• Monk's Mound, created by the Mississippian culture, is located at Cahokia. The staircase you see is new, but built to follow the course of the original wooden stairs. Also visible is a road and telephone poles cutting through the site.

    Credit: Wikimedia Commons

    Monk's Mound, created by the Mississippian culture, is located at Cahokia. The staircase you see is new, but built to follow the course of the original wooden stairs. Also visible is a road and power lines cutting through the site.

Sure, we romanticize the distant fall of ancient Rome and Indiana Jones stories of lost cities in the jungle, but we also consider ourselves wiser than our predecessors, more technologically sophisticated, and uniquely favored by the divine. What hubris. The better angels of our nature constantly struggle against our short-sighted animal instinct to consume and prosper. Pride and gluttony are the deadly sins of our times.

We should remember Cahokia not only because it was the center of a mighty civilization, but because we can learn from its failure how to minimize the risk of our own. Cahokia’s decline began around 1350, at the advent of the Little Ice Age. Droughts and falling temperatures had a disastrous effect on agriculture. The surrounding woodlands had already been stripped of mature trees for construction, and over-hunting in the absence of grain led to the collapse of the animal population. The starving community made war upon its neighbors for fleeting advantage and committed human sacrifice to curry favor with the gods.

Archaeological evidence of these events upsets the widespread assumption that Native Americans lived in perfect harmony with nature—a fiction exemplified by the famous Crying Indian in the 1971 anti-pollution campaign. As has been documented of the Anasazi, who flourished in the Southwest during the same period, the Mississippian people were exhausting the resources of their known world. A little external pressure in the form of climate change pushed them right over the edge.

We face similar pressures today, including a rapidly changing climate, diminishing resources, an exploding global population, and dying ecosystems. Finding solutions to such problems was ostensibly the purpose of the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, held in Rio de Janiero last month. Tragically, many world leaders failed to attend—including President Barack Obama. Not surprisingly, then, the conference’s outcomes are being described in underwhelming terms.

Oxfam chief executive Barbara Stocking released a statement deriding the event: “Rio will go down as the hoax summit. We elect governments to tackle the issues that we can’t tackle alone. But they are not providing the leadership the world desperately needs. Paralyzed by inertia and in hock to vested interests, too many are unable to join up the dots and solve the connected crises of environment, equity and economy.”

America is a great nation, just as the Cahokia’s once was. But are we wise enough to learn from their history and alter the path of our own progress? The lessons lie all around us, if we’d only stop paving over them.