Achieving sustainable societies: Lessons from modelling the ancient Maya

Scott Heckbert, Robert Costanza, Lael Parrott

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


    The ancient Maya provide an example of a complex social-ecological system which developed impressively before facing catastrophic reorganization. In order for our contemporary globally-connected society to avoid a similar fate, we aim to learn how the ancient Maya system functioned, and whether it might have been possible to maintain resilience and avoid collapse. The MayaSim computer model was constructed to test hypotheses on whether system-level interventions might have resulted in a different outcome for the simulated society. We find that neither collapse nor sustainability are inevitable, and the fate of social-ecological systems relates to feedbacks between the human and biophysical world, which interact as fast and slow variables and across spatial and temporal scales. In the case of the ancient Maya, what is considered the 'peak' of their social development might have also been the 'nadir' of overall social-ecological resilience. Nevertheless, modelling results suggest that resilience can be achieved and long-term sustainability possible, but changes in sub-systems need to be maintained within safe operating boundaries.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)55-64
    JournalSolutions: for a sustainable and desirable future
    Issue number5
    Publication statusPublished - 2014


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