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Ancient Egypt's Wisdom: Sustainability

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With MAs in classics and mythology, I've got one foot in the ancient world.

Djed Pillar of Stability

The Paradigm of Stability

Ancient Egypt lasted for about 3000 years, surviving conquests, dynastic upheavals, changing technologies, and climate change. Of course, it was shielded and sustained by its unique geography, buffered by hostile deserts on both sides and fed by an annual river cycle that watered and fertilized its fields. More than that, the contrast between chaotic wastelands and orderly, cyclical harvests maintained by careful conservation of resources promoted a sustainability mindset.

The Egyptians had a symbol that represented what mattered to them most: the Djed pillar. Translated, it means "stability."

Cyclical Stability

Egypt did not simply give the Egyptians all they needed. It was a challenging place to live. Once a year, the Nile would bring rich black mud, jungle dirt from the interior of Africa, flooding almost all the inhabitable land. As the floodwaters receded, the mud was left behind: ripe for tilling, if one caught as much of the water as possible in irrigation canals. One had to husband every drop and every grain. Come harvest time, one had to gather and store grain for food and fodder against the long, dry season.

Government and writing arrived early in Egypt. The bureaucracy helped keep track of field boundaries which were lost every year at flood-time. Law courts judged disputes between farmers. Public works projects gave farmers employment during the dry season in return for food, lodging and care supplied by the temples and pharaoh. (Old Testament legends of servitude probably derive from this practical arrangement.) A careful husbanding of resources helped mitigate the impact of droughts and overflooding. Moses' parable about lean and dry seasons accurately reflects an Egyptian way of dealing with good years and bad.

The Egyptians feared chaos. Their creation myth described land arising out of chaotic primordial waters, and there was always the dreadful chance that chaos could submerge the land once more. They feared the wildness of the deserts, of sandstorms and upheaval, of the lawless times when the central bureaucracy and ruling dynasty collapsed, leaving them to deal with the dry seasons and challenges of Egypt's rainless land without backup. Many religious and royal festivals show Pharoah "establishing" stability (see below) and maintaining it. The Egyptians were keenly aware of the cycle of their year, of how they depended on flood, harvest, and conservation.

Stability, for the Egyptians, was not stagnation. It was continually reaffirming, refining, and doing what would maintain their civilization long-term. Even their burial practices affirmed and, they hoped, would ensure continuity into the afterlife.

The Modern Paradigm: Growth

Compare the "cyclic stability" paradigm to the dominant paradigm of our culture: growth. The Egyptians wanted things to continue, and they thought about how to sustain themselves with ever-repeating cycles. We want things to proliferate continually.

We speak of growth. It's considered a bad thing when companies, national GDP, etc., do not show growth quarter by quarter and year by year. Our goal is progress. On the one hand, that means better medical care, better food, better material goods than our ancestors enjoyed. On the other hand, it means change without regard for sustainability. It means strip-mining, permanent destruction of resources. It means a disposable culture that tosses its trash in oceans and landfills, and piles up radioactive waste, toxic sludge and carbon emissions as by products of power generation needed to fuel that progress.

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Jung said "our gods have become diseases" as we stop using symbols and myths to express, metaphorically, the realities of life, we express them unconsciously through disease instead. While we know that attitude, psychology and body health reflect and reinforce each other, Jung's theory seems exaggerated. Yet consider the dominant diseases of our age, ones that were almost unknown to previous cultures: cancer, uncontrolled growth, and heart disease, choking off our hearts with "waste" from the fuel we consume.

Pharaoh Seti I reestablishes "the pillar of stability" during a royal festival, with the goddess Isis and his own self assisting.

Pharaoh Seti I reestablishes "the pillar of stability" during a royal festival, with the goddess Isis and his own self assisting.

Egypt Is an Example of Non-Sustainability, Too

Egypt's fate mirrors the fate of our world. Over the centuries, successive governments and civilizations stopped shepherding resources as pharaonic Egypt did, and its soils became increasingly saline. The rich mud from the interior is now blocked from fertilizing the fields by the Aswan High Dam, which generates power for Egypt at enormous cost. Some of that mud has been baked into the black bricks of Cairo and other cities. Egypt is now the world's biggest wheat importer, when it was once the breadbasket of the Mediterranean.

Parasites flourish in the stagnant water of Lake Nasser behind the dam, which flooded untold numbers of ancient monuments and the scrolls of wisdom stored with them. Downriver, sewage and waste disposal have become major problems even as population has dropped below pharaonic levels.

Egypt stands as a lesson and warning. Its inhabitants fell away from the ancient stability paradigm, and now the life-giving Nile can no longer sustain them.

The Way Forward: Progress

I am not against all forms of progress. I do not wish to abandon my laptop and return to the preindustrial age and unchecked diseases. Egypt was a steady state; what we want is dynamic equilibrium.

We can have progress and stability. We simply need to wean ourselves from progress and growth. We can borrow ancient Egypt's wisdom and shift our focus from "how can we exploit our resources more and more effectively to get maximum growth?" to "how can we exploit our resources more and more efficiently to get greater benefits without exhausting our resources?"

Sustainability doesn't have to mean stagnation. We can seek to build more energy-efficient devices. We can find ways to use less polluting materials that do not produce waste or useless by-products. Like the Egyptians, we can look for ways to do more with what we have, while stockpiling resources against lean years.

Our Earth's resources are finite, but like ancient Egypt's rich mud, many of our resources are renewed. We need to pace our progress with the pace of that renewal, instead of exceeding it. We need to wean ourselves off non-renewable resources and shift to renewable ones. Sustainability does not mean giving up on progress; it simply challenges us to find alternate ways to get what we want.

Our descendants 3000 years from now will thank us.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

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