Op-Ed September, 2021: Eve of Destruction
opinion editorial
Any opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the policies of The Peoples of the World Foundation. Unless otherwise noted, the author and photographer is Dr. Ray Waddington.

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There was a time when we believed everything was provided by the Supreme Being. Because we knew how important food and water were, we began featuring them in our religious rituals. So, this month's photo could easily have been taken hundreds of years ago.

Although it was taken less than a decade ago, the Maya ritual being re-enacted drew on Maya cultural history from hundreds of years past. That history includes the public, ritual killing of people justified by the notion that some god or other demanded it — usually because that god had been offended. The political power holders who proclaimed this nonsense were very likely aware that it was nonsense. They prevailed because they were able to exploit a massive lack of education.

The Maya elite would have begun ending their religious nonsense about a thousand years ago because their own survival was threatened not by the uneducated masses realizing they'd been lied to, but by climate change. They'd ignored the signs of that climate change for so long that it was too late once the consequences became catastrophic. This situation caused panic and an unmanageable mass evacuation from areas that were doomed. And even if they hadn't been doomed, Europeans would later bring viruses that would almost wipe out the Maya in any case.

Aside from the juxtaposition of timelines and causes, I could easily be describing events from last month. The Maya ritual being re-enacted in this month's photo was likely a prayer for rain. If so it would have been performed on their eve of destruction. We know of no Maya songs from a thousand years ago. But, released in 1965, the song Eve of Destruction would need only one lyric change if it were written today: The reference to four days in space would change to three days due to this month's Inspiration4 mission.

While killing in the name of religion did not end with the Maya's decline, we can confidently speculate that such extremism is today also not truly believed by those who advocate and practice it. We can also speculate, with equal confidence, about this: Whereas last month Kabul was compared with Saigon in 1975, the better comparison of Afghanistan this month will be with Cambodia in 1975 to 1979. Over forty years later, last month the only living member of the Khmer Rouge leadership, Khieu Samphan, sought to overturn his 2018 conviction of war crimes and genocide. China backed the Khmer Rouge during its political rule. If it now backs the Taliban, we are likely to witness far more than four years of bloodshed in Afghanistan and far more than forty years to address it.

It seems there's always a war happening somewhere. Now that the War on Terrorism is waning, it can be replaced by the War on Science that has been gathering pace for the past few years. As an example, when last month's We Love NYC: The Homecoming Concert (celebrating New York City's comeback from the Covid-19 pandemic) was halted by a hurricane, we can pretend we see no irony. Nor was there any irony, we can pretend, when an oxygen shortage in the United States was reported last month to be threatening future space launches.

Humans have always adapted to change for a good reason: The only place we can live is the future. But we can still learn from the past if we choose to. Today, we label Maya descendants using terms like poor, desperate and uneducated while forgetting their once advanced culture. Climate change and deadly viruses were separated by five hundred years for the Maya. Yet they still adapted. Will we now label Afghans like we label Mayas also forgetting their rich cultural history? If climate change and viruses together cannot bring about an end to religious nonsense in Afghanistan, the answer will be yes.

Learn more about the Maya and their history in our feature-length documentary, Peoples of the World: The Maya.

Watch a short film on YouTube from the festival where this month's photo was taken.

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