George Walford: Three Ages of Ecology (45)

Fifty-five years ago the atomic bomb was a fantasy and the greenhouse effect was what ripened your tomatoes. The newspapers said there was another war coming, but it would be over in a few months because the Germans didn’t have much oil, and after it things would be better. The bad old days were coming to an end. Machines were going to bring everybody the sort of life the rich already enjoyed – only more so. The planet offered plenty for everybody.

All this has changed, and the big story now is about the need for restraint. The resources of the planet are limited, and we have been using them up faster than they can be replaced, burning the oil and the trees, fouling the rivers, the seas and the air; the Great Lakes have been poisoned.

We are in trouble, and one suggested escape-route is a return to the ways of our forefathers. Not, of course, to their poverty, hunger, disease and ignorance but to their modest attitudes, to working with nature instead of seeking to dominate. We are urged back towards the sort of life described by William Morris and pictured by Walter Crane, with men swinging scythes and axes, women gathering the harvest while happy children play around them; strong horses, solid wagons, and the fruits of the earth gathered with healthy sweat.

There might be difficulties in using these methods today; could they, for example, support the present world population? Let us overlook these and turn to the crucial question: Did these people, who lived by manual farming, display the careful consideration for the environment sometimes ascribed to them?

In England today hedges are being torn up, wetlands drained and uplands ploughed; as the remnants of ancient wilderness disappear the wildlife goes too. The new landscape is unfamiliar but so, in its time, was the scenery it replaces. The traditional English countryside, of small fields surrounded by hedges, was as artificial as the motorcar, and the open fields and commons that came before the enclosures were hardly more natural. To get arable land the early farmers destroyed forest and marsh and killed off the wild animals; laws had to be passed to protect the game so the lords could have their hunting.

Most of the folk-tales come from peasant times, and one character who turns up almost as often as the prince is the woodman with his axe. Under the first Elizabeth London had to start burning coal, because firewood was running out as the trees disappeared. Forest once covered most of Europe and much of North America, but fire and axe had cleared the greater part of it long before modern industry appeared, and the goats of wandering herdsmen turned parts of North Africa into desert.

Much the same sort of thing happened in other parts of the world, even on some of the Pacific islands. The Easter Islanders who erected the famous stone statues also cut down the forest, replacing it with quarries, stone villages, and fields of sweet potatoes – it wasn’t our modern farmers who started monoculture – and they had completed the change well before 1300 AD. [1] Sweeping destruction of forest and wilderness came long before modern industry.

What must we do to save our world? Well, one thing we must not do is go back to the attitudes and practices of the manual farmers.

What happens if we go farther back, to a time before farming was thought of? Cultivation started some ten thousand years ago, and before that people lived by collecting what grew naturally. They are known as hunter-gatherers, or foragers, and this is what one of the greens, Desmond King-Hele, has to say about them:

The hunter-gatherers of old were in a real sense the earliest ecologists. They had to live in harmony with nature, culling the wild life with intuitive skill and avoiding massacres that would leave no food for tomorrow.[2]

Mrs. Thatcher has much the same idea; she has praised what she calls “the primitive tribes of the rain-forest” for having “a one-ness with the environment that has been lost in the urban jungle.” [3]

That sounds like the way we ought to be acting. Living in harmony with nature, caring for the ecology and taking only what we need. Unfortunately, the people who speak in this way about the foragers are saying how they would like them to have been rather than how they really were.

The foragers who survived into modern times usually did take only what they needed, but they had been pushed out to barren areas where they could hardly do anything else. When you have to wait by a hole in the ice for a seal to come up, or track animals one by one across a desert, it’s very difficult to kill enough of them to make much difference to their numbers.

The original hunter-gatherers acted differently. Coming into a world where game was plentiful they were able to damage their environment and they did so. Early last year Steven J. Mithen published a paper in the journal of the Royal Anthropological Society. He had studied the cave-paintings, carved tools and rubbish-heaps left by two foraging communities of the Old Stone Age, and what he found led him to contradict Desmond King-Hele and Mrs. Thatcher. These people did not show thoughtful consideration for the environment and they did massacre animals They nearly did leave themselves without food for tomorrow.

At first they lived mainly on the bigger game animals, but over the years they came to depend on the small creatures, birds and shellfish. This is a harder way to live, and Mithen found that they made the change because in their own area they had almost wiped out the bigger species. They hunted their favourite game, red deer and reindeer, without restraint and quite without regard for ecological principles. They carried out drives and surrounds and mass slaughters, killing so many deer that there were not enough left to live on. Another anthropologist speaks of suggestions that in the Pleistocene period humans killed off the large animals over the whole of Europe. [4]

Early peoples of the Pacific islands were also busy exterminators. Excavations in Hawaii have shown that at least forty species of birds had been eliminated before the Europeans arrived. The Maoris burned the New Zealand forests, destroyed the fur seal rookeries of North Island and wiped out all thirteen species of flightless moas, as well as twenty types of flying birds. Study of middens elsewhere in the Pacific shows both the number and variety of fish, shellfish and turtles declining as the first inhabitants ate whatever they could get, without any of that restraint and consideration sometimes ascribed to them. [5]

Modern hunter-gatherers are no better:

Nuaulu hunters on the Indonesian island of Seram have a vandalistic attitude to the rain forest which any self-respecting Friend of the Earth would find positively obscene. As they walk along well-trodden forest paths they quite deliberately hack away at lianas, tree-trunks and other vegetation, for no other reason than that it gives them immense pleasure. [6]

Roy Ellen sums up:

the stable and apparently conservationist strategies of many small-scale societies are largely an illusion. Even the most rudimentary technologies, and those subsistence patterns which apparently leave the natural ecosystem unaltered can have a significant impact on the environment. [7]

Any idea that we can escape our ecological problems by returning to the ways of the early farmers, or the hunter-gatherers, rests on illusion and misunderstanding. Since human beings first appeared they have been using the environment for their own purposes without a second thought; if those who came before us did not destroy their environment it was only because they had not the power to do so. There is nothing to be gained by returning to earlier attitudes, and we cannot carry on as we are. The only way out is forward.

This doesn’t sound very encouraging. After all, it was by pressing forward that we got into this mess in the first place. But in complex affairs like those of society development seldom follows a simple straight line, and the answer to our problem begins to appear when we think of the ecology as having passed through two distinct ages and as now entering a third.

Although a healthy conceit makes human beings bulk large in our thinking, the natural world got along very well without us for thousands of millions of years. At first it didn’t have animals or plants either, but after they appeared things still remained steady. The ecology became more complex but remained in balance, and from all the signs it could have continued like that almost indefinitely.

Then, quite suddenly as these things go, this stability weakened. Human beings appeared and started to work on the natural world, changing it into one that suited them better. At first they couldn’t do very much, and this leads many of us to think they lived in harmony with nature the way the animals do. The idea is questionable, and if human beings taken as a whole ever did do this, they soon stopped.

“Animals live in harmony with nature.” Another way of putting this would be to say that beyond a limited range of activity they submit to what circumstance inflicts on them. Predators, sickness, disappearance of their food supplies, whatever it may be animals just accept it. Some human beings tend to do the same. Taken as a group, however, human beings behave otherwise. Confronted with an obstacle they find a way round, put under pressure they fight back.

Animal populations are limited by available food; people refused to accept this limitation. Finding natural supplies no longer sufficient for their increasing numbers they invented agriculture, and as their numbers grew still farther they improved their farming techniques and went on to building and civil engineering. They drained marshes, dug tunnels, bridged rivers. Since human beings first appeared we have been altering the world to suit human requirements, and this has been the second age of ecology, the age of transformation.

Up to around the late 18th Century the changes moved slowly. Then the first mechanised industry appeared and the increase in population started to accelerate. From the first appearance of humanity – depending on the definition of “human” it may have been as much as two million years ago – the number of people grew, until around 1900 it reached two thousand million. Then, in less than a century, that number doubled. Between 1900 and 1970 more people were added to the population than in all the ages that had gone before. With more people to be supplied and greater powers available, the transformation speeded up. Great forests – could now be quickly cleared, oceans linked by canals, whole prairies cultivated.

The acceleration brought unheard-of benefits, and new risks with them. Human beings have always been at the mercy of natural forces, and doubtless always will be; the novelty is that now the most urgent dangers are ones we have created for ourselves: nuclear war, pollution, radiation poisoning and, what specially concerns us here, the effects upon ourselves of the damage we are doing to the environment. Before 1945 we could hardly have eliminated ourselves if we tried; now we can do so all too easily, and this marks the beginning of a new ecological age. The task before us is no longer to transform the planet. It is to control ourselves and our society. We are entering the third age of ecology, the age of self-restraint.

Looking at what has happened in the world, and what is happening today, may well bring a feeling that if the next age is to be distinguished by self-restraint it won’t be much of an age; self-restraint, it seems, is the one thing human beings are incapable of. It has to be admitted that we’re not much good at it yet, but over the past century or two – no time at all in historical terms – some of us have made a beginning, starting to bring society and its institutions under rational control.

As a first example take the Church. Back in the days of ancient Rome it began as a small weak movement. Growing stronger, with a sudden spurt under Constantine, it became able to meet kings and emperors on equal terms, even to dominate them. When the power of the Church was at its peak anybody looking back, tracing the line of development and projecting it forward, would have been pretty well bound to reckon that the Church would soon be the biggest and most powerful institution on earth.

It didn’t work out like that. Other influences arose, among them science, democracy, freethought and atheism. Some of these had been with us for a long time, but around the middle of the 19th Century they started to become more powerful and now, taken together, these secular influences outweigh the church. Sunday moves towards becoming a shopping day like any other.

Next, take the empires. Beginning around 3,500 BC under Akkad of Sargon they kept growing bigger, one swallowing another, until a handful of them ruled most of the world. At the end of the 19th century anybody tracing the line of their development to that point, and projecting it forward, would have been pretty well bound to predict that before long the whole world would be under one empire. Again the obvious thing didn’t happen. Just when imperialism seemed about to win complete success it was overcome by a new type of nation-state.

One more example: the motor-car. The obvious prediction is that motor traffic will continue to increase, and in fact the Department of Transport has recently forecast that by the year 2025 traffic will be two and a half times what it is now. A horrifying prospect. [8] Yet just when the car seems about to triumph resistance against it starts to build up. In November last year a Gallup survey reported that 82 per cent of Londoners want restrictions on the use of cars in central London, with improvements in public transport. [9] Figures like that are hard for governments to ignore, and already public feeling is having some effect. Pedestrian precincts and sleeping policemen restrict the traffic, juggernaut lorries have been banned from London at night, and every time a new road scheme is proposed a movement against it springs up. These things used not to happen.

Control is being imposed on the Church and the empires, the same thing is happening to the motor-car, and – coming back to our main subject – it is starting to happen to the pollution and destruction which have been wrecking our environment. Mrs. Thatcher has a sharp eye for a vote. When she climbs aboard the green bandwaggon, that shows it has started to roll.

Self-restraint is not impossible. In these instances – and they are big ones – it has already started. We need to keep clearly in mind, however, that it is restraint, not elimination; the original influence continues to exist and to produce effects. Go back for a moment to our examples.

Although the Church no longer has the power it once enjoyed it is still with us. In the USSR a powerful state has been promoting atheism for seventy years, yet people who call themselves Christians still outnumber the members of the Communist Party. [10] In Britain disputes among Anglicans still make the front page, and a prominent author lives in fear of his life from Muslim religionists.

Empires as we once knew them have gone, but the principle on which they operated, imperialism, is still active. Russia and America still dominate wide areas outside their own borders and it is not just a trick of words to describe the multi-nationals as commercial empires. Neither is the motor-car likely to disappear; it has a useful part to play in integrated transport systems.

Each of these things was a great step forward in its time, and although pushed back into second place and brought under control, each of them continues as a working part of a more complex society. Once a step forward has been taken, to a radically new way of thinking or acting, it seldom disappears. It often changes, but the principle of it persists, to serve as a basis for further advances.

This applies to our three ages. The transition from one to the next has not been just a change, as we might change one pair of shoes for another. It has been a true development; in each age new features appear, and things can be done that were impossible in the previous epoch. In the first age there was only the natural, material world. In the second there was this world and, in addition, humanity working to transform it. The third age comprises the natural world, humanity workirig to transform it and, in addition, the influences exercising restraint.

Why should the third age be starting just now? The answer lies in the way the general body of the people tend to behave.

The intellectuals, the reformers, the theorists and the revolutionaries look ahead, and some of them have been worrying about the environment for years. The Conservation Society was founded in 1966, and somebody has said that John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) was the first ecologist. These people and movements exercise influence and, within limits, can bring changes about. Final power, power to get the big things done, or to stop them being done, lies elsewhere; not with the intellectuals or the reformers, and not with government either. It lies with the great body of the people, and they take little notice of theories or threats or promises or forecasts. They wait till it happens, till it begins to affect them. Then they act, and once they begin to move no government, no church, no industry, no capitalist class, no dictator can stop them. Damage to the environment is now rebounding onto them, and they are starting to respond by supporting the green movement. Many green proposals will remain mere ideas, for Utopia remains Utopia whatever colour you paint it; what matters is the movement’s ability to direct the spreading demand for restraint.

Everybody who came before us, hunter-gatherers, farmers and peasants alike, exploited the environment without a second thought, and in doing so they damaged it. To wipe out all the large animals in Europe is no trivial thing. This is the first generation to try to protect the environment. We haven’t done nearly enough, but we’ve made a start, enough to show it can be done.

Restraint does not mean retreat. We have seen that it’s no good returning to the attitudes of the second age and we certainly can’t go back to the beginning, to the age of nature without human beings. Restraint means accepting the responsibilities we have created for ourselves, ceasing to do as we like and starting to find out how we have to treat the environment in order to ensure its welfare – and, of course, ours with it.

[1] Heyerdahl, Thor 1976. Fatu-Hiva Harmondsworth: Penguin Books 203
[2] King-Hele D. in TLS 20 Oct 89
[3] Quoted in Anthropology Today Dec 89.
[4] Ellen R. 1982 Environment, Subsistence and System; the ecology of small-scale social formations Cambridge: CUP
[5] Based on a review, in TLS 9 Mar 90, of Mitchell A. A Fragile Paradise: Nature and man in the Pacific Collins.
[6] Ellen R.”What Black Elk left unsaid; On the illusory images of Green primitivism” Anthropology Today Dec 86
[7] Ellen R. 1982
[8] Independent 28 Nov 89.
[9] Ibid
[10] World Christian Encyclopedia.

from Ideological Commentary 45, May 1990.