Ecological Blunders Of Antiquity

Human history is replete with accounts of the early ecocidal activities of great empires such as Babylonia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, ancient China, and Maya, all of which destroyed their forests and the fertility of their topsoil, and killed off much of the original fauna through a combination of "their linear thinking and their insatiable drives for material wealth."32 The most flourishing lands of antiquity were sites of civilizations that remained powerful and wealthy for great periods of time, but they are now among the poorest regions of the world.33 Large parts of these areas are now barren deserts, most of the ancient cities are abandoned, and local people now often have little historical awareness of their social and ecological past. To be sure, civil strife, warfare, famine, and disease contributed to the demise of ancient civilizations, but one of the primary causes of their decline was the depletion of their biological resources. Exhaustion of water and climate change dealt, in many instances, the final blow.

The demographically and ecologically stressed Mayan civilization, for example, collapsed following a brief dry period, and Mesopotamian civilizations disappeared after their systems of irrigation were destroyed by the Mongols. As many as 3,700 years ago Sumerian cities were deserted by their populations because the irrigated soil that had produced the world's first agricultural surpluses had become saline and waterlogged. But these environments had begun to degenerate long before this final disaster.34

Further east, philosopher Meng Tze (Mencius) was acutely aware of environmental degradation in Asia, warning the rulers of imperial China of the unsustainable use of resources and land.35 A section of Meng Tze's book Mencius describes the environmental degradation of Ox Mountain, a geographical feature close to his residence:

There was a time when the trees were luxuriant on the Ox Mountain. As it is on the outskirts of a great metropolis, the trees are constantly lopped by axes. Is it a wonder that they are no longer fine? With the respite they get in the day and in the night, and the moistening by the rain and dew, there is certainly no lack of new shoots coming out, but then the cattle and sheep come to graze upon the mountain. That is why it is as bald as it is. People, seeing only its baldness, tend to think that it had never had any trees. But can this possibly be the nature of the mountain.? ... When the trees are lopped day after day, is it any wonder that they are no longer fine? ... Hence, given the right nourishment there is nothing that will not grow, and deprived of it there is nothing that will not wither away.36

Unfortunately, Meng Tze's advice was not heeded. A major force in decimation of both plants and wildlife during Meng Tze's life was the expansion of agriculture into undeveloped land. In the two centuries before, the ox-drawn iron plowshare had come into use, supplementing human labor with a major new source of energy. Advanced agricultural tools and methods of fertilizing had been invented. Thus, it is not surprising that Meng Tze spoke of the increase of cultivated land at the expense of the wild. His contemporary, the legalist Shang Yang, urged rulers to take measures to cultivate wasteland as a deliberate policy to increase population. Rulers often ordered the cultivation of wasteland to increase agricultural production and combat famine.37 Moreover, they frequently squandered their states' resources on ostentatious new palaces, tombs, self-indulgence, and, above all, military campaigns. From the fourth century BCE onward, economic crises and famines plagued China.38 Deforestation and associated patterns of ecological degradation, such as soil erosion and biodiversity loss, were key factors in the destruction of early Chinese civilization. Based on classical literary texts such as The Book of Poetry,39 several Chinese environmental historians have traced the etiology of the decline of this once-productive ecosystem.40 This part of China had emerged as the civilizational cradle of China partly because of its climatic and agricultural virtues. The land was predominantly flat, and covered by one of the most fertile and loose soils to be found on earth. Hence, it was easily turned into farmland and the available crops flourished. Today, the Loess Plateau has become one of the poorest regions in the country, its residents poorly educated in comparison to other parts of China.

The most important three reasons for deforestation in Chinese history, according to geographer Jin-qi Fang, are land use for agriculture and road repair, firewood collection, and construction of houses.41 Because of the thick layer of loess in the plateau, soil erosion initially did not affect fertility. But it did turn the flat surface of the plateau into a landscape of hills and ravines, thus making water conservation ever more difficult.42 Originally, there were at least 27 large lakes in the region, all of which have disappeared today.43 According to geographer S.Y. Tian, a great number of springs also dried up within a few centuries. As a result, ground water tables fell to unprecedented levels.44 The severe soil erosion led to an increasing flooding of the Yellow River. Clearing the river's irrigation channels and tributaries of heavy sediment became an increasingly difficult task, requiring hundreds of thousands of laborers. Ultimately, the scope of these undertakings devoured enormous economic and social resources that could have been put to better use elsewhere. George Borgstrom, a widely respected authority on world food problems, has ranked the deforestation of China's uplands as one of the three worst ecological blunders in history, closely followed by the destruction of Mediterranean vegetation by livestock, which left once fertile lands eroded and impoverished, and, in modern times, the disaster of the Dust Bowl in the southern Great Plains of the United States in the early twentieth century.45

Living in the same century as Meng Tze but almost 5,000 miles to the west, Plato used remarkably similar language to describe the deforestation of the hills of Attica. Trees were cut down for fuel and the soil eroded because of overgrazing. In ancient Rome, too, there were warnings about crop failure and soil erosion as a result of wasteful animal husbandry practices. The history of pre-modern societies is thus full of examples of social collapse brought on by a combination of localized forms of ecocide and political conflicts. These early societies were especially vulnerable to regional degradations of the environment that occurred often because of human interventions designed to extract a larger surplus product. Such accumulative practices raised the specter of ecological collapse whenever the extremely narrow limits of sustainable production were crossed.

As we will see in this chapter, the first large civilizations of antiquity were made up of societies that had moved beyond a low level of agricultural development and arrived at a stage characterized by state structures and class hierarchies. Control over the land and its produce was exercised through the extraction of tribute from peasant producers by economic means. Ancient Egypt, feudal Europe, and the Aztec Empire are all examples of such tributary societies. Although the timing of its emergence varied across the globe, the tributary form of production was part of a universal path of development.46 It constituted the most developed type of economic formation over the course of the more than 5,000 years that stretched from the emergence of Sumer in Mesopotamia, the first literate society in world history, to the rise of capitalism in the late fifteenth century.

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