12/19/2012 02:59 pm ET Updated Feb 18, 2013

Maya to Us: 'Grow Up!'

We are well-advised to heed warnings of collapse from a civilization that didn't even make it to its own supposed apocalypse! In these days of climate disruption, economic mutation, and ceaseless technological and political change, how can we not be on the cusp of something unimaginably colossal -- a global inferno, the singularity, worldwide revolution?

Here's the thing: As humans we've attempted civilization many times, only for it to always eventually blow up in our faces. In Egypt, Rome, China, the Yucatan, the Andes, all over the place, time and again. What we haven't been able to achieve is a sustainable civilization, one that is intelligent and well-designed enough to be able to operate within the bounds set by the physical limits of recyclable nutrients and the energy limits set by the sun. This is vastly disappointing, because these are enormous limits. So enormous, in fact, that we often fail to recognize the existence of these limits until we're well over the cliff, Wile E Coyote style.

I have all my fingers crossed that we really are at some massive inflection point. As living things, adulthood (that is, our fully realized selves) doesn't come into being until we stop growing furiously as children and adolescents and instead become stable organisms. It is at this time that we begin to interact with the world in such a way that we can actually make it a better place, rather than needing to be constantly fed more and more so that we can grow and grow and grow. There's no doubt that the time of growth, from birth to adulthood, is furiously exciting -- everything seems possible. But what makes us truly living isn't that we consume every single thing we see and grow to the utmost proportions, it's that we voluntarily limit ourselves and our activities to those we deem most important. No mother of any species sees their growing child and hopes for it to continue to grow forever into some freakish Gargantua. To be big and strong, of course, but to reach maturity and to start to give back some, and hopefully more, of what was taken in the process of growing up.

If the Maya, in their wisdom, could send a message to a future civilization such as ours, I feel confident it would be something along the lines of, "Act your age not your shoe size!!! Look at what we did, cutting down every tree for miles around, ceaselessly trying to grow because we couldn't figure out, despite all our astronomical and scientific knowledge, how to live within the limits set by what has always sustained all of us as living beings -- our soil, our land, our sun, and our community." Maybe this winter solstice, deemed so significant by many, we can start to do something no other civilization has ever accomplished, ushering in a new age, a new long count, a new era of life on earth -- maybe we can finally grow up.

Stephen Hren is the author of, most recently, Tales from the Sustainable Underground: A Wild Journey with People Who Care More about the Planet than the Law. Find more at