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Environmental History - General

A developing science, environmental history has made remarkable strides in the past 2 decades and has illuminated the importance of our most critical resource bases and the rise and fall of the societies based on them.  Declines of essential resource bases directly foretell social declines and migrations.

European settlement in Canada was driven by resource disparity.  The declining resource base in Europe coupled with a surging population pushed desperate people to pursue, despite the risks and hardships, a vastly richer resource base in Canada.  Initially thought to be an endless treasure trove of natural resources, after only 200 years our environmental and resource limitations are becoming increasingly clear. 

Stocks of the staple cod species are over 95% lower than they were several hundred years ago.  Much the same trends hold true for forests, soils, water and the vast majority of our wildlife.  

With the clear hindsight of environmental history, perhaps we can develop the foresight to avoid further environmental collapse and sidestep the disasters past societies have experienced.  In 2016, we have no "New World" in which to flee. 

Sustainable change starts with you!

Here’s how you can affect change.

Learn how you can drive change through the media and your politicians as well as your own actions here.

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Learn more about the Canadian environment & sustainability: 

Environmental History - Advanced

The best known book about environmental and human interaction is “Collapse” by Jared Diamond. In it, Diamond looks at a number of societies and how they dealt with crises of environmental decline. “Collapse” is a must-read for anyone delving into the basic drivers of human history.

A lesser known work is “Human Impact on Ancient Environments” by Charles L. Redman. Published in 1999, it demonstrates how far the science of “environmental anthropology” had advanced in the last half of the 20th century. Nevertheless, given the pace of progress in this area, 1999 seems a long time ago.

 But Redman lays down a great many principles and identifies patterns of human societal development and decline which are unlikely to be challenged. Like our current society, most highly stratified societies regarded nature as a supporting cast member rather than a partner. There was generally a segment of the population which held the environment in high esteem and lobbied for its preservation but those voices almost always lost to the demands for ever greater output.

How humans interact with their environment is the focus of Redman’s work and he draws upon many researchers to fill out the detail of his overview.

When describing the eradication of large animals (megafauna – camels, horses, mammoths, mastodons and ground sloths) from the Americas, Redman refers to Paul S. Martin’s work on human-caused extinctions. (page 79) “Martin argues that when entering a new and favourable habitat, any human population, whatever its economic base, could grow explosively, exceeding ordinary restraints. Demographers cite a maximum possible growth rate of 3.4 percent annually (doubling every 21 years) for known human groups (based on the Pitcairn Island experience, but being approached by some groups in modern times as well). Even at a rate of 1.4 percent (doubling every 50 years), a band of 100 entering the New World would saturate the hemisphere with 10 million people in 800 years. This is more people than needed and a shorter period of time than the archaeological evidence indicates. Martin suggests that the high population density was restricted to the advancing front. The abundance of game within the front determined the rate of advance, as did the cultural limits to the rate of human migration. He argues that within a decade, the population of vulnerable large animals on the front would have been severely reduced or obliterated. As the fauna vanished, the front swept on, while any remaining humans would be at a lower density and would have to seek other resources. The actual figures Martin uses in his model reflect a frontal arc 160km deep with 0.4 people per square kilometer and 16 kilometers of movement per year. This would bring people to the tip of South America 1200 years after their arrival in Alaska.”

Human development made heavy use of fire to clear forest and create an environment more amenable to both prey that humans preferred and basic agriculture. Redman notes that in the Mediterranean region, a forest area would burn on an average of every 25 years. If humans increased the frequency of fire to every 10 years, the forest would give way permanently to savannah.

 Different regions with different soils, crops and planting strategies produce wildly different outputs. (Page 124) “It is estimated that the New Mexico fields had been used for 100 to 150 years at the most and have been fallow for 800 years, while many of the Peruvian terraces have supported more or less continuous cultivation for the past 1500 years up to the present day.”

In other sections of the book, Redman describes societies which have grown and established flourishing cultures and a good measure of stability, only to fall to their own overconsumption (death by success) or a change in the climate.

All these observations give us considerable insight to the mechanism of societal development and decline which we can apply to understand the current state of world affairs.

However, Redman does make one chilling observation which directly challenges our current movement towards globalism. (page 125/126) Instead of a limited and easily comprehensible number of factors to consider for an isolated agrarian society, “As soon as food produced was exchanged, the external economic and political context played an increasing role in determining a farmer’s decisions, as was seen in case studies presented in subsequent chapters. The price of crops, whether or not in monetary terms, is a crucial element, as is the cost of strategies involved in intensification, such as labour, water, or tools. As society becomes more hierarchically organized, demands made by political entities will become increasingly important either through taxes, rents, or direct demands for certain commodities.”

In other words, the decision making process changed from one controlled by local, on-the-ground experts, that would support a sustainable society to one controlled by remote decision-makers that would maximize the output for the benefit of particular interest groups. Does this sound familiar?

This speaks to the oft mentioned societal pariah of “complexity” which is widely held to be the primary cause of societal collapse. Leaders simply do not understand the dynamics of their society’s wealth creation process and interests among various societal groups become conflicted. Or as President Obama commented “I really don’t know much about this economic stuff.” Perhaps the whole picture is too big and too complex to grasp.

Of particular interest to people who went through our educational systems at a time when the pre-1492 New World was described as a virgin treasure chest of untapped natural resources sparsely populated by primitive tribes, is the section citing work by William Denevan. (page 197) “He estimates there were over 50 million people living in the New World at the time of contact, with the following distribution: 3.8 million in North America; 17.2 million in Mexico; 5.6 million in Central America; 3.0 million in the Carribean;15.7 million in the Andes and 8.6 million in lowland South America. … These numbers are similar to, if not greater than, those we project for many areas of the Old World.”

Once exposed to European disease and social upheaval, “Denevan estimates an overall drop from 54 million in A.D. 1492 to 5.6 million in 1650, a fall of 89%. He suggests that in the tropics the proportion is higher, variously in the low 90% range, while in North America where the population was lower and more scattered, it was about 75%.”

This decline of the Amerindian population is one of the most severe population collapses in human history with some researchers putting the pre-contact population at 90 million and the collapse closer to 95%.

As various concerned citizens, scientists and activist groups rail against the destruction of our environmental assets and the altering of climate patterns, some of Redman’s concluding observations are particularly relevant. They mesh with our commentary on “Follow the Money” and “Institutional Corruption”.

(From page 212) “When considered against many measures, urban society is very successful, but according to ecological economists and other scholars, its future is in peril due to troublesome aspects of its systemic relations. As discussed in chapters 3 and 7, maladaptions reduce the survival chances of a system, not by subjecting the system to stress but by impeding the effectiveness of its responses to stress. (Rappaport 1978). The growth of organizational structure in an urban society often leads to higher decision level makers no longer being in close contact with productive situations or the changing aspects of the environment it relies upon. Problems of these sorts, associated with the increasing scale and complexity of society, could include the following:

  1. Delay in the passage of information up the hierarchy and adaptive decisions back down so that the response is no longer timely;
  2. Distortion in information as it is conveyed up the hierarchy and back down;
  3. Failure of high-level decision-makers to understand the productive situation or the requirements of the environment;
  4. A divergence in the objectives of the differing groups in the society, so that certain institutions or groups may thrive at the expense of the majority and/or the environment.”

Clearly, we need to understand the dynamics of past societies as well as the environment in which we currently live. We need to assure that the trends which have destroyed countless past regional civilizations do not bring down our own society or that of this highly interconnected and complex world.

Sustainable change starts with you!

Here’s how you can affect change.

Learn how you can drive change through the media and your politicians as well as your own actions here.

Share this article on your social media accounts to spread awareness.


Learn more about the Canadian environment & sustainability:

Environmental History - Reference

Subject MatterSource

World Scientists' Warning to Humanity
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Union of Concerned Scientists

The Energy, Growth and Pollution network has since 2003 linked together historians working on the history of energy use and its consequences for the economy and environment in Europe from c.1500 to the present.
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History and Sustainability

The Upshot of the Myth of Superabundance
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Ecological Footprint data tells us that, given current population and available land area, an Ecological Footprint of less than 1.8 global hectares per person makes a country?s resource demands globally replicable.
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Global Footprint Netwrok

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