George Walford: When Did It Start?

The success of the Greens in the recent European elections has fluttered the political dovecotes. After full allowance for the tendency of the electorate to respond in one way to general elections and in another to those they feel not to be of the first importance – by elections, municipal elections and, perhaps, European elections too – it remains clear that concern for the environment is now firmly on the agenda. Significant numbers are coming to believe that if present tendencies continue life will become less pleasant for everybody and there may arise a threat to the survival of the race.

Some people are able to avoid forms of pollution suffered by others, but to a large extent the conditions arising affect us all; nobody is going to escape the effects of increasing carbon dioxide and a deteriorating ozone layer. Yet people do not all respond in the same way. A minority show concern while great numbers are content to live their private lives and pursue their individual interests, seldom lifting their heads to see what is going on in the world. Rich and poor, capitalists and workers, educated and uneducated are to be found in each of these groups. The difference is clearly not a consequence of variations in class, status or income, it arises from different ways of thinking.

The minority have their attention directed towards the human community in its environment and the joint welfare of the whole, while the greater numbers focus upon their private and individual concerns. The two attitudes are not only different, but opposed. When it is proposed, for example, to dear the Amazonian rain-forest for mining, or to drain wetlands for building sites, one side will speak of development, the other of destruction. The increasing numbers of motor-cars, roads and refrigerators that one side values as parts of a rising standard of living the other condemns for their effect upon the quality of life. There is little prospect of agreement or compromise, and pressing forward come thousands of millions more to demand their share of the good life lived in America and Europe.

Those advocating restraint tend strongly to ascribe the problem to the industrialists and their influence upon governments, and it can hardly be denied that these play an active part. But although active they are not free; they are responding to a deeper influence. The tendency towards destruction of the environment can be traced back to a period long before modern industry appeared, or governments either.

The first human settlers on Easter Island, those who erected the famous stone statues, also cleared the forest which had formerly covered it, substituting quarries, fields of sweet potatoes, and stone villages. They had completed the change well before 1300 AD. [1] This was not the beginning. Before civilisation began, before agriculture, while the first people were still living on the natural produce they could gather, the balance of the environment was already being upset by human action. Steven J. Mithen draws this conclusion (though he does not put it in these terms) from his study of the art of two Upper Palaeolithic sites together with the remains of food-animals found there. [2]

The cave paintings and incised tools (Mithen speaks of “parietal and mobiliary art,” but we can forgive him that) show variations in the frequency with which different animal species are represented, and Mithen interprets these ecologically. A dense and complex argument leads him to the conclusion that these early hunters pursued their favourite game, red deer and reindeer, to the full extent of their powers, quite without regard for ecological principles. They engaged in drives or surrounds leading to mass slaughters and “catastrophic mortality profiles,” reducing the populations of these species below the level at which the maximum Sustainable yield could be obtained. The frequency of the creatures’ representation in cave art increased as their growing scarcity meant they had to be hunted singly, a method requiring greater skills (for which the paintings helped to provide instruction) than the mass slaughters; “the red deer populations were indeed driven to low levels.”

Compared with the larger game animals the small creatures, birds and shellfish require a greater investment of time and effort for a given return. There was more reliance upon these in the later than in the earlier part of the Paleolithic, suggesting that the bigger animals, particularly reindeer and red deer, had become scarce as a result of increased hunting pressure. This is confirmed by the greater fragmentation, in this period, of the bones of these animals, indicating a more urgent desire to get at the marrow, a consequence of shortage of meat.

The behaviour-pattern is fsimiliar enough, and it is not the one often ascribed to the first people by critics of present society. Far from living in harmony with their environment, carefully limiting their demands to what the ecology could tolerate, the people who painted the caves and left the rubbish-heaps which Mithen studied were taking what they wanted without regard for anything but their own immediate purposes. They damaged their local ecology to an extent which caused them inconvenience, perhaps sometimes hunger, and if they did nothing worse it was not for lack of trying but for lack of power.

If, foregoing the full rigour of scholarly demonstration, we take a slightly more relaxed approach, we can see the same thing happening on a far wider scale in later pre-industrial times. Large areas of North Africa once fertile were reduced to desert and the forests of Europe almost wholly destroyed; the countryside we now seek to preserve is to a great extent a human production. Destruction of the natural environment is not something begun by modern industry; it has been going on since human beings first appeared, an unintended by-product of their pursuit of individual interests, and what we are witnessing now is only the culmination of the process.

Industry now commits most of the damage, but not independently; it acts as the cutting edge of social demand and it is in this demand, not in the instrument it uses, that the root of our troubles lies. The efforts now being made, by Greenpeace and the ecological movement generally, amount to little more than tinkering. To stop the Japanese exterminating the whales, or BP destroying the rain-forest, wins the approval of the people concerned for the welfare of the whole, and they make themselves heard. But behind them lie the great numbers who have yet to speak, the masses who couldn’t care less about the whales, or the rain-forest and its effects upon climat, or about society as a whole, the great majority with attention fixed upon their individual affairs. These are the people who came close to exterminating red deer and reindeer in their localities, the people whose goats turn wooded country into desert. These are the people who, ultimately, decide what industry shall produce and what supplies it shall use. These are the people who, in their increasing numbers, create the social demand driving industry to wreck the environment although without any intention of doing so, Their course of action is not rigidly fixed, they do not always and everywhere demand the same things and they do not always breed to the maximum. Their behaviour varies, but within limits. Where those limits lie, how far they can be extended, and how this group interacts with others influencing society and its demands are things known, as yet, only in the broadest terms. Understanding detailed enough to guide useful action has still to be acquired. Given it, there may be a chance of inducing society to follow a sustainable course; without it, if we remain confined to rational demonstration and moral exhortation, the future looks bleak.

1. Thor Heyerdahl, Fatu-Hiva; Back to Nature. Penguin Books 1976, p.203.
2. Steven J.Mithen, To Hunt or to Paint: Animals and Art in the Upper Palaeolithic. MAN, Journal of the RAI, December 1988.

from Ideological Commentary 41, September 1989.