George Walford: The Three Ages of Ecology (56)

Reprinted, with minimal revision, from Fourth World Review No. 47. – GW

In Fourth World Review 40 / 41 the article ‘Start Preparing Now,’ by Kirkpatrick Sale, speaks of destruction of the environment only in connection with expansive European civilization of the last five centuries. If this be all there is to it we face a gloomy outlook, for it implies that to overcome our problems we need to return to earlier modes of behaviour, and human society has never been much good at going backwards. It has moved consistently forward, on to methods and practices not known before. Even when a return seems to have been accomplished, as with the restoration of peace after war, the condition regularly turns out to be different from that formerly known. History suggests that the way back is barred; we are condemned to advance. Since pressing forward has brought us to the point where we are destroying the ecology on which we depend, it may seem that further advance can only make things worse, but there is good reason for doubting this; in order to see it we need to look at two changes of direction which have occurred in the past.

First came the change from evolutionary development of the natural ecology, which had been continuous (though not smoothly so) from the beginning of things, to partial destruction of it. This took place a great deal more than five centuries ago. John Perlin has studied the destruction of forests, [1] and it would hardly be an exaggeration to say he finds it starting with the first appearance of civilisation. Somewhere around 2,700 BC the epic of Gilgamesh, turning history into literature, told how the hero and his companions, having fought and slain the forest god went on to devastate his domain, stripping the mountains of cover and leaving bare rock in their wake.

This was not the beginning of damage to the environment. Steven Mithen, studying the cave paintings and rubbish heaps of two Upper Paleolithic sites, came to the conclusion that these early hunters had engaged in mass slaughters of red deer and reindeer, reducing their numbers so much that they themselves had to rely upon the more troublesome small game and shellfish. [2] Rather than treating the ecology with the careful consideration sometimes credited to them, they had taken what they wanted without regard for anything but their own immediate purposes. If they did not do as much damage as modern industry it was only because they did not possess the same powers.

The first big change in the course followed by our environment, the beginnings of its destruction by humanity, took place while the species was still in its original condition, living by hunting and gathering, long before government, industry, civilization or agriculture had appeared. This did not, however, simply reverse the previous course of events, it produced a more complex situation. Destruction did not replace development; henceforward the two occurred together, with destruction growing as humanity acquired greater powers. Perlin tells how early civilizations tried to stem the damage, but also shows that they acted out of self-interest, continuing to destroy the forests of competitors.

Within recent decades the destruction wrought by humanity (mainly by way of industry) has threatened to overwhelm natural powers of recuperation, and this has provoked another change of direction. During the second half of this century there has appeared the movement now known as green, an organised and continuing effort of conservation. This has not ended destruction any more than destruction ended natural development; it has, again, produced an increase in complexity. We now have three processes at work, one superimposed upon the other: natural development, human destruction, human efforts at conservation.

We can distinguish three ages of ecology: First, the age of natural development in the absence of humanity. Second, the age in which destruction of the environment by humanity increased to the point where it threatened to overwhelm development. Third, the age in which conservation sets out to combat destruction. We stand now at the beginnings of this third age, and although the new principle may seem weak. as yet, we need to remember that in their first appearances the others did, too. Conservation as we know it today, working to protect not only material resources but the richness and variety of life, is something new in history, and to make the most of it we need not to hold back but to press forward, not to struggle against the course society and the world are tending to follow, but to urge them onward, farther and more rapidly into the third age.

[1] Perlin J. 1989. A Forest Journey; the role of wood in the development of civilization. NY & London W.W.Norton & Co.
[2] Mithen S.J. ‘To Hunt or to Paint: animals and art in the Upper Paleolithic,’ in MAN, Volume 23 No.4, 1988.

from Ideological Commentary 56, May 1992.