The Fruits of Civilization (65) Ecological Impact

Ecological Impact

One thing is sure. The Earth is now more cultivated and developed than ever before. There is more farming with pure force, swamps are drying up, and cities are springing up on an unprecedented scale. We’ve become a burden to our planet. Resources are becoming scarce. ~ North African Roman Christian theologian Tertullian in the early 3rd century

In 1750 the world had 800 million people. On the heels of the Age of Discovery, many Europeans thought the planet’s resources inexhaustible.

In Wealth of Nations (1776), Adam Smith discussed cultivable land as a possible constraint on economic growth. The economic consequences of diminishing marginal agricultural yield were well understood, but there was no widely accepted suggestion of limits to growth on a planetary scale. In his time, Malthus was a lonely raving pessimist.

Any intrusion into Nature has numerous effects, many of which are unpredictable. ~ American ecologist Garrett Hardin

Environmental degradation was long considered a local problem. Indeed, into the 21st century, the common refrain of those who denied man-made climate change was that humans were simply not that significant.

Along that line, it was long thought that prehistoric peoples did not degrade the environment. This sophistry spilled from several false assumptions: population numbers and densities too low to matter, technology was ineffectual, and early peoples lived in harmony with Nature.

Instead, humans have always been a destructive force: ever at odds with Nature in ceaselessly attempting to exploit it. Vast areas of forest and grassland were burned, vegetation irretrievably altered, soils soiled, fauna eradicated.

The adoption of agriculture, combined with its 2 major consequences – settled communities and steadily rising population – placed an increasing strain on the environment. That strain was localised at first, but as agriculture spread, so did its effects. ~ Clive Ponting

As early as 6000 bce, within 1,000 years of the Fertile Crescent having settled communities, villages were being abandoned, as erosion from deforestation and intensive agriculture damaged the soil, making it impossible to grow enough food.

Humans have been having a massive effect on the environment for a very long time. ~ American paleobiologist Kathleen Lyons

From hunting megafauna in prehistory to deforestation to create arable acreage, humans have always had a significant and lasting impact. Indeed, from the tropics to the boreal, forests were never pristine, nor animal populations left untouched: all were attacked by man since his emergence.

When early humans started farming and became dominant in the terrestrial landscape, we see this dramatic restructuring of plant and animal communities. ~ American biologist Nicholas Gotelli

Through the birth of towns, people wrought exclusion zones from Nature. Not only were wild animals not tolerated, but the vegetation was much modified, and the wastes of humanity accumulated in and around settlements.

The emergence of settled societies created a problem that has still not been solved across the world: disposing of human excrement and urine whilst obtaining decent drinking water. ~ Clive Ponting

During the 16th century, European settlers in the New World killed 56 million indigenous people. Large swaths of farmland and settlements were abandoned and reforested. The additional vegetation decreased atmospheric carbon dioxide, invoking an ice age in the mid-17th century.

CO2 and climate had been relatively stable until this point. The only way the Little Ice Age was so intense is because of the genocide of millions of people. ~ English climatologist Mark Maslin

Industrialization kicked environmental damage into overdrive. Now, no land, sea, or sky remains unblemished by human activity.

Rich countries are siphoning up the planet’s resources and destroying its ecosystems at an unprecedented rate. We are wrecking our planet’s life support systems. ~ Paul Ehrlich

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Our disproportionate place on Earth is striking. ~ Israeli environmental scientist Ron Milo

Humanity is just 0.01% of Earth’s living biomass. Of all the extant mammals, humans are 36% of the biomass, their livestock 60%, and wild mammals just 4%. Since the descent of man, 83% of wild mammal species have become extinct. Of the birds in the world by weight, 70% are poultry livestock, 30% are wild.

We are doing something that will last millions of years beyond us. ~ Danish bioscientist Matt Davis

With a singular glaring exception, Nature exhibits a gyral balance. Predators do not commit communal suicide by numerically overtaking their prey. Microbes, plants, and some animals build habitats which benefit other species. Fungi and other saprovores recycle leftovers so that valuable elements are reused. The great exception to this wondrous scheme is mankind: a top predator that seems to exist preternaturally. The Biblical claim to dominion has spelled devastation.

There is urgency in coming to see the world as a web of interrelated processes of which we are integral parts, so that all of our choices and actions have consequences for the world around us. ~ Alfred North Whitehead in 1947