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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Learned helplessness, or why the environmental communicators have got it wrong.

Learned helplessness is the giving-up reaction, the quitting response that follows from the belief that whatever you do doesn’t matter.” Arnold Schwarzenegger


Psychology has a term called ‘learned helplessness’. The concept of learned helplessness originated in animal behaviour studies. Animals that were repeatedly exposed to a negative stimulus, from which they could not escape, eventually changed their behaviour so they did not even try and escape from the situation. This behaviour was even more marked when the stimuli were random. For example, dogs exposed to random electric shocks did not attempt to escape these, even when moved to a cage from which they could easily escape, by jumping over a small barrier[1].

From this, the researchers extrapolated the animal behaviour to humans. If humans are constantly exposed to a negative stimulus, the researchers thought that they may learn that nothing they can do will help them, and then expand the feelings of powerlessness to other parts of their lives. They believed that learned helplessness is one of the factors that can exacerbate depression and hopelessness. For example, a young boy might have learning difficulties, but instead of this being recognised and strategies put into place to help him, he may instead be constantly told that he is a failure. This might have long term negative impacts on him, so much so that he feels that he is no good at anything at all.

One of the psychologists involved in this study was Martin Seligman, who went on to be the pioneer of the positive psychology movement. Martin Seligman was particularly interested in depression, and found that the fundamental issue with learned helplessness, and the strongest predictor of a depressive episode was the lack of control over a situation[2].The more people felt that they had little or no control over something, the more likely they were to be depressed. For example, if you hate your job, but you are the sole breadwinner of your family, in a town with few prospects to find another job, you may well feel helpless and hopeless. You are stuck in an awful job, on which you and your family are dependent, and you have no opportunity to get another, better job. Of course, people do have choices, and they have more control over their lives than they often think, but feeling a lack of control can be deeply distressing and depressing.

Of course, humans are not animals, and they respond differently to situations, often in quite varied ways. Humans not only react differently to one another, they also react differently between situations. One situation might cause a specific person to feel hopeless, and another might not. One person might respond to a difficult situation with learned helplessness, and subsequent depression, while another might take it in their stride. One person may feel out of control, and another may not. We are all different, but in our differences, we are all one species.

Later research showed that learned helplessness was linked to three characteristics; permanent (seeing a negative event as never changing and lasting forever); taking things personally; and far reaching (seeing themselves as being poor at everything). For example, a depressed person with learned helplessness may have a chronic illness; and feel that she will never get better (never changing), it is her fault she got the illness (blames herself), and that because she has the illness, she is also going to get other chronic sicknesses (far-reaching).

So what has learned helplessness got to do with the environment?

Since the beginning of the environmental movement, the dominant message from environmental activists has not been one of hope, but one of despair. Read just about any environmental book, website, newspaper article, and what do they all have in common?

First, they are illustrated with photographs of environmental destruction, such as open-cut coal mines, clear cutting of rainforests, dead animals or the like. Second, the language is littered with words such as crisis, devastation, disaster, etc. It is overwhelmingly negative. Third, the scale is vast, the articles talk about global problems, such as climate change, deforestation, desertification, power plants in China, excess fishing or mass flooding and landslides.

I am no Pollyanna. I am not denying the fact that there are often huge environmental problems that have to be addressed. But I feel that it is essential to frame the issue in such a way that people feel that they can do something about the problems of the earth, that what they can do WILL make a difference. If everything is communicated in an overwhelmingly negative way, then the only real response that you, me, the guy down the road, the teacher in the USA, the stallholder in Vietnam, the mechanic in Botswana, is to be depressed, is to gain learned helplessness. If the problems are so huge, so insurmountable, and to solve them requires the cooperation of other nations, some of whom hate each other, what on earth can you or I actually do? What can we do that will make the slightest difference, to be anything other than a drop in the ocean?

The negative communications of well-meaning environmentalists trigger exactly the three main factors that psychology considers as leading to learned helplessness and depression. First, environmental problems are communicated as permanent. Moreover, environmental issues are not only framed as permanent, but getting worse. That may well be so, but we humans are pretty poor at evaluating trends over time. Our memories are fallible, and we often fail to learn the history of something. I will show later, that not everything is getting worse, many things are far better than they were, even 20 years ago.

Second, environmental issues are framed as personal. The environmental movement has done a good job of individualizing environmentalism; of making us feel guilty for our way of life. All the Hurricane Katrinas are our fault. It is our fault that we drive too much, that we use too much electricity, that we want to consume too much, and like to go shopping for cheap clothes made in sweatshops, that we want to live in McMansions with 5 bedrooms and drive 4WD cars to pick up our kids from school. The earth is stuffed, and it is OUR fault. Placing all the responsibility for environmental degradation on individuals ignores the essential powerlessness of many. How can I stop Indonesian forest fires, or the Three Gorges Dam? And if I feel powerless, then what about a person in Baghdad, or Darfur?

Finally, environmental problems are framed as far-reaching, as enormous, virtually insurmountable problems. There are more than a billion people in China and they are building new coal fired power plants every day. There are almost a billion people in India, and it is certainly immoral to deny everyone on earth the same opportunities that we have, such as a car to drive, and electricity. In under 200 years, our industrial activity has increased the carbon dioxide in our atmosphere to higher levels than in the previous 800,000 years.

If these three characteristics are linked to a pessimistic explanatory style, and because of this to learned helplessness and to depression, can you see why the well-meaning communication from environmental groups has not led to wide-scale improvement in the environment, but instead to a lack of action, and feelings of helplessness. After all, what can I do? And even if I do anything at all, what impact is it going to make? Little wonder why most people decide to do nothing, and leave it up to the government or the market, or hope that a technological fix will miraculously save the day. Little wonder why a very much smaller proportion of people decide, well, if the world is going to hell in a hand-basket, they are getting out of it, and going to live out bush somewhere, and stock up on canned vegetables and survivalist paraphernalia.

These are, of course extremes. But neither attitude is going to change anything. Perhaps some miracle will happen and nations will suddenly decide that they don’t hate each other after all, or the market will cease its pursuit of the almighty dollar, or that the technological fixes will not backfire and make things worse, as so many have done in the past. And for those running away from the problems, that is all very well, but is it not an ultimately selfish attitude? Humans are a social species, that does best in small communities (these can be, and often are, in cities), and surely the global problems are after all, our problems, each and every one of us? We did make the problems after all, is it not our responsibility to help fix them?

But, the question remains, what can we, what can you or I, actually do, that will have any impact on global problems? Because even though I am talking about positivity, I am not discounting environmental (and social) problems. If we are to continue as a species, we have to solve these issues, particularly climate change. Our actions are not going to destroy the earth itself, far from it, but are very likely to destroy us. Some may argue that humans are a cancer on the earth, but I totally disagree. We have destroyed a lot, but we are also magnificent creators, singers, poets, writers, painters, scientists, and philosophers. We deeply care for one another, and people have and will continue to do incredible things to protect the ones they love, and even to help and protect a total stranger. We have so much potential within us as a species.

Nonetheless, the world is not a just place. More than a billion people live on less than US$1 per day. Vast swathes of ancient rainforest are torched; the last birds abandon drained wetlands; fish die in polluted creeks, and in a thousand far-flung places, humans are suffering. And in the comfort of the developed world, in our parochial suburbia, we are detached from injustice and environmental devastation. We seem to be moved more by the death of a celebrity than the starving children on the nightly news—they’re too far away and too easily forgotten.

But it is a moral issue as well as an environmental issue. We cannot continue to ignore the increasing injustices of the world. Our unsustainable way of life may have vast and catastrophic implications for our society, and our planet. There are arguably, four core human values; quality of life, security, justice and compassion[3], and no matter what our philosophy, we should have compassion for those who are born to none of these. A few are born to wealth, but most to poverty; and a few are born to power, but most to powerlessness. But we all DO have power, collectively. We CAN make a change, for the better, but we have to do this together.

Copyright: Heather Shearer. You may share or quote from this post, but please credit me as the author.


[1] http://psychology.about.com/od/lindex/f/earned-helplessness.htm

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Learned_helplessness

[3] Milbraith, L. (1989) An inquiry into values for a sustainable society: A personal statement, Envisioning a Sustainable Society: Learning Our Way Out, State University of New York Press, Albany, Ch.4, pp. 58-87

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