The History of Environmentalism: Part 1: Early Societies

June 17, 2012 § 1 Comment

In the beginning, there was the Earth. Since its formation four and a half billion years ago, it is the unique qualities of our Earth that have allowed life not only to survive, but to thrive. While we may have only just recently begun to understand how this came to be, respect and gratitude for, and reverence of our environment and our Earth are almost as old as humanity itself. Once our earliest ancestors mastered fire, and settled down to begin living an agricultural life, then we see the beginnings of these feelings about the environment. Most of this showed up in similar forms around the world: Religion.

One of the earliest, and perhaps the classic(al) example (sorry, had to) of early environmental awareness comes from the ancient Greeks. One of the most prominent of the Greek gods, Demeter (Romans called her Ceres), was goddess of the harvest, and was


Ceres (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

worshiped during each of the important harvest times. Other important gods ruled and controlled the waters, winds, seasons, and everything in between. By praying to these gods, the ancient Greeks were able to express their thankfulness for the gifts of the Earth, but their worship can also be seen as an early yearning to understand the forces at work maintaining our planet.

Other early cultures practiced beliefs that focused on environmental sustainability. Jewish law, which was written and practiced even earlier than the Greeks, had strict agricultural regulations. In order to allow trees to grow properly, for example, their fruits are protected in the first few years and are not to be harvested. Other laws deal with pollution, noise, and smoke, amongst other things. The ethical aspects of Dharma in Hinduism encouraged early humans in the Indus Valley to respect their environment, while Buddhism provided others with an emphasis on balancing human indulgence and destruction with the needs of the environment and others.

As a non-religious example, the practices of indigenous people, from North America to Indonesia and Africa, varied as they may be, tend to have some similar traits. Most significant among these are the beliefs that many of them share in conservation, specifically in living off the land. Most of these societies understood that they had to live with the land – they had to take into consideration the other animals, and even the other plants that they lived with and shared an environment and ecosystem with. These beliefs led to practices that have unfortunately not necessarily continued to our present day, especially the practice of using every part of every thing you take out of the environment. For the Plains Indians of North America, for example, when they killed a buffalo, all of the meat would be taken and either eaten or preserved, the bones would be used to make tools, and the skin and furs would be made into tents or clothing. This practice pervaded almost all early peoples, and varied only by the plants and animals they interacted with.

Unfortunately, as time went on, many of these practices, religious or secular, law of the people or law of the land, faded away. Civilizations in the late centuries BCE and early centuries CE started building  huge cities, leveling forests to build roads, practicing slash-and-burn agriculture, began fishing and hunting en-masse, and most significantly of all, began to experience exponential population growth. How did this change the world of sustainability? Check back next Sunday for part two in this new eight part series on the History of Environmentalism and Sustainability.


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