The History of Environmentalism: Part 2: Lighting the Fire (Early Civilizations – The Middle Ages)

June 24, 2012 § 1 Comment


drought (Photo credit: IRRI Images)

In the beginning, people lived in harmony with the environment. However, following the Neolithic Revolution, agriculture spread and people began to settle down. So began humanity’s conquering of the environment. In particular, the three major issues facing our environment as history turned towards the Middle Ages were the spread of agriculture, the increased use of water, and the creation of unprecedented amounts of waste.

Agriculture Spreads and Grows

Agriculture by definition does not have to be environmentally damaging. However, early techniques, such as slash-and burn agriculture, had severe effects on the environment when done in increasing quantities. Deforestation by any means, as was necessary to create much of the land needed for irrigation, has a wide spectrum of dangers, ranging from the atmospheric to the hydrological, and including a devastation of biodiversity. Irrigation isn’t much better, as the diversion of water severely damages aquatic ecosystems, and destroys soil quality downstream. Continuous farming dries out soil and drains it of it’s life-supporting minerals.

The early farmers soon started to discover that they were causing these problems for themselves. Many of them found new ways to farm that were better for the land. The Iroquois people of the northeastern part of what eventually became the United States used a farming method known as the “Three Sisters,” in which they planted corn, climbing beans, and squash together, allowing them to grow and mutually benefit each other, while keeping the soil fresh. Other civilizations began to rotate their crops, allowing fields a year or so to sit and regain their nutrients, often planting nitrogen-fixing plants like beans to help replenish the soil.

Unfortunately, despite improvements in sustainable agriculture, as the world moved into the early centuries CE, the population of our planet grew at previously unheard of rates. Due to this, sustainable practices often had to be ignored in order to survive, with farmers choosing to produce as much food as possible, without concern for the future. This would not only not improve, but worsen in the centuries to come.

Water Waves Goodbye

Irrigation for increasing amounts of farming already required a ton of water as the centuries rolled on, but agriculture is not the only thing that required water. People need water to survive, and they need it ready on a daily basis, clean, and ready to go. Wells sprung up around the world, drawing gallons upon gallons of water out from underground. Damns diverted water from rivers to reservoirs and cisterns, where water could be stored, to aqueducts, which moved it all around the world, to places it never had reached before. This became a self-perpetuating problem – the more water that you could move in store, the more people who could live on our planet, and therefore more water was needed.

This increase in water usage didn’t necessarily show any negative effects right away. However, like just about every other environmental problem our world has faced, the effects would show up later on in history.

Waste Grows Alongside Cities

So now that agriculture has grown, there’s generally enough food to go around, and water is plentiful as well. New advances in agriculture seem to happen one after another, after another, and it seems that each day another group of people no longer has to farm and can turn to a new specialization, from pottery and basket weaving in the beginning, to skilled metal-smithing and jewelry making later on. Where better to practice your trade, and, more importantly, to sell your wares, than in a city. People flocked to these cities, to work, to sell, and most importantly, to live.

Cities have a unique problem – they’re packed tight. On a farm, you have maybe 10 people living on a farm with a 10 mile radius, while in a city you have no less than 10 to 100 times that (at a minimum) living in the same sized space. Human beings create 3-4 pounds of biological waste each day, not counting any non-human waste they may create. When people were out hunting and gathering, nature took it’s course with the materials, breaking them down, often before any other humans reached the same site. On a farm, there’s plenty of space to take care of the waste, and not too many people producing it. Unfortunately, in a city, that isn’t necessarily the case.

In a city, the problem of what to do with waste became a major problem. With so many people in such a crowded place, that waste begins to take up a lot more space than is necessarily available. As cities develop, and streets are paved, the amount of available space shrinks even more. In other words, humanity was headed down a dangerous path.

Did anything improve as the Middle Ages dawned? Stay tuned to find out!


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