125

A popular rhetoric we hear regarding sustainability is that modern life after industrialization and arrival of plastics and hydrocarbon fuels have led to environmental degradation on Earth and our ancients didn't indulge in such. Another common motivation for sustainable practices is that our indiscretion today will affect generations tens or hundreds of years from now.

Did ancient peoples have unsustainable aspects to their lives, as viewed from today? Did such practices cause consequences that we still suffer today?

Update : Since one of the commenters to the question asked for sources of rhetoric :

http://upliftconnect.com/ancestors-cared-for-universe/

http://www.offthegridnews.com/how-to-2/honoring-our-ancestors-living-and-thriving-as-they-did/

https://steemit.com/life/@anamikasjain/did-our-ancestors-live-a-better-life-what-do-you-think

http://yogimami.com/ancestors-were-healthier/

https://www.positive.news/2017/perspective/29306/its-not-time-to-go-back-to-nature-but-to-go-forwards-to-nature/

  • 18
    I haven't heard that rhetoric. Is that popular, really? Surely people are aware of the extinction of the dodo. – gerrit Nov 16 '17 at 11:02
  • 21
    I believe this question is founded on a false assumption. All human civilizations since the invention of agriculture are founded on fundamentally non-sustainable practices. This is like asking "Did pre-industrial civilizations engage in featherless bipedism?" – Mark C. Wallace Nov 16 '17 at 11:19
  • 11
    @Trilarion The two are intertwined. Unsustainable practices give your population an opportunity to boom, which often leads to a crash when the "extra resources" (e.g. wood in Europe) are depleted. The same is true with our current population, though the boom has been going on for centuries now - our capital investment is paying off so massively that we're extending the "expiration date" (e.g. "peak oil") faster than we're reaching it. And over time, what was unsustainable might be turning sustainable through the investments on the way - "sustainability" isn't static, it's an equilibrium. – Luaan Nov 16 '17 at 13:43
  • 24
    Native Americans, who are often portrayed as being in touch with nature and only taking what is needed, used hunting strategies such as driving entire herds off of cliffs and then take what they need. This was of course in no way measured to only kill the exact amount of animals that they needed. This is the equivalent of fishing with dynamite. While arguably sustainable if there are considerably more bison than native Americans, such a practice can easily wipe out an entire species (or several) if done to a sufficiently large scale. – Flater Nov 16 '17 at 15:58
  • 16
    Anyone who claims the parasite-ridden, mostly-dead-in-infancy tribes were "healthier" is trying to sell you something. – Rob Crawford Nov 17 '17 at 14:32

19 Answers 19

69

Most ancient agricultural practices deplete soil to some degree, but are just fine when population does not exceed certain limits. There are some examples of ancient cultures exhausting natural resources available to them - Pitcairn Island Polynesians, Ancient Puebloans (Anasazi). It's the cause of the semi-nomadic way of life of many early societies - your herds graze the grass into oblivion, you move to another patch to return back when the grass grows back in; or you deplete the soil by overplanting, you move to another spot of land and start over, and so on.

But there's an important distinction to be made. Early societies were naturally regulated just as animal population are - by food resources. When food grows scarce, hunger strikes, and humans either start fighting for what's left, reducing population to more manageable levels, or migrate to not yet depleted lands - only cases of actual extinction are from island civilizations which cannot readily move. Meanwhile, globally environment stays balanced, and depleted spots are replenished from outside - slowly healing the damage. Modern humanity has no place to move - all land is already claimed by someone, so we have to make do with what resources we have - and consequently affects the world at global scale, which earlier cultures were incapable of.

Sustainability is not about return to pre-industrial way of life - it is unsustainable at modern population levels. It is about preserving the environment in human-habitable state - both by taking less from nature and by increasing effectiveness of usage of what we do need to take.

  • 69
    "No instances where ancient environmental damage persists to this day"... I beg to differ. If that were the case, most of the Mediterranean area would still be covered in forests, and Maquis more or less non-existing. Just one example. – DevSolar Nov 15 '17 at 11:43
  • 16
    I understand southern Germany used to be completely forested as well. I think Jared Diamond's thesis in Collapse is that humans will (often) do this, if you restrict their usable real-estate enough that there's not enough places for them to move on to after they desertify what they have. – T.E.D. Nov 15 '17 at 13:14
  • 18
    @T.E.D. just about the whole of Europe, actually. – RedSonja Nov 15 '17 at 13:23
  • 16
    There will always be a "new" biosphere, unless we manage to utterly sterilize the whole planet. I take "sustainable" to mean "outside factors nonwithstanding, we can keep this up indefinitely". The deforestation of Europe, obviously, is an unsustainable practice, regardless of what the Maquis might or might not be capable of as a biome -- it is no longer a source for trees to be cut at the rate it used to be exploited as such. – DevSolar Nov 15 '17 at 13:49
  • 12
    @DanilaSmirnov I hear what you're saying, but being a completely different biome would still be a sign of persisting damage. If the forest is now a desert, even if the desert is "healthy", that is still a sign of damage which has persisted till now. Like DevSolar said, there will always be a "new" biosphere. The fact that there is one doesn't negate the damage that was done to create it. – user27190 Nov 15 '17 at 23:18
223

History is fact littered with civilisations engaged in unsustainable practices. Some of the worst offenders have long since collapsed, but the ecological damage they caused or contributed to often still have reverberations today.

Prior to the industrial revolution, agriculture dominated human life. Accordingly many examples of unsustainable ancient cultures are related to agriculture. Perhaps the most famous case is that of Ancient Sumer, in what is now Iraq. For millennia the Sumerians were able to thrive by harnessing the Euphrates and the Tigris for irrigation. But the very technology behind Sumer's rise also eventually brought it down: the rapid evaporation in this arid region and the lack of drainage led to a gradual accumulation of salt on Sumerian farms. The rising soil salinity eventually destroyed Mesopotamia's agricultural productivity, and with it the Sumerian civilisation.

After 1,000 to 5,000 years of successful irrigated agriculture, the Sumerian civilization declined. Numerous references to canal building in Sumeria from the third millennium B.C. are available, but no record of drainage canals being built to sustain agriculture exists.

Tanji, K. K. "Agricultural Salinity Assessment and Nanagement." New York: ASE. 1990.

Another example from classical antiquity are the Garamantes, who once dwelt in what is now southern Libya. They created a flourishing society in the rather inhospitable region, by mining fossil water for irrigation. Using a system of underground tunnels known as foggara, constructed with immense slave labour, they were able to tap into a vast underground lake formed in the Sahara's wet, distant past. This allowed them to engage in the large scale cultivation of Mediterranean crops even as desertification swept past their settlements.

For over a millennium the Garamantes thrived and dominated perhaps up to the whole of Fezzan, outlasting even the Western Roman Empire. However, fossil water is, as you might guess from the name, hardly a renewable resource. The Garamantes were probably forced into a vicious cycle of acquiring ever more slaves to dig ever deeper tunnels to extract some more of the dwindling supply of water. Once the reservoirs were depleted, it was - and is - impossible to sustain large scale farming in their arid climate, and the Garamantian kingdom collapsed and passed out of history.

By the fourth century C.E., when slaves formed perhaps as much as 10 percent of the population, the groundwater table that sustained the Garamantes began an irreversible decline. Excavations to reach the aquifer grew more difficult and labor demanding. The fossil reserves proved finite, and around 500 C.E., the kingdom collapsed.

Carney, J. and Richard Nicholas Rosomoff. In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa’s Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World. University of California Press, 2011.

The early Maori tribes of New Zealand offer a more recent example. Upon their arrival, the Maori found a virgin land plentiful with walking feasts. The large animals then extant in New Zealand, most famously the giant flightless moa birds (though seals were probably a greater part of their diet), had evolved in isolation and were easily hunted. They were annihilated within a couple of centuries by a combination of overhunting and habitat destruction. Though not as catastrophic as systematic agricultural failure, the loss of their main sources of meat protein rocked the nascent Maori world. Easy access to protein had fueled a population boom, which was now far more challenging to feed.

However, the Maori adapted. The mechanism of rāhui was developed alongside the general Polynesian concept of tapu, whereby certain resources or areas were declared taboo to allow nature time to regenerate. For example, the surviving seal population in Chatham became protected, their hunting limited to sustainable numbers. In this way Maori society were able to transition to sustainable development, and thereafter maintained a relatively healthy and slowly growing population until the time of European contact despite the restricted supply of proteins.

Several prehistorians allude to signs of increasing tapu from mid-prehistory . . . The Great mangaunu shark-fishing enterprises were annually restricted to two days [and] other resources also had restricted-use seasons, enforced by tapu and rahui, and converging precisely with prime productivity . . . This ideological shift [to a restricted and therefore sustainable exploitation of the environment] underwrote the change from an extractive to a sustainable economy.

Belich, James. Making Peoples. Penguin UK, 2007.

  • 4
    Human action may even be behind the Sahara desert: popsci.com/sahara-desert-drought-humans#page-7 – called2voyage Nov 15 '17 at 14:04
  • 24
    Not the Sahara itself per se but indeed human overuse likely exacerbated the desertification of North Africa, once the breadbasket of Europe. One could perhaps see parallels today in how the once-mighty Colorado river is tapped dry growing almonds and rice in the Californian deserts as droughts become worse... – Semaphore Nov 15 '17 at 14:18
  • 20
    Another good example is the deforestation of ancient Greece, recognized even by some of the Greeks themselves, e.g. Plato in Ctitias: classics.mit.edu/Plato/critias.html – jamesqf Nov 15 '17 at 18:18
  • 6
    Not only is this is a good answer, it would also make much better rhetoric for the people OP mentions who are trying to make a point about unsustainable practices of today. – ArrowCase Nov 16 '17 at 17:23
  • 5
    Great answer, though the OP's question missed the point about post-industrial sustainability. Humans negatively impacting their environment is certainly not new, but what is new and different is the time span in which the impact is realized. Some of these examples took place over millennia. We now see rivers dry up over decades, islands of hydrocarbon/plastic waste that does not biodegrade like most ancient materials did. – Adam Kaplan Nov 19 '17 at 1:01
91

It is difficult to be completely sure because of the lack of written records, but some claim that the collapse at Easter Island was rather brutal.

But it seems clear that:

By that time [of the arrival of European explorers], 21 species of trees and all species of land birds became extinct through some combination of overharvesting/overhunting, rat predation, and climate change. The island was largely deforested, and it did not have any trees more than 3 metres (10 feet) tall. Loss of large trees meant that residents were no longer able to build seaworthy vessels, significantly diminishing their fishing abilities.

And that is counting that the arrival of the original settlers is dated between 700 and 1100 AD.

  • 25
    CTRL+F --> "easter" --> this answer --> +1 – elrobis Nov 15 '17 at 19:48
  • 8
    Just to let the Napa Nui people have a little more room for credit, I'd just like to re-iterate that we still don't know for sure what happened. Previous suggestions of rampant warfare were considered very compelling until the 'ecocide' theory came along. It's possible another theory may pop up which replaces this one. Either way, it seems life was pretty hard for the inhabitants at various times in their history. – Ralph Bolton Nov 16 '17 at 11:07
  • 2
    Do Ctrl+F one more time! – Ne Mo Nov 16 '17 at 15:18
  • 5
    For a newer theory, see the work of Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo. The evidence they found suggested that a combination of rats eating seeds and a focus on agriculture lead to deforestation, and that (most importantly) the island population was stable and near carrying capacity until Europeans arrived. Their conclusion: while the island environment was radically changed by the Rapa Nui, it didn't cause their society to collapse. Oddly enough, it's basically a story the you see in the Western world about nature: the people took something with no purpose and made it into something useful. – outis Nov 16 '17 at 22:46
  • 4
    ... For a more scholarly coverage: Revisiting Rapa Nui (Easter Island) “Ecocide." (which also addresses the claim "Loss of large trees meant that residents were no longer able to build seaworthy vessels, significantly diminishing their fishing abilities."). – outis Nov 16 '17 at 23:13
43

For the list, read Collapse by Jared Diamond. The short answer is that yes, premodern cultures definitely experienced man-made environmental disasters.

Perhaps the number one cause of these was deforestation. For example, the Rapa Nui people of Easter Island cut down trees in order to build and manouevre the moai (which were huge stone statues with outsized heads).

The moai were supposed to gain the Rapa Nui favour with the gods, to the end of obtaining good harvests, among other things. However, the deforestation led to soil erosion, which led to worse harvests. They responded by building more and bigger statues, which meant yet more deforestation.

In some ways, modern technology makes us more exposed to the risk of man-made catastrophes. Imagine if the Rapa Nui had had chainsaws! You don't have to look very hard to find similar wanton destructiveness in modern times. However, the Rapa Nui's lack of scientific insight made them more vulnerable to anthropogenic environmental disasters than we are. There was no-one saying 'hey, maybe stop cutting down trees?' and they were unable to connect moai building and their bad harvests.

Maybe we won't be wise enough to make analagous deductions, and maybe we will.

  • 20
    There was no-one saying 'hey, maybe stop cutting down trees?' and they were unable to connect moai building and their bad harvests. May be they were, but those who said that had bad reputation and where ignored. Right now there are things that some people try to stop (e.g., wether it's contamination due to the (ab)use of certain materials, or problems with pharmacy corporations regarding the (mis/ab)use of antibiotics) and they might be seen as not so loved people. I hope in the future someone accepts they existed :) +1 by the way – Manuel Nov 15 '17 at 21:14
  • 3
    I don't think chainsaws are the main problem. Rather, it's that there's nowhere to run once you deplete the local resources anymore. Just think of all the huge human migrations that occurred when some local resource was depleted (soil, water, wood...). This is related to the global trade that means people don't feel the impending catastrophe until it's too late - the same crisis can almost simultaneously affect huge amounts of population. When most people talk about "peak oil", they think "so we won't have gasoline-powered cars". But energy isn't the only issue - we won't have fertilizer. – Luaan Nov 16 '17 at 13:55
  • 4
    @NeMo And as for windmills and solar panels... maybe the next civilization will look at them the same way you see the moai now. Idols to be worshipped in expectation of improving conditions, while they were actually hastening the fall and making the problem bigger. Or maybe they'll really be part of what moves us to something truly sustainable. Hindsight is always a lot clearer than foresight :P – Luaan Nov 16 '17 at 14:05
  • 5
    More recently discovered evidence and experiments support the theory that were "walked" with no trees being used. Watch youtube.com/watch?v=yvvES47OdmY for a demonstration. When the modern Rapa Nui saw the walking moai, they started singing (what turned out to be) an old work song about a visitor coming. Also, the deforestation happened earlier in the island's history, with centuries of thousands of human inhabitants and no trees. See Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo's "The Statues That Walked" for a lay work on the subject. – outis Nov 16 '17 at 23:05
  • 2
    On Rapa-Nui's side, Jared Diamond's theory seems controversed and not based on reliable evidence. – Bregalad Nov 18 '17 at 20:18
22

When Iceland was first settled at the end of the ninth century, much of the land on or near the coast was covered in birch woodlands.

“The people that came here were Iron Age culture,” Dr. [Gudmundur Halldorsson, research coordinator of the Soil Conservation Service of Iceland] said. “And they did what Iron Age culture did.”

The settlers slashed and burned the forests to grow hay and barley, and to create grazing land. They used the timber for building and for charcoal for their forges. By most accounts, the island was largely deforested within three centuries. […]

Eruptions over the ensuing centuries from some of Iceland’s many volcanoes deposited thick layers of volcanic material. The ash, while rich in nutrients, made for very fragile, poor soil that couldn’t hold water and moved around as the wind blew.

As a result, Iceland is a case study in desertification, with little or no vegetation, though the problem is not heat or drought. About 40 percent of the country is desert, Dr. Halldorsson said. “But there’s plenty of rainfall — we call it ‘wet desert.’” The situation is so bad that students from countries that are undergoing desertification come here to study the process.

Vikings Razed the Forests. Can Iceland Regrow Them?

Tourists in the Eastfjords region

  • 4
    Scotland is also bare since ancient times, and england and ireland too. In those lattitudes, cold and sun mean that a sheep can eat a 4 year old plant in a minute, it would be under 1 meter, whereas in France and warmer climes, a 4 year old birch is about 2 meters. We just need huge imports of tall saplings from russia. or local nurseries for 2m plants, if we find out the sustainable minimum for deer debarking etc. – com.prehensible Nov 17 '17 at 7:23
21

The first immigrants in Northern America killing all the horses and other large fauna. Shame, it could all have turned out entirely differently if they hadn't.

edit: archaeologists have discovered the heaps of bones and arrow points where the early humans drove the animals off cliffs.

Here is a link to an article discussing horse extinction: Remains Show Ancient Horses Were Hunted for Their Meat.

  • 1
    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – T.E.D. Nov 22 '17 at 13:44
21

There is a bunch of information available about deforestation problems in Japan. See this article for an introduction: Japan - How Japan Saved its Forests: The Birth of Silviculture and Community Forest Management

Basically, the Japanese population grew too fast, and they used more wood then they had timber. By the 1600's this caused erosion problems and subsequent food supply problems. They were, however, able to identify and rectify the problem.

I suggest reading Modern East Asia: An Integrated History for a broader view of what caused the problem, how it was resolved, and how it impacted both Japan and East Asia as a whole, and the worldwide economy. Very fascinating.

Specifically, during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) China imported had a lot of demand for Silver. Japan for many years exported Silver to China, but in the 1500s deforestation caused a lack of fuel which impacted the price Japan's silver exports. The increased price of Silver from Japan allow new world silver to be a competitive on a price basis, leading directly to the growth of Spanish colonial might. (It was exported from the west coast of Mexico by the Spanish to Spanish Philippines, they traded by Chinese expatriate merchants through Guangzhou.) This had a huge impact on World development. In a few word, if Japan had managed its forest resources better in 1350 - 1650, there European colonial expansion in the new world would have been much weaker.

  • 4
    ... or they could have been even more irrelevant. Sustainable approach would have been less productive (this is not a general rule, mind you), so the prices of silver would be more expensive sooner. They would probably have fewer fluctuations, but that's about it. Sustainability just means you don't get the crash - it doesn't automatically mean you get the same production for lower costs :P – Luaan Nov 16 '17 at 14:09
  • 4
    @Luaan I guess I envision it like this: First, with slower deforestation, silver manufacturing would be less intensive with higher long term silver prices. (Lower supply equates with higher prices). Silver mines would thus not be exhausted as quickly, preventing the supply disruption. Without the supply disruption, there would be no spike in silver prices and thus the demand for new world silver, and the ming economic problems would have been delayed. – axsvl77 Nov 16 '17 at 14:20
  • 3
    of course, this is nothing but what if speculation – axsvl77 Nov 16 '17 at 14:21
20

Already in prehistorical times, it seems that the arrival of Human was the cause of major changes in ecosytems. Even before the rise of agriculture, the use of fire is supposed to have had a huge impact on the environment.

For instance in Australia:

all forms of megafauna on the Australian mainland became extinct in the same rapid timeframe — approximately 46,000 years ago — the period when the earliest humans first arrived in Australia.

This explanation is sustained by Y.N.Hariri in his best-seller Sapiens although the scientific debate is not completely settled (see wiki).

20

The Loess Plateau was flat and densely wooded as recent as less than 2000 years ago. The massive deforestation and the resulting soil erosion was entirely caused by human activities. Nowadays the Loess Plateau consists mostly of gully hills.1

In the past 2500 years, there was no evidence that the Chinese civilization consciously practised conservation. Fortunate for the Chinese, vast areas in the east and the south made it possible to repeat this pattern of leaving a mess behind and moving on to someone else's land for 2000 years; there was nothing but famine, disease and Mongols to check this kind of activity. A most recent repetition of this pattern of destruction happened in Manchuria, which was pristine as late as 1950s and is now as devastated as any other areas in China proper.

Source:

  1. Soil Erosion Dynamics on the Chinese Loess Plateau in the Last 10,000 Years
16

It's arguable whether it's "unsustainable" (any extraction of non-renewable resources is), but the common ancient mining technique of hushing resulted in near-complete destruction of landscapes, or at the very least significant alteration. The method essentially consists of using a large flow of water to wash away the topsoil, exposing deposits underneath. In places like Las Medulas, the effects on the landscape are still very obvious 2,000 years later.

  • 3
    Recycling is a big part of sustainability - and metals have pretty much always been recycled almost entirely. However, indiscriminately destroying the topsoil certainly qualifies as unsustainable - it's even a rather interesting example in that it's cross-industry; mining ores (good) also destroys animal habitats or arable soil (bad for food production etc.). – Luaan Nov 16 '17 at 14:13
12

Yes, absolutely.

It's a bit hard to proof for real pre-historic influence, but humanity as such has definitely changed things on the planet even before the industrial time.

Extinct species

Humanity made multiple species extinct. And no, I am not talking about smallpox, but rather about Steller's sea cow or dodo. More.

While these examples are from rather historic times, prehistoric megafauna might be also be influenced by humans, but I am not sure.

Landscape

Massive deforestation, expansion of agriculturaly used territories, man-made channels and dams – all these are by far no new development. I've heard that, like, no land patch in Europe has its historic landscape anymore, even the forests are some kind of a re-development. However, I'll let it here as a speculative statement on my part.

11

I'd recommend 1491 by Charles Mann for anyone interested in this topic. Humans have extensively engineered their environments even before adopting agriculture. East Coast North American tribes systematically burned the forest to weed out undergrowth and spark/germinate mast, such as chestnuts. This was sustainable in the sense that mast is what deer ate, and deer were an important food staple and raw goods source. It is, however, significant environmental alteration to suit a human social need, and, strictly speaking, environmental destruction in that the only surviving plants were fire resistant trees and shrubs.

11

A lot of good answers- nearby me there is an example of a Native American culture whose unsustainability probably contributed to their collapse.

The Cahokia Indians built a city near modern day St. Louis that was the first and largest city built in North America north of the Mesoamericans in Mexico. This site was first settled around 600AD and peaked in population near 1100AD. At its peak the population was estimated to be up to 40,000 people total, with around 15,000 people of those living in the urban center and the rest living in outlying farming settlements.

These people were technologically advanced compared to other Native Americans. They built huge earthen mounds, the largest was 10 stories tall. They had a copper workshop that was unique among the Mississippian Indians. They also constructed "Woodhenge", which was probably a solar calendar used for tracking the agricultural calendar.

But, unfortunately, they were still trying to support a city of 40,000 with Native American level technology. Historians cite deforestation and over-hunting as two contributing factors to the city's decline.

9

According to Russian scientist Sergey Zimov, the disappearance of grasslands in Siberia was not due to Climate Change, but due to overhunting in prehistoric times.

The theory is that humans killed the large grazers. This led to the older steppe-like landscape to be replaced by the less productive and less biodiverse dense forests that we associate with Siberia today. Those forests are so much darker than the previous landscape, that it has a significant impact on global average temperature. According to this theory, not only did pre-industrial civilisations engage in unsustainable practices, but they actually engaged in anthropogenic climate change.

Note that there is currently no scientific consensus on this theory, but I find it a very intriguing thought.


(If you ever get the chance to listen to Sergey Zimov speaking in person, I strongly recommend you do. His are most memorable lectures I've ever attended.)

  • 3
    An interesting theory. I don't think we know for sure the behavior of Mammoths, but they were closer related to Asian elephants than either are to African elephants. Asian elephants are known to have a huge impact on their environment (which is why they need really big territories). My understanding is that for them, loss of the herds tends to bring less trees though, not more. Or at least less of certain kinds. – T.E.D. Nov 16 '17 at 15:04
8

How Aboriginal burning changed Australia’s climate

For thousands of years, Aboriginal Australians burned forests to promote grasslands for hunting and other purposes. Recent research suggests that these burning practices also affected the timing and intensity of the Australian summer monsoon.

  • 3
    Looks like @Evargalo already gave this answer 12hrs before you, didn't they? – Xen2050 Nov 17 '17 at 3:27
  • 1
    @Xen2050 they might related, but his answer is in regards to killing off the megafauna (maybe from burning forests, maybe from over-hunting), whereas my answer talks about burning forests. – RonJohn Nov 17 '17 at 6:27
  • I think you may be right, reading your link shows it's a little different from Evargalo's, so upvotes for both. Wouldn't have expected the Aboriginals did so much burning for so many reasons (at least in these theories)... maybe it's a case of "when all you've got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail" – Xen2050 Nov 19 '17 at 22:04
  • @Xen2050 it's more a case of "you believed Western idealists and all their Noble Savage" garbage. – RonJohn Jun 11 at 13:08
4

No, of course not. The ancients were completely in touch with their surroundings, living lightly upon the land, and never, ever, EVER did ANYTHING which would negatively impact their Druidic karma.

Ahem.

Bullsh*t.

"The ancients" had less knowledge of things that we today call "ecology" and "environmental impact" than today's third graders. They chopped down what they felt like chopping down, dug up what they felt like digging up, killed and ate whatever they could catch, dammed what they damn well wanted to dam, and didn't give a damn. They believed that nature was boundless and eternal, and they could take whatever they liked, forever. North American and Australian megafauna? Wiped out at least in part by humans. The ecological collapse of Easter Island. The Sumerian deforestation of southern Iraq. England and western Europe, which were once covered by old-growth forests, were cleared and turned into fields and pastures by "the ancients" using stone tools. The list of such things goes on, and on, and on. And today, still goes on.

We are the ancients.

  • The only difference is that now we have the quantity and capacity to do it at an unimaginably larger scale. – RonJohn Aug 9 '18 at 12:35
2

Nobody mentioned a critical point (or I missed it):
Historically, humanity was simply not large enough to damage the complete ecosystem significantly.

Only in recent centuries have we reached the population size and distribution that enables us to have such large impacts.

  • 4
    The question doesn't ask about damage to the ecosystem; it asks about unsustainable practices. Every slash and burn agriculture, every nomadic civilization, and every population that exceeds available farms - in short every civilization that includes "hunger" is unsustainable. Your point is valid, but is not responsive to this question. – Mark C. Wallace Nov 16 '17 at 15:54
  • 1
    Simply not true; someone else mentioned the "managed woodlands" of North America. Then there's the example of silphium -- a plant eaten to extinction by the ancient world. – Rob Crawford Nov 17 '17 at 14:29
  • 3
    This is not true. There are lots of cultures who suffered collapse because they destroyed their local ecosystem. Ancient cities could have many tens of thousands of residents, and transporting enough food, water, firewood, etc. using ancient technology was an insurmountable challenge for many. – David Nov 17 '17 at 17:32
  • 1
    In the ancient world civilizations and cities tended to grow until their resource demands out-stripped the ability of their local environment to provide sufficient resources for their needs and their waste generation out-stripped the ability of the populace to cart it away, at which point they collapsed. For an example, consider the rise and fall of the city complex at Cahokia in North America. – Bob Jarvis Nov 20 '17 at 17:34
-2

Humankind jumped to the top of the food chain in the last 100,000 years. In his book Sapiens, Yuval Harari says we ascended to the top so quickly that the ecosystem was not given time to adjust. Humans themselves failed to adjust! The historical record shows that whenever Homo Sapiens arrived at a new location, both the fauna and the native population became extinct.

  • Perhaps our species should be renamed "homo fatuus". – Bob Jarvis Nov 24 '17 at 13:01
-4

Negative environmental effects (CO2, particulate pollution...) of burning things - wood, charcoal, plant or animal fats and whatever was used as heating, cooking and manufacturing fuel - in the open will always have been there, albeit likely on a smaller scale.

  • 21
    That doesn't make the practice unsustainable -- you neglect scale but that's one of the most relevant factors. Burning wood for heating is a sustainable practice, for example, is a sustainable practice if the environment produces as much wood as you consume and recycles as much pollution as you release. It's only when you scale up beyond those limits that it becomes unsustainable. – user13151 Nov 15 '17 at 13:29
  • @Hurkyl According to a narrow definition of sustainable, yes. However, it does lead to poor air quality which has detrimental health effects, which can and does slowly kill. It's sustainable in the way smoking is: on a global scale, yes. For an individual human, not really. – gerrit Nov 16 '17 at 11:17
  • @gerrit thanks, that is what I was about. Also, post-pre-industrial pollution would need to be judged by the same scale-caveat. – rackandboneman Nov 16 '17 at 12:18
  • @rackandboneman "post-pre-industrial pollution" ... you mean just industrial pollution? – Xen2050 Nov 20 '17 at 2:56

protected by Steve Bird Nov 22 '17 at 6:14

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.