flourished due to the sustainable practices that the Mayans established and practiced that corresponded with the three pillars of sustainability. The discoveries of this innovative thinking were found through years of research involving archaeology, geography, pedology, ecology, paleoenvironmental research, agroforestry, and the analysis of flora and fauna remains (Arzate, 2019). Through this research, we can draw inspiration from their thinking that worked for centuries and evaluate how to implement this mindset in today’s world.
Despite lacking a modern economy, the Mayans were able to support economic sustainability in their own way. Through their avant-garde approach to agriculture, the creation and maintenance of numerous jobs were upheld in this era. This form of employment contributed to a greater sense of economic sustainability as it supported local residents while maintaining a sense of employment security.
Social Sustainability and Urban Planning
Mayan civilizations are also considered sustainability pioneers because they were extremely innovative in the way they planned cities. Their systems often involved what was called “solars” which were essentially these units of about 250-1000 square meters that were curated around the support of maintaining social relationships (La Vaca Independiente, 2021). Each unit included a personal agriculture plot which was often used to grow extra food, herbs, and plants used for medicinal purposes. These gardens were naturally fertilized with human and animal feces along with compost from kitchen scraps (Arzate, 2019). These personal gardens along with the city’s large agricultural plots allowed these cities to be what we now call “garden cities” (Arzate, 2019). This mix of green space encouraged carbon absorption reducing the effects of carbon emissions and aiding with water filtration. This structure is something to be admired and considered for modern cities. This garden maintenance also supported social sustainability as it often included everyone in the cities. They also included small homesteads supporting animal rearing for animal products and a kitchen for cooking to support the Mayan diet. These solars were created surrounding social circles to encourage interaction often for families but sometimes including neighbors and friends.
What is also very special about Mayan practices is that they often settled in places with limited surface water and thus decided to come together to build these cities so everyone could support everyone. They did this by creating large reservoirs that were deep enough to sustain these cities during the dry seasons. The Mayans understanding of ecosystem services are also apparent in areas such as this as they truly understood the interactions of local flora and fauna and used it to their advantage to create a wetland biosphere to keep the water clean and sanitary to drink and use (The World Org, 2021). The Mayans demonstrated their true understanding of the value of social circles, and interconnectedness all while preserving the environment.
These cities have already thoroughly demonstrated their knowledge and appreciation for sustainability but this understanding is much more profound. From the way the Mayans preserved the rainforests to their creation of the hillside agriculture plots, it is evident that they chose to work with the land rather than just use it for their advantage. Through archeological research, it has become known that the Mayans would clear parts of the rainforest for agricultural purposes but over time would control-burn these plots to restore the ground’s carbon and encourage rainforest regrowth before moving on to a new space (Miller, 2022). They also choose not to engage with monocropping in following a system similar to what is known now as “the three sisters”: an indigenous practice that understands how different crops flourish and support each other. They also created these mountainous agriculture plots in step-like terraces that utilized a space that was otherwise incapable of development which can be seen in Figure 2 (Arzate, 2019). This practice then maximized space while converting the land into a carbon sink as well as reducing the risk of erosion. They were also known to create plots of farmland floating in lakes to utilize fish waste and algae as nutrients to grow foods(Arzate, 2019). The Mayans acknowledged their need to eat and hunt but managed to do it with high consideration for the land and knew not to overuse or over consume. These considerations allowed these cities to thrive for centuries.
The ancient civilizations of the Mayans are so fascinating and are such an inspiration for modern environmentalists and urban planners. The way they navigated the land without causing any damage and allowed the environment to thrive is something to admire, and clearly explains why researchers suggest Mayan civilizations as sustainability pioneers. After the industrial revolution, the anthropogenic actions of modern societies have caused astronomical damage to the environment almost to an irreparable threshold. More than ever, we as a global community need to look back on tried and true practices and find ways to implement them in our modern world.
Arzate Santillan, M. G. (2019). Ancient Maya Sustainability: A Review of Past Data. McNair Summer Research Institute.
Lvi. (2021, April 12). Sustainable practices from the Maya World. La Vaca Independiente. Retrieved from https://lavacaindependiente.com/en/sustainable-practices-from-the-maya-world/
Miller, M. (2022, June 24). Ancient maya used sustainable farming, forestry for millennia. UC News. Retrieved from https://www.uc.edu/news/articles/2022/06/ancient-maya-used-sustainable-farming-forestry-for-millennia.html
Scientists turn to the ancient Mayans for lessons on Sustainability. The World from PRX. (2021, July 5). Retrieved from https://theworld.org/stories/2021-07-05/scientists-turn-ancient-mayans-sustainability-lessons
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