There is an inescapable truth: all societies past and present, as part and parcel of the natural world, impact the ecosystems upon which they depend. Depending on the breadth and severity of their effects, each set of impacts comes with risks for the future of this long-standing and dynamic relationship. In the face of now often overwhelming risks on both local and global scales, how are societies to respond?
In discussing responses, we do not refer to those practices in history which by chance happened to soften the societal impacts on the natural world. Before mastering the use of fire, human communities certainly had a smaller effect on surrounding forests — but not as a conscious choice. For the many millenia in which the human population remained relatively tiny in number and distribution, as a lucky biproduct the natural world flourished uninhibited — but not (typically) because most human groups had purposefully limited their populations to protect local ecosystems. Instead, it is more useful here to discuss intentional practices and responses from peoples in history — ancient and recent — who somehow became aware of their own destructive effects and sought to change their behaviours to address at various levels these imminent consequences.
Long ago responses
A purposeful response to ecological crises is nothing new for humanity. Certainly, the belief that people have only taken serious action since the rise of popular environmentalism in the 1960’s and 1970’s is mistaken. One only need look to the multitude of examples throughout history of responses to impending ecological disaster — albeit most attempts unsuccessful — many of which are well-outlined in C. Ponting’s A Green History of the World.
Clearly, a major requirement for a society or group of people to decide to take a response to an ecological crisis is, of course, some degree of knowledge (while conceeding the many ways of knowing) and the will to act. Without doubt, it is difficult to take action on something which may not appear to be or understood as a problem to overcome. Indeed, this is one of the quandaries of many human effects on the natural world — that they are often incremental, sometimes occuring over decades or centuries (beyond the span of a single human life) and often out of sight (sometimes, purposefully so). From localized deforestation to global climate change, commonly it is hard to realize that there is a problem until the problem has grown to a full-blown crisis, upon which people or societies are forced into a desperate response. Awareness and knowledge, therefore, are often necessary precursors to any appropriate response, and there is evidence that numerous societies throughout the ages had been able to grasp the consequences of their lifestyles and habits on local forests, waterways and other living creatures. Possessing the will and the ability to take action is also a requirement to act, yet how this will comes about in a timely fashion is a complex issue, as we shall see.
Let’s return for a moment to historical responses to ecological crises. Evidence suggests that throughout human existence numerous gathering and hunting groups have attempted to control their populations for the conscious and explicit purpose of not placing too heavy a burden on their local ecosystems:
- Using social customs such as selective infanticide and abandonment of some older members of communities may have helped some groups to remain small, to reduce demand for food and preserve local supplies of plants and animals.
- In Europe, over millenia populations were sometimes limited through late marriage or fewer marriages.
Additional evidence points to early examples of some human communities choosing to act in a way that minimized disturbance to local ecosystems:
- The ice-age inhabitants of Europe likely managed herds of reindeer by following natural migration routes and grazing grounds, then selecting the sick and old from the herds in just enough numbers to provide sufficient meat.
- Meanwhile, the Cree are thought to have used rotational hunting, avoiding returning to an area for slaughter until a lengthy span of time had passed to allow population levels to recover. Other groups preserved sacred areas where hunting was forbidden or used restrictions on hunting at certain times of the year.
- Thousands of years ago in northern & western Europe as as late as the 18th century in parts of Scandinavia, early agriculture was based on swidden system, whereby people would allow cleared land revert to secondary growth after a few years, avoiding the land to avoid lasting damage.
- In the early 1700’s in India, hundreds of Hindus went to their death in an attempt to protect trees from being used for firewood for making cement for a maharaja’s palace. .
We often think of new or emerging technologies as holding the promise to help society avoid dire ecological damage while allowing a continued or improving way of life. This too holds true for technological development of the past:
- In Egypt, lasting for roughly 7000 years, simple technological systems allowed agriculture to benefit from the natural annual flooding of the Nile River with minimal human interference.
- From Beijing to the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, systems were developed to take human waste from houses to be used as manure on farmer’s fields (granted, this resulted in the spread of intestinal diseases).
- Cut trees in Europe were regenerated more quickly through a technique called coppicing to make new growth from the stump or roots of a tree.
- The ancient Greeks were (at least) aware of techniques for preserving soil.
- In the second half of the 19th century, sewage treatment methods began to address waterway pollution in several cities in Western Europe.
For as long as human settlements have been organized through governing bodies, legislation and law has been used to address human interaction with local ecosystems in order to, at least on paper, attempt to limit damage and allow for sufficient sustained activity for collective access to food, water, air, shelter, and desired materials. Here are some examples:
- An Athenian stateman in 590 AD supported banning building on steep hillsides because of soil loss. Several decades following, a bounty was established to encourage farmers to plant olive trees to secure the eroded land.
- In 13th and 14th century England, pressured by complaints of smoke from Queen Eleanor and local residents, lawmakers banned the burning of coal in London.
- In the 16th century, the English government prohibited the cutting of large trees to address deforestation stemming from the iron industry. Further regulations were put into place to stop washing in streams and raw sewage from being dumped into streams (notably because residents drew their drinking water from these streams).
- In the 17th century, Japan placed restrictions on tree-felling through issuing licenses during a period of widespread castle reconstruction. Later, the government closed the country’s largest copper mine because of massive pollution of the region.
- In Boston in the mid-1600s, residents were prohibited by town council to throw dead beasts or their entrails into the streets.
Indeed, throughout human history there are genuine examples of intentional responses to ecological crises. It should be noted, however, that many proved unsuccessful as societies continued to grow and utilize their local ecosystems for wants and needs. Population control was only intermittent and constrained to a small number of communities. Conservation came up against the competition between neighbouring settlements, as those who opposed a short-term view of local resources only created opportunity for others to benefit and extend their plunder further. Each new technology aimed to prevent damage introduced a whole host of new problems to overcome. Legislation requires extensive enforcement; through much of the history of communities organized by government often even the strongest environmental laws went unheeded (e.g. the 14th century ban on burning coal in London). In many of these cases, it was only the relatively small overall human population up until the 19th century which kept damage on the local scale and isolated to individual species and habitat.
Modern Environmentalism covers a broad spectrum of reactions and responses to ecological crisis – from the smallest local scale all the way to the largest and far-reaching. There may be no one “environmentalism”; rather, there seem to be many “environmentalisms” or distinct environmental movements active throughout countless societies and places.
Most Western varieties associated with environmentalism may be tenuously traced back to the Romantic Movement at the end of the 18th Century in Western Europe. The movement was by some accounts in part a pushback against sudden changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution and against the rational elitism ushered in by the Age of Enlightenment. With the movement came a strong belief in the importance of the natural world in terms of its potential spiritual power to the individual, and the need for the individual to seek out a direct connection with wilderness. From the many European writers and philosophers of this time emerged the American Henry David Thoreau, famous for having used his experience living in a forest by Walden Pond for writing his influential works. Among Thoreau’s many postulates was an argument for the need to preserve “wild” areas separate from human civilization and of the deep value of “untouched” nature.
From these ideas, and from the shock by those witnessing the stark reduction in numbers of wildlife in recent times, grew an American movement which led to the founding of numerous wilderness and wildlife conservation and preservation organizations. In 1892, American naturalist John Muir founded the Sierra Club. At the end of the 19th century, large areas of land began to be set aside as natural sanctuaries, known as national parks. The American Parks Service was subsequently founded in 1916.
The idea of a system of protected parks was disseminated throughout other countries and continents in the world, with the Great Barrier Reef and the Galapagos Islands being designated as reserves. The establishment of “untouchable” parkland sometimes resulted in indigenous peoples being removed from their traditional territories and practices. At the same time, influential scientists such as Rachel Carson along with an increasing number of research collectives sounded warnings about the unforeseen affects of unchecked industrial activity on ecosystems and, in turn, human communities. Soon, newly-forged international organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund began to raise awareness of environmental issues and to lobby governments and corporations to further protect species and habitat at risk.
Resultant quotas introduced on the killing of animals (e.g. whales) and regulation of pollution set limits on large-scale human activity in various societies, yet still permitted “acceptable levels”. Such limits were usually difficult to monitor and often came up against harsh opposition from those who stood to gain (or, in some cases, survive) in terms of economics. It would take years before other strict decrees, such as the ban of DDT, became widely accepted across the globe. Trade in endangered species was restricted through international treaty, although some countries are unable or unwilling to enforce such restrictions.
From the 1970s, nations from around the globe began to meet in deliberation over various environmental issues. In 1972, the Conference on the Human Environment was held in Stockholm, followed by numerous landmark international governmental gatherings under the umbrella of the United Nations. The tenuous idea of sustainable development was infused into international discourse. International cooperation led to the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, an amendment to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, wherein countries committed to reduce their emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Some major nations such as the United States refused to ratify the agreement, while others such as Canada eventually backed out of their commitment.
These major monolithic milestones in the “environmental movement” do not include the many millions of smaller efforts and organizations in all corners of the world attempting to address ecological issues. The diversity of approaches cannot possibly be described in its entirety, as it would range from those who work on social justice connections to environmental issues (e.g. Wangari Mathai’s Green Belt Movement), to those engaged in the fight for indigenous rights such as the recent Idle No More protests across Canada, to individuals and small communities taking action through attention to reducing their personal waste, introducing and purchasing “green” products in the consumer marketplace, and living more self-sufficient lifestyles. Action against environmental destruction has taken both non-violent and violent forms: the former exemplified by Arne Naess leading civil disobediences protects against the damming of a river (and later founding the deep ecology philosophy) and the latter typified by the radical and sometimes anarchistic Earth First! organization which used guerilla tactics to directly confront various industries. The modern response to environmental crisis is hugely complex and intertwined with countless related struggles for justice, peace, security, properity and freedom.