The ecosystem an extension of self
Every time mankind has stepped forward, it has left behind a nasty footprint.Skip to next paragraph
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Early hunters decimated populations of the woolly mammoth. The ancient Chinese exhausted their soil. The Greek and Roman civilizations turned the forested Mediterranean into a semidesert long before AD 1000 had rolled around.
But it's the latest millennium that has really transformed the earth. Industrialization, unprecedented population growth, and trade have shrunk the wilderness, devastated ecosystems, and now threaten the planet. Many environmentalists believe we've already poked such a hole in the ozone layer and pumped so many greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that global disaster looms.
At the same time, the last 1,000 years reveal humanity's growing awareness of its nature-trashing ways and its ingenuity in minimizing them. Societies have found new methods of production and new methods to limit pollution. Governments have cordoned off vast tracts of land and water either to regulate human exploitation or ban it altogether.
New environmental problems will sorely test that ingenuity. We will either race ahead with new technology or change our ways to live more lightly on earth (or perhaps some combination of the two). Either avenue will reorient our relationship with the natural world.
"We're part of the web of life," says John Cairns, professor emeritus of environmental biology at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. "If we destroy any part of the web, then we're inflicting self-damage. That's the paradigm shift that's beginning to occur. You have to think of the ecosystem as almost an extension of yourself."
To 11th-century peasants laboring in Europe, such notions would have seemed entirely foreign. Life was rude and agriculture marginal enough that, as a practical matter, nature needed to be beaten back at every turn. Even as a religious idea, nature was no Garden of Eden but, according to the prevailing Christian view, a fallen world.
The European elite of the Middle Ages also regarded nature with suspicion. After admiring the view from Mt. Ventoux in 1336, Italian scholar Petrarch opened St. Augustine's Confessions and read his warning about the delights of natural wonders. "I was abashed," the scholar wrote, and "angry with myself that I should still be admiring earthly things who might long ago have learned ... that nothing is wonderful but the soul."
In any case, nature began to look less and less wonderful and bountiful. Owing to intensive logging in the mid-12th century, French Prime Minister Suger had to travel nine hours southwest of Paris to find trees big enough to make roofing beams for his Abbey of Saint-Denis. England became so denuded it began importing fir trees from Norway and using smelly sea coal to fuel its limestone kilns.
The coal fumes got so bad in 1257 that they drove Queen Eleanor from Nottingham Castle, perhaps the world's first victim of air pollution. Human waste accumulated to such an extent in preindustrial England that in 1388, Parliament passed the first national antipollution act, forbidding among other things the throwing of garbage into rivers.
Environmental degradation was not limited to the West. The Tupi in southeastern Brazil adopted a highly destructive slash-and-burn agriculture. The great Pueblo culture of the American Southwest declined after a late 13th-century drought, brought on in part, some scholars say, by poor conservation. Extensive lumbering in parts of Japan caused so much deforestation that the industry turned to plantation tree-farming after 1600. Economics and security dictated the change.