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The Real Revenge of Montezuma: Voyage Conclusions

Our blogger looks back at his voyage through coastal Mexico and sees that the problems, and solutions, there are mirrored throughout the globe.

Location: In Mazunte, just north of Huatulco. Through scattered clouds, the morning sun shines on the bay, whose centerpiece is a pair of jagged boulders. The rocks are frothy with crashing waves and soft backlight. The bay is surrounded by swaying palm trees and a snaking wetland.

Conditions: From inside my swinging cot, hanging freely from a roof covered by a mosquito net, I can tell the morning air is starting to warm up. It's 8 a.m., and the septic tank truck is already pumping sewage and someone is running a drill. Fishermen are pushing their pangas past the tiny waves.

Discussion: On the return from Huatulco, we veered off the rainy highway and navigated the potholes, overhanging tree branches and yelping dogs until reaching Mazunte. It is a blissed-out beach town that attracts French backpackers and yoga students with its fairy-tale scenery and psychedelic bars with names like "Siddhartha." That is where my friend Nando, who I brought in tow for his flamenco music collection and Spanish humor, had his old enemy — the stomach flu — revive.

Nando blamed his condition on the mishmash that he'd ingested in the last four hours, including a big bag of chips from a gas station, followed by a pizza, three Victoria beers, and, finally, two rum-and-Cokes during happy hour at Siddhartha. The happy-hour-induced enlightenment did not last long as he clenched his stomach that night and into the next day. I pondered his predicament, a junk food binge stacked onto an already weakened digestive system. The latter had climaxed the previous week with nausea and diarrhea, which isn't an unusual condition for travelers in Mexico (or most developing countries) and is sometimes known as "Montezuma's Revenge."

The Real Revenge
Montezuma's Revenge is a cheeky reference to the Aztec ruler whose empire of millions was destroyed after the ragtag army of Hernán Cortés showed up in 1519 with their horses, muskets and an entourage of viruses like smallpox. The amazing capital city of Tenochtitlan, home to 200,000 to 300,000 people living amid beautifully organized canals, was destroyed by fire and siege in an ugly death. Their ruler did not leave a very impressive curse, I thought. No disrespect to Nando, who was in bad shape, but were stomach ailments for distressed tourists all the curse that Montezuma could bring on the future Spanish state?

Get Your Ecological Medicine

Here is a top 10 list of Kiri's policy and personal choices for a more ecologically friendly life.
1. Support ecological education in schools - give the kids a chance.
2. Radically alter transportation patterns - telecommute; favor communities not reliant on driving (e.g. New Urbanism), and purchase locally made products (e.g. food, toys, shoes, etc).
3. Strive for zero net energy - consider passive and active solar power, better insulation, smart metering and super-efficient appliances.
4. Strive for zero waste - drastically reduce packaging and disposable items (esp. plastic and Styrofoam), increase re-using, recycling and food composting, and proper disposal of toxic waste (including overseas).
5. Dramatically reduce water use - use low-flow fixtures, use gray water ( on garden plants not requiring irrigation and eat organic food (fewer chemicals and fertilizers to ruin waterways and your own health).
6. Protect a habitat for biodiversity - endorse vast protected areas, wildlife corridors and responsible sourcing (e.g. seafood and timber with the Marine and Forest Stewardship Councils).
7. Disperse clean tech - just as developing countries used cell phones to "leapfrog" land phone infrastructure, clean tech could help them leapfrog high-resource infrastructure like major dams and coal power plants.
8. Invest your money responsibly - don't be greedy.
9. Support Third World family planning - hunger and poverty are hard to beat with exploding populations.
10. Celebrate nature - go out and play in your favorite outdoor area.

I remember with grotesque fascination the Aztec art exhibit at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, during the beginning of the Voyage of Kiri, which showed us how diverse forms of torture and sacrifice were employed in concert with prayers to the countless and disturbing-looking deities. Even the biggest cynics of Western civilization, I thought, are quite pleased to live in a modern era where death by disembowelment is pretty rare. But according to Joel Simon, the author of Environment on the Edge, the Aztec rituals weren't just barbaric and fearsome demonstrations to encourage popular subservience; and they weren't just depraved ceremonies by the priest-class to retain awe inspired power (although both factors were probably incentives). Simon claims that the Aztecs' rituals were a way of preserving the precarious environmental balance supporting their swelling kingdom.

The rituals included seasonal prayers, like those made to Tlatloc, god of rain, to petition for rain and abundant crop harvests. More importantly, they also included a slew of offerings to Coatlicue, the mother goddess of the Earth, who is depicted as both loving and deadly; and Quetzalcoatl, the benevolent creator god. Paralleling the Aztec creation story, these offerings were done to keep their world intact, and perhaps to divert the gods' destructive energies from dismantling the ecological functions that gods toyed with — but which humans required for survival.

However, the Aztecs made a terrible mistake. Hernán Cortés had an uncanny resemblance to the image of Quetzalcoatl, so he was warmly welcomed into the territory by those in thrall to the Aztecs. The rest is history. The downfall of the Aztec civilization and the end of their sacrificial ceremonies led Montezuma to enact his real revenge: the slow disintegration of ecological balance in the Mexican state that replaced the Spanish one two centuries ago. Or so I imagine.

Cows taking in the ocean view. Sea Level rise is a concern worldwise. (Kristian Beadle)

Cows taking in the ocean view. Sea Level rise is a concern worldwise. (Kristian Beadle)

Naturally, we tend to wave off Aztec practices as ignorant superstition. Yet, regardless of whether their methods were ineffective or disturbing, their intent was to appease the nature's fickle temperament. That intent was not very different than our own culture's, which used the scientific method and Christianity to control nature. In our terms, that Western one-two punch — taming unpredictable environments and harnessing technologies of warfare and colonization — was more "successful" than the Aztecs'.

That success has let us — nay, convinced us — to neglect the other side of the equation, which the Aztecs had dealt with intently: to retain the balance of nature. Granted, we have given pause to our binge enthusiasm when faced with local environmental disasters, but this is the first time, thanks to ozone depletion and climate change, that we're aware of it on a global scale.

Ecological Illness
The condition of Mexico's Pacific coast, and much of the world by logical extension, is not much different than the stomach ailment tormenting Nando in the back seat of my car.

"I ate too much junk," he groans. The overeating binge might be the latest trigger in his distress, but I think it isn't the only explanation. After all, we've all gorged on sub-standards foods, possibly even the same combination of chips, pizza, beer, rum and Coke, and emerged feeling just fine! Like anything else that undermines health, a binge can really hurt when it combines with some other issue, for example a stomach bug.

As would any creature in pain, Nando continues to speculate on the nature of his condition. "Maybe I'm just getting old," he murmurs. I raise my eyebrows in agreement; I'm sure his 35-year-old body isn't as willing to take the punishment it did 10 years before. So his lack of resilience was due to an aging system, weakened by digestive problems and triggered by the eating binge. The similarity to human society is striking, I thought, since we are also suffering from aging belief systems, weakened environments and natural resource binges. I could tentatively diagnose this condition as an "ecological illness."

Also on, research suggests being aware of one's environmental footprint could cause an ecological backlash.

The symptoms of this illness were evident during my voyage of 5,000 miles from Santa Barbara to Huatulco. It took me through a gamut of diverse communities with a common thread: increasing vulnerability. I found that climate change has the potential to magnify these vulnerabilities.

As a conclusion to my voyage, I reflected on three major issues in Mexico related to ecological degradation: immigration and drug warfare, urbanization and high resource use. I also reflected on two positive trends that may alleviate the illness: restoration and holistic design. Finally, I suggest some policy shifts that could foster a green revolution, so we may finally learn some new tricks.

Immigration and Drugs
Immigration and drug warfare are probably the two social problems most in the U.S. associate with Mexico. Fortunately, I only experienced these issues in trivial doses — first being followed by suspicious vehicles south of Tijuana, then witnessing a drug-financed political campaign in Mazatlán (whilst learning about the impacts of drug production in the nearby Sierra Madre) and, finally, navigating the stories of banditry in coastal Michoacán. Because of their direct effects on society, both immigration and drug warfare get a lot of public attention.

Less obvious are the indirect ingredients, notably ecological breakdown, corruption and lawlessness. Without fertile land and social protection, poverty is exacerbated and peasant farmers often migrate to big cities and/or join the (they hope) well-paying drug cartels. Unless ecological and economic policies radically change, global warming is expected to worsen the situation for Mexico's rural poor and perhaps raise the burner on the cauldron of immigration and drug warfare.

Resource allocation toward urban areas at the expense of rural areas worsens these social ills and creates its own set of vulnerabilities. In northern Baja, the appropriation of water to big-city Ensenada from the relatively dry, drought-prone climate in Valle de Guadalupe shows that kind of bias toward urbanization. Closer to my home, a photographic exhibit on water showed how energy-intensive water pumping tamed the arid climate of Southern California — at the expense of the Sacramento Delta and the Colorado River. The region's urbanization may in fact be over-stretching itself, as earlier snowmelt in the Sierra Nevada may affect water availability in late summer and fall.

Residents of a town near Rio Verde make the commute home across the flooded roadway. This is typical for summer wet season. (Kristian Beadle)

Residents of a town near Rio Verde make the commute home across the flooded roadway. This is typical for summer wet season. (Kristian Beadle)

In southern Baja, the river valley town of Mulegé is also questioning whether its construction choices will pass the test of time. Huge floods in the past few years are forcing the town to decide between sketchy waterfront living and safer highland living. Other hurricane-prone coastal areas like the U.S.'s Gulf Coast are increasingly concerned about zoning and building codes. What seemed like reasonable construction practices are in question due to the intensity of weather events — events that might be magnified by our own greenhouse gas emissions, according to my review of scientific literature. Through high demand on resources, our drive toward urbanization (and construction in fragile environments) is accentuating an ecological illness that makes us more vulnerable to climatic events.

High Resource Use
Since current development practices are based on high resource consumption and large infrastructure investments, mega-projects and mega-growth rates are often required. I found that good intentions for green development in Loreto and Huatulco are falling victim to the 'Super-size Me' paradigm, and young Escuinapa is not far behind. Failed projects in difficult and fragile areas like the ghost harbor of Santa Rosalillita are reminders that the binge mentality can bite back.

Like the search for oil reserves in ever deeper and more dangerous locations — which set the stage for the Deep Horizon disaster — binge development increases community vulnerability.

As Jared Diamond mentioned in Collapse (shown here in a video), the closer a society operates to the ecological edge, the greater the possibility that shifts in climate, friends and foes will tip it over the edge. Will agricultural operations shut down in the San Quintín valley when the overdrawn, saline groundwater becomes even less fresh due to sea level rise? Will fisheries that are already overtaxed collapse when ocean acidification restricts the formation of calcium-dependent shellfish? Historical examples show that when resources are used to their limit, small climatic shifts can have big consequences.

Collapses can be avoided by increasing resilience. Heartening examples of restoration show that pockets of resilience are rebuilding in Mexico — even though ecological protection in Mexico is still primarily considered an economic tool to manage natural resources, as I learned from a professor at Ensenada's university. Nevertheless, while marine protected areas in Bahia de los Angeles and La Paz are set up to buffer the uncertainties of fisheries and climate change, they also help restore one of the world's richest marine ecosystems. Well-organized fishing cooperatives like those of the Vizcaíno Peninsula are also creating reserves and carefully managing their resources, thanks to clear ownership schemes and nonprofit partnerships. Private enclaves of sustainability such as Playa Viva are inspiring residents and visitors by reinventing the status quo as the art of restoration is being revived.

Click here for more posts from the Voyage of Kiri.

Click here for more posts from the Voyage of Kiri.

Holistic Design
Climate adaptation seems like an abstract term largely because it is a response to a broad, abstract threat: climate change. I believe it's better to think in terms of building resilience, which is grounded in the principles of holistic design.

At the heart of holistic design is a deep understanding that humans and ecology are interconnected, and the best design teacher is nature itself. The flora of Cataviña's desert is a lesson in dealing with unpredictable rainfall; for example, its cardon cacti can swell up and store 200 gallons of storm water. The ability of a wetland to filter toxins is amazing but it cannot be omnipotent, as seen in the Tijuana watershed straddling the U.S.-Mexico border. To rebuild resilience in the Tijuana watershed, transnational groups are joining forces to push down pollution stress to levels the system can digest.

Another key to building resilience is recognizing that preserving biodiversity and clean water are just as critical as reducing greenhouse gases, as was highlighted during the Waterkeeper conference in La Paz. Ultimately, to create healthy, resilient systems, the long-term services of ecosystems must have a price tag. For example, mangroves were valued at an average of $37,500 per hectare (about $15,000 an acre) due to their importance for commercial fisheries and storm control. By recognizing the interdependence among different systems, from whale migrations to human economies, we may be better prepared for climatic shifts.

The Policy Shift
The big question is, "What can I do about all this?" People wonder about making petty changes in their lifestyles or just waiting to vote for (future) people and ideas that will turn the policy supertanker around. The truth is both are necessary. As insignificant as it may seem to recycle a dozen glass bottles or save a few kilowatts of energy, when industries or our neighbors are wasting both in vast numbers, those small shifts in popular attitude ignite political power. Major policy changes from the top don't tend to occur without major, and earlier, popular support at the bottom.

Policies can either be "hard" or "soft." Hard policies involve physical modifications, while soft policies try to alter design. Although to my knowledge most of northern Baja's cliff-top constructions are under no immediate threat from sea level rise, they raise the question of coastal defense (hard structures for protection) versus managed retreat (soft changes in zoning laws). Flood-prone Mulegé is also debating whether to invest in expensive flood control or simply relocate part of the town.

Due to our confidence in science, anything but hard engineering solutions have been anathema. However, that enthusiasm for control has filled us with hubris. For example, the destruction of Hurricane Katrina may have been worsened by "Mister Go," a straight canal built by the Army Corps of Engineers as a direct line to the Gulf, leaving parts of New Orleans especially vulnerable to storm surge. It may be infinitely cheaper to use soft approaches like strict building codes and coastal zoning than trying to protect matchstick houses with expensive engineering, only to pay the costs in insurance and human lives. Of course, engineering will always play a key role in modern societies, but as the Dutch are contemplating, there may be battles that we may not want to fight in a warmer future.

Green Revolution
Nevertheless, I hope unpopular choices like relocation can be muted by the emerging insights of ecological design. Biomimicry, clean-tech, regenerative development, permaculture and the Natural Step may reinvent and radically improve our approaches to chemistry, energy, construction, agriculture and business. There is no question that this reinvention will be a massive challenge.

Books with titles like "10 Easy Ways to Go Green" are misleading, Thomas Friedman argues in the bestseller Hot, Flat, and Crowded because there are no easy ways to go green. Currently, we aren't in a green revolution, he argues, but rather in a green party, where everybody wins the green badge by printing their business cards on recycled paper. He makes the case that the growing pains of the green revolution are worthwhile, not just for the planet's ecological sanity (i.e. its ability to sustain life), but as the greatest economic opportunity of the future — and as a matter of national security.

Friedman asks: Don't Americans want to be the leaders of clean technology, or would they rather the Chinese sell it to us, as the Japanese have done with automobiles? How better to prevent a downfall of the electrical grid than having decentralized solar power in every home? How better to undermine anti-democratic, terrorist regimes than cutting off their lifeblood, petroleum exports? What a great thing to do all this and retain the natural beauty of our parks and open spaces, says Friedman. I agree.

The New Tricks
The real revenge of Montezuma isn't just a bellyache; it's a lack of balance that is choking the planet. Like Nando's stomach flu in Mazunte, our ecological illness is like an aging body with a weakened immune system, suffering from overeating. The doctor ordered Nando to stop drinking, get some rest, and take some antibiotics. Although he was tempted to skirt those suggestions, the recurrence of pain was unthinkable. Old habits die hard, but with enough incentive (and soul-searching) even old dogs learn new tricks. We're already obsessed with keeping our kids "germ-free" for the sake of their health and future; now we just need some preventative medicine to keep the next generation free of harm. That medicine comes from an amazing tree called ecology.