A brief history of environmental degradation

That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history.” Aldous Huxley

You have to know the past to understand the present.” Carl Sagan


This section may not, at first, appear to be particularly positive. However, we cannot solve environmental problems by ignoring them. This aim of this book is to promote positive actions to solve the current environmental crises, but if we do not understand the crisis itself, and its history, we will not be able to do anything about it. To use an analogy, a relationship going through problems can only move forward by identifying, acknowledging and working on those problems, not by skipping merrily through the fields, desperately ignoring the thunderstorm overhead. If we understand the problems, and the antecedents of the problems, then we are in a much better position to fix them. Moreover, by highlighting that we, 21st century humanity, are not unique in stuffing up the environment, that our ancestors have been doing it for millennia, I hope to show that we are not the awful creatures that some seek to portray us, that we are just human beings, just like any other human being, with the same needs, wants, loves, hates, and desires…and in that shared humanity, we CAN achieve great things, together.

Mankind has been degrading the environment for virtually all of human history. Few places on our planet have not been transformed, in some way, by man. For example, virtually nothing of the land around the Mediterranean Sea is “natural”. Human history has had three main waves of change: the discovery of fire, the agricultural revolution, and the industrial revolution. All three of these transformed the environment, from the Indigenous people in Australia burning the landscape; to the salinisation of the Sumerian agricultural lands and the Anasazi transforming their environment, to the English polluting the air and water with their 18th Century factories.

Even Indigenous humans had a major impact on the environment. The Indigenous inhabitants of Australia, the Australian Aboriginal people and the Torres Strait Islanders are considered to be the oldest continuous cultures in the world. These people are widely accepted to have settled Australia more than 60,000 years ago, and DNA analysis shows that they were amongst the first peoples to leave Africa, coming to Australia via Papua New Guinea. The Aboriginal peoples used a technique called “firestick farming” to practice a highly sophisticated form of land management, burning the land at varying times to increase the diversity and amount of food available. In time, this practice totally changed the vegetation and animal communities of Australia, to the currently dominant dryland sclerophyll forest. Another impact was, soon after human settlement, there was a rapid extinction of the Autralian megafauna; giant kangaroos, wombats, a huge tortoise the size of a car, and many large bird species.


The agricultural revolution ramped up the impact of humanity on the environment. No longer did humans have to constantly move around to find new food, water and shelter. Now they could settle in one place, and grow the food that they needed, including domesticating animals such as goats, cattle and dogs. The agricultural revolution resulted in a rapid population increase. Little is known why humans began to settle down, some have even hypothesized that the killing off of the megafauna was a major contributing factor. It was also linked with rapid climate changes occurring at the end of the Pleistocene era. The climate of the late Pleistocene was highly variable, rapid, abrupt and relatively dry, with the likely result that humans were forced to adapt. Rapid climate change occurred in the areas which were amongst the first to embrace agriculture, such as Northern Syria and the near east. With the advent of the Holocene Era, and the beginning of the agricultural revolution, the climate settled down, particularly with higher and more consistent rainfall.

The agricultural revolution had negative impacts on the environment, but also on human health. It was linked with increases in dental caries, reduced growth rates, the spread of infectious diseases, bacterial illness from contaminated water sources, and increased violence and conflict. Arguably, the impacts on the natural environment were more severe, and included deforestation, environmental degradation, species losses, and even greenhouse gas emissions. Some researchers have even identified anomalous anthropogenic increases in CO2 and Methane, from approximately 8,000 years ago, possibly from deforestation after the beginning of agriculture. Our current threats to the environment began, not 200 years ago, but 10,000 years ago, with the domestication of plants, and the associated increase in human populations. Early humans were not, as many think, particularly good land managers, nor were they likely to have been much concerned about the environment. Early agriculturalists had significant impacts on the natural environment of the Middle East, the Americas and Africa.

However, our settlements have always been vulnerable to the environment “fighting back”; from natural disasters such as cyclones and tornadoes, long term changes in climate and cataclysmic volcanic eruptions or earthquakes. For example, around 900AD, a sophisticated city-state existed at Mapungubwe in Southern Africa. The people of Mapungubwe (who later went on to build Great Zimbabwe) had a sophisticated culture, which spread over a large area of Southern Africa. But, the area had (and still has) a marginal climate. A series of droughts caused agriculture to collapse and the reduced food and water supply led to the eventual abandonment of the city state.

In Australia, for example, the Goyder Line was first surveyed as the Northern limit where agriculture could be practised. However, this was surveyed during an unusually wet period in recent Australian history. A subsequent series of droughts meant that farmers have since abandoned their properties and moved further south to where the rainfall is more reliable. Goyders Line was indeed accurate, but it indicated (at the time) a long term rainfall trend, and did not measure the variability that is so characteristic of the Australian environment.


But the impact on the environment of fire, and of the agricultural revolution, were nothing compared to the industrial revolution. Humans had been living in cities long before the industrial revolution began (in the 1700s in England), but it was a major turning point in human history, having profoundly positive and negative impacts on humanity. The industrial revolution brought about sanitation, improvements in public health, social improvements, and opened up more opportunities for people to work in varied occupations. It also resulted in millions of people, including children, working in appalling conditions in factories, entrenchment of social divide and inequality, the rise of slums, and the spread of diseases, such as cholera.

The two major impacts of the industrial revolution were the rise in human population, and the rise in atmospheric pollution. At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the world’s population was around 700 million. In fewer than 50 years, by 1800, it reached one billion. By 1927, only 100 years after it began, the world’s population had doubled to 2 billion. In the 20th Century, it increased by 400 per cent to 6 billion, and it has now (in 2014) has grown by another billion people to reach over 7 billion.

The fundamental driving force behind the industrial revolution was the use of fossil fuels, such as petroleum and coal, to power the industrial machinery that began to replace human labour. Replacing slow and inefficient human labour with machines greatly increased production capacity, and this resulted in vast changes throughout all human settlements. Moreover, with more time to spare, humanity began to innovate, to develop better things, at a faster and faster pace. Human society is still industrializing. The pace of technological innovation and change continues to increase, almost exponentially.

Of course, this “progress” did not come without a price. The increase in human population led to increases in the use of natural and manufactured resources. There was more need for agricultural land to feed the growing populations; water to quench their thirst, irrigate crops and power their machines; timber, brick and steel to build the houses and factories; and energy to drive the machines. At the same time, all the industrializing resulted in huge amounts of waste, which polluted the soil, the water, and the atmosphere. At the beginning of the industrial revolution, and well into the 20th century, there was little if any concern about environmental degradation. The ocean was vast, so sewage was pumped directly into it; huge rivers were used as sewers and dumping grounds; forests were cleared, and governments even paid farmers to clear their land. Finally, all the burning of fossil fuels started slowly, but increasingly quickly, to add GHGs into the atmosphere.

At the same time as the Industrial Revolution, certain European nations began to expand their territories and colonise other areas, in particular, Africa. The Scramble for Africa took place from 1881 to 1914, where European nations, such as England, Germany, France, and Holland (the Netherlands) sought cheaper and more abundant resources to feed the ever growing factories, and arguably, to prevent wars amongst each other. Africa was a fertile ground for providing raw materials such as copper, rubber, palm oil, ivory, gold, diamonds, and slaves. By 1914, 90 per cent of Africa was colonized, with artificial borders drawn, separating tribal groups, or lumping together sworn enemies.

The relicts of colonialism in Africa, and other developing nations, are one of the underlying reasons for the current lack of development in some countries, and are still reflected in their power structures. The Indigenous peoples were deliberately kept uneducated, given marginal lands on which to live, and communities had virtually no infrastructure; no electricity, sewage, running water or waste removal. When the colonial powers left, they left a sad legacy of conflict, impoverished populations, low economic resource base, and deliberately created local elites. Corruption is still rife, and often, the leaders of some countries spend international aid on personal gain rather than on their people. There are also significant issues with regard to overall health of the population, as HIV Aids is sadly common, as well as general malaise from tuberculosis, malaria and water-borne diseases. A starving, sick population does not have the same capacity for growth as a well-fed, rich population.

This is simply described according to Maslow’s classic hierarchy of needs. If a person is starving, or living in a war-torn country, their priorities are more for basic needs, such as food, shelter and safety, rather than whether or not cutting down a tree for firewood will damage the environment. Frequently, only when per capita income passes a certain level, is some of the environmental degradation associated with development addressed. Of course, some measures of environmental degradation, such as waste produced, increase with per capita income.

Further, although colonialism is now over, the rich “northern” nations (now including China and Russia) are still plundering the resources of Africa, South East Asia, and South America. Many developed nations have used up or degraded their own natural resources, such as hardwood timber, agricultural products, coal, gold and diamonds. For example, Russia has felled vast swathes of the Siberian boreal forests, much of the European landscape is almost entirely “man-made”; and river catchments are almost entirely regulated by dams and canals. China is increasingly active in Africa and South America, buying up huge acreages of land, to provide for possible food shortages of the future. Globalization has helped this process tremendously; enabling products to be grown anywhere, and from there, to be exported all over the world; for example, productive agricultural land in Kenya and Uganda is used to grow cash crops such as coffee.

This is a very brief summary of some of the historical antecedents of the environmental crises we face today. It highlights that the current environmental crisis is not something unique to the present, but has its roots in all of human history. From the very first time that humans began to spread across the earth, we have had an impact on the environment. It is only now, with the ever increasing population, that our damage has moved beyond local impacts, to impact the very earth on which we are all dependent. As I quoted in the beginning, we cannot understand the present without understanding the past. But humanity has not become the most successful species on earth for no reason. Humanity is ultimately flexible, and adaptable. The earth has withstood a lot worse than humans before, and it will continue to do so. If we are to survive and grow to our full potential, we need to work together, to make a new future.

We need to work together to learn the lessons from the past, and grow up, to fulfil our potential, and embrace the future, in community, as globally responsible citizens of the earth. We are no longer children chucking our toys out the cot, or bratty teenagers oblivious to the dangers of their actions. It is time we became adults. With adulthood comes responsibility, but it also comes with wisdom.



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