235

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 ...


97

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 ...


79

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 ...


51

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 ...


30

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 ...


29

The answer is threefold: 1) Transportation costs: agricultural societies had, since the beginning, been restricted by the amount of food one could produce locally. What 'freed' the British poor from having to work the land (please note I'm not arguing that this was in their favor) was the import of large amount of cheap food, as well as the materials to ...


27

Already in prehistorical times, it seems that the arrival of Human was the cause of major changes in ecosystems. 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 — ...


26

From the standpoint of the ancient Greeks, the aeolipile is a technological dead end. As an engine in its own right, it's useless for more than toys/temple wonders: it produces negligible torque, and does so in a horribly inefficient manner -- the slave you've got stoking the fire to run your aeolipile-powered device would be far more productive if he let ...


26

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. Supporting evidence: 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 ...


24

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 ...


23

Edit: the original question title was about Greece, which is what I've tried to answer below. Because it wasn't Steam Engine Time. It didn't coincide with an obvious need for locomotion, and the capability to implement it on a wide scale. For example, there was little steel and not much coal. There were lots of slaves to do the heavy lifting... I think ...


22

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. ...


22

Weaving generally had been a fairly common occupation during the medieval period in Scotland. The skills were taught to apprentices, who may or may not have been related to the master weaver. This remained the normal way of teaching skilled trades right up to the industrial revolution. In 1587 the Scottish Parliament passed an Act intended to encourage ...


19

Wages. Labour was too cheap for an Industrial revolution. Early industrialisation must be profitable in order to be widely adopted and sustainable. With cheap labour the replacement of human labour with machines just isn't profitable. Research and development of early machines is expensive and slow, if there is no pay off, (trey making of money but cheaper ...


19

The young woman quoted likely misunderstood the real reason the windows were kept shut: to keep the mills humid. This was explained to me on a recent visit to Lowell, but I found a few published sources that match what the tour guides told me. Here's one: Work conditions in the mills were poor. To provide the humidity necessary to keep the threads from ...


18

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. ...


15

I don't know about "make America farm again" since it happened so early in American history, however Thomas Jefferson was a fan of having a primarily agrarian economy, seeing urbanization as a threat to his ideal democracy. From this source: Jefferson's thinking, however, was not merely celebratory, for he saw two dangerous threats to his ideal ...


15

This question seems to imply that the invention of steam power (in any form) is an automatic precursor to an industrial revolution. I don't believe that this is the case. The Industrial Revolution in Europe (and more specifically in Britain) was the result of a number of a number of technological and economic factors that came together in that place and at ...


15

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 ...


14

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 ...


13

The Industrial Revolution resulted in massive gains for worker productivity. The textile industry in particular was a leading and early driver of the industrialisation process. In fact, the importance and impact of the British textile manufacture was such that the Industrial Revolution has been called "mainly the revolution of the cotton industry in Britain"....


13

Universities in Europe changed little during the early modern period and, in many respects, resembled the institutions of the late medieval period. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, registration at a university was subject to rules derived from medieval tradition which were broadly the same in the whole of Europe. They.... varied little until ...


13

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 ...


12

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.


11

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 ...


11

There is no doubt that opium and tea formed a "commercial nexus" that became an essential element of the British imperial economy. Although the British government wasn't directly involved in the opium trade, import duties on tea provided 10% of British tax income. Sales of opium generated about one seventh of the revenues of the British East India Company in ...


10

The primary mechanisms that motivated the industrial revolution were automation and efficient utilization of natural resources to generate power to drive automation. There were certainly also social factors, but I'd prefer to focus primarily on the technical, since this seems to offer a clearer path to an answer. The Romans did harness power from gravity (...


9

Everyone is missing some fundemental preconditions of industrialization. Namely, there needs to be a large class of people who must purchase the consumer goods and must sell their labor to survive. This is the basis of production and of demand. We got a working class in England first because England, by early modern times, was a mostly yeoman (small farmer)...


Only top voted, non community-wiki answers of a minimum length are eligible