December 14, 2015
“If the Dutch lived in Ireland, they’d feed the world; if the Irish lived in Holland, they’d drown.”
Have you heard this one? How true is it? What is wrong with this country? Every time there is a short, sharp spell of rain, the place fills up to the brim and then floods. What would the Dutch, snug, warm and dry behind their man-made polders, farming their fertile, desalinated land, think of us?
I’m sure every Japp, Johan, Henrik, Thys and Joost are simply laughing their big toothy Dutch grins at the fact that every year the same thing happens and every year the Paddies sink.
The straight-up Dutchmen on their flat, sea-sodden bit of northern Europe are not only prepared – they are thriving. Do you know that the Dutch are the second largest agricultural exporters in the world? Yes, in the world – second only to the Americans. Their land mass is smaller than Munster and they export $70 billion worth of food and we export close to three times less ($25 billion), with three times more land.
It’s worth thinking about.
But enough of this Holland-envy or else the Billies up North will think we are going soft on the eve of our big centenary. Let’s instead think about the gift mother nature has bestowed on the Gaels by virtue of being stuck up here in the north Atlantic.
In the decades ahead, global warming is going to make this a very attractive place to live. While global warming might give us a bit more rain and may cause the seas to swell, the Gael may well get lucky.
Global warming is a man-made catastrophe and it is going to affect the hot, densely populated and already dry regions much more than it will us. In fact, while Miami and Bangladesh may disappear, we might end up in the finest piece of real estate on the globe.
The weather has always had enormous influence on economics and ultimately on human destiny – and humans have regularly thought that we don’t need to be aware of the sensitive ecosystem that is the earth. History is full of such hubris.
Let me give you an example. A few years ago I was in Honduras while filming a documentary for Australian TV. I headed to Copan, one of the finest examples of Mayan civilisation, which disappeared overnight.
Amazingly, this hidden city in the jungle was discovered in 1834 by an Irish bloke called John Gallagher. He was fighting as a mercenary for the Honduran independence movement. In the early part of the 19th century, Latin America was full of Irish adventurers; many fought in the Latin American wars for independence and most of them stayed on (if you are interested in this fascinating part of our history, visit irlandeses.org)
Gallagher was one such privateer, fighting in Central America. He was posted with a raggle-taggle regiment to the far north-west of this beautiful country. When he heard the locals talking about the lost city in the jungle, he decided to find out what they were talking about, probably in the hope of finding the buried treasure of the ancient civilisation, the Mayans.
Instead of gold, Gallagher discovered, deep in the rainforest, the most striking city-state of the Mayans. It was almost totally preserved and was the capital of the southern part of the vast, pre-Colombian Maya empire. Gallagher was spellbound by what he saw – the huge pyramids, the enormous acropolis and no fewer than 28 palaces – all hidden deep in the jungle. In 1835, he began telling the world about his vast discovery.
The story of the lost cities in the jungle, which had sustained the Spaniard conquistadors for centuries, grabbed the public imagination.
Gallagher, hardly heard of in his own country, became a hero in Central America, and he is the only non-Mayan to be buried in the city-state and the first to be buried there since the day when the people rose up, burned their own kings and evacuated the great Mayan cities, leaving them to the jungle.
The collapse of the Mayan civilisation has fascinated scholars for years. Why did this vast empire disappear? When I was there, looking at the distinctly Mongol faces of the kings and their ornate statues adorned with hieroglyphics, the question begged: what happened?
This society was the most advanced in the world 1,100 years ago. The Mayans possessed knowledge of mathematics and astronomy far surpassing anything in Europe’s Dark Ages at the time. Their farming methods could sustain much larger urban populations than we could, despite the fact that they did not locate their cities beside freshwater. Their systems of canals and storage allowed them to feed huge populations relying on rainwater alone.
For example, Copan in Honduras had an urban population of 27,000 in the seventh century, when most major European centres hadn’t even been founded. Whatever cities we had contained populations that were fractions of the size of the Mayan metropolises.
Their alphabet was phonetic, and their system of trade linked an empire that stretched more than 1,000 miles over what is now Honduras, Mexico and Guatemala. They had created an intricate financial system based on the valuable feathers of the wonderfully colourful macaw. The hieroglyphics tell of this system being abandoned during the decline.
This empire lasted for more than 1,000 years and thrived, peerlessly, for 500 years. Then it disappeared.
The last that was seen of the Mayan kings and temples was a huge pyre, upon which the peasants burned the noblemen because they believed that the noblemen and priests could no longer hold any sway over the gods. How could they, when children were starving?
The Mayans simply ran out of resources. They cut down all the trees to transport rocks from the quarries to make their ornate temples.
Competing nobility, with each chief trying to show he was the biggest, got involved in what could only be described as an arms race to build the most splendid palace. This involved huge amounts of labour, which were taken from the farms and massively reduced the number of farmers available to keep their agriculture going.
They also cut down huge amounts of wood, causing massive soil erosion and flooding. The mad dash to build the most ornate palace used up enormous quantities of materials. To support this madness, the cities needed to produce enormous amounts of food and water, and they needed to pay for it.
In the end, mother nature struck back violently and definitively. The Mayans’ soil turned fallow and they couldn’t support themselves. Over-consumption killed them.
Ancient Copan is a microcosm of what is happening now with global warming. We are destroying the planet by using up its finite resources for our own gratification, and the place is heating up.
But think about this from the Paddy point of view.
When the world heats up and people move to avoid ecological catastrophe, who will win? The winners will be countries that are already temperate, with lots of freshwater, where the population is small and the land fertile and empty. Being an island helps too. Guess where fits that description?
If we figure out polders or import a few Joosts, Johans and Japps to keep us warm and dry, Ireland could reap a massive ecological harvest. It’s not that I don’t care about the planet, I do, but there will be winners and losers and we may be winners.
That wouldn’t be a bad result, would it?