The ancient Mediterranean is a paradigm of the abuse of natural resources in pre-modern Europe. Ecological mismanagement, combined with endemic warfare, military escapades, and conquest, was responsible for the deterioration of agriculture around the Mediterranean basin in the world of antiquity.71 During the second half of the Holocene, there evolved a diverse range of Mediterranean cultures based on agriculture or pastoralism. Their hierarchical form of social relations changed relations of humans with their environment in several important ways. It meant, for example, that the maximization of economic output replaced the mix of social and economic goals that characterized communal peasant farming societies. Agricultural output was maximized by improving the productivity of existing farmland or by increasing the cultivated area. The latter led to clearance of woodland and draining of marshland but also included cultivation of marginal land that was susceptible to soil erosion and other forms of ecological degradation.
The advent of complex agricultural societies distanced and often weakened the link between people and nature. Nature became less the "habitat" for the farmer than a set of economic resources to be managed and manipulated by the dominant group.72 This was particularly true of cultures where the ruling classes were urban-based, as in Greco-Roman antiquity. Indeed, the Greeks, and later the Romans, were not much more successful than the Sumerians in producing an ecologically sustainable civilization. When the Mesopotamian civilizations at the eastern end of the Fertile Crescent had faded, the Mediterranean basin was still a relatively well-watered land, mostly covered with thick forests. Corsica, for instance, had tall trees crowding its shores, their branches extending far enough to occasionally break the masts of the ships of the first settlers. Vast Mediterranean forests covered rich soils that would one day support the granaries of the Roman Empire.73 However, the ecological abundance of this region proved to be rather short-lived. The ancient Greeks produced the first civilization of antiquity to inflict ecological damage to the Mediterranean landscape. The demographic and economic expansion of the Greek city-states led to the progressive destruction of rich pine and oak forests which satisfied the insatiable appetite for lumber, firewood, and charcoal. Moreover, the Greeks destroyed forests simply in order to create more pasture lands for their domesticated animals.74
The impact of Greek city-states (polis) like Athens on the natural environment produced environmental problems prefiguring many modern ones, including the destruction of ecosystems in the surrounding countryside. Athenian citizens had to make difficult decisions regarding land use and urban planning. Although democratic citizenship in Athens meant that small producers were to a great extent free of the extra-economic extractions to which direct producers in pre-capitalist societies have always been subject, for the most part the mobilization of labor in Greek society was based on an enslaved segment of the population, who, together with women, were excluded from democratic participation.75 Different categories of land use and ownership were recognized, and specific laws and administrative arrangements were applied to them.
Athens had grown haphazardly around the majestic heights of the Acropolis. Streets were a jumble of narrow passages yielding only to the
Sacred Way, a wide ceremonial road, as well as to the open space of the Agora, where trade and political affairs were conducted. Within the city walls resided some 100,000 people, including a large number of resident aliens. City-dwelling Athenians had little space, and Athens suffered from crowding, noise, air and water pollution, the accumulation of wastes, plagues, and other dangers to life and limb. No wonder Socrates preferred to hold his conversations with young Athenians along the tree-shaded banks of a stream flowing outside the city.76 But the effects of urbanization on the natural environment were not limited to the city's immediate neighborhood, since the city drew upon the resources of a large part of Greece and even more distant lands such as Egypt and the Black Sea coast.77
Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle thought of the polis as a self-sufficient unit, harboring all the natural resources needed for its population. This vision of autonomy was never achieved in classical Athens, however. A city could be self-sufficient only if it managed to establish a sustainable mode of subsistence within its local ecosystems. Bent on expansion, the leading political figures of Athens would not accept such spatial limitations based on ecological imperatives. The economic needs of a militarily powerful city could be met only by pushing beyond existing limits by means of trade and conquest.78
Classical Greek city-states prefigured modern democracies in achieving domestic pacification through imperialistic, expansionist policies toward their neighbors. Such forms of imperialism have severe ecological consequences. Large-scale wars lead to wholesale destruction of nature due to intensive utilization of resources to produce weapons and to mount the military campaigns. In ancient Greece, the combination of military activity, state building, and deforestation is even more evident than in Mesopotamia. For example, the seemingly unending Peloponnesian War between Sparta and Athens consumed large quantities of wood for the construction of warships.79 The result was the severe deforestation of mainland Greece and Asia Minor.80 Large areas of countryside were transformed into relatively barren wastes, and there are indications that much-increased soil erosion and flooding resulted.81 These changes made a considerable impression on contemporary observers, and particularly on Theophrastus of Eurasia, Aristotle's biographer and a botanical gardener. Based on his observations of the deterioration of local forests, Theophrastus developed a theory that linked deforestation to the decline in rainfall which, he believed, was taking place in Greece.82 There is very little evidence, however, that Theophrastus' remarkable theoretical innovation stimulated any serious government restrictions on forest cutting.83
By the mid-fifth century BCE, the land surrounding Athens was largely deforested. Erosion depleted the mountain soils, deposited silt along the coastlines, and dried up many springs. The result was a declining agricultural production and a chronic shortage of wood and other forest products.84 Environmental historian Donald Hughes explains Athens' aggressive foreign policy in this way:85 Athenian diplomats sought advantageous timber deals in treaties with forested lands such as Macedonia. Groups of Athenian clerics or colonists were dispatched to the tree-bearing coasts of Chalcidice and Italy. Timber towns like Antadros were forced into the Athenian Empire, and the timber trade became an issue in conflicts with other maritime cities such as Corinth. As a major argument in favor of the ill-fated military expedition to Sicily, the Athenian general Alcibiades specifically mentioned access to the island's forests. By the end of antiquity Sicilian woodlands had been depleted. Thus, the decline of Athens can be correlated with its failure to maintain the forest ecosystem.
Regeneration of the Greek forests was made impossible by a combination of severe soil erosion and overgrazing by goats. These "horned locusts" proved to be engines of ecological destruction, wiping out all but the most resistant and least accessible vegetation. Goats have made a ruinous impact on much of the Earth, but the "goatscapes" they helped create in the Mediterranean basin are perhaps their greatest monument.86 Plato seemed to understand what was happening to the land under the impact of human ecocidal activities: "What now remains compared with what then existed is like the skeleton of a sick man, all that fat and soft earth having wasted away, and only the barest framework of the land being left."87
The failure of the ancient Greeks to adapt their economy to existing ecosystems in a sustainable fashion turned out to be one of the important causes of their civilization's decline. Placing too great a demand on the available natural resources, Greek citizens failed to maintain the balance with their own environment that is necessary for the long-term survival of any human community. Ecological failure, as Hughes notes, interacted with social, political, and economic forces to ensure that classical Greek society would be altered beyond recognition in a process that represented in many respects a disastrous decline in the level of civilization.88
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