Marissa Vahlsing
Feb, 2003

Early Man, Old Habits: How the practices of
early man continue to affect our modern environment

"It ever was, and is, and ever shall be, ever-living fire, in measures being kindled, and in measures going out"

Without Man, the flow of energy across the earth is organic and uninterrupted. The Sun warms the plants, the plants grow, animals eat the plants, animals eat the animals, and the animals die and melt back into the ground. The sun warms that ground again and the next generation begins. Although 10% of the sun's original energy is expended with every transaction between organisms, enough energy is conserved to feed the secondary consumers.
Enter man. At some point in the history of hominids man leaned back from the natural rolling of the earth and the ecological wheel, and saw the flow of energy as something to be harnessed. He took this energy into his own hands as something that could be manipulated with his discovery of fire and tools. When man tamed fire and made tools he inaugurated the process of resource utility. He rose above the organic cycle because he was able to manipulate the flow of energy. The use of fire, specifically, allowed creation and destruction to be controlled by man directly. Until this point, the handling of energy had been left to 'mother nature'.
According to Clive Pointing the four distinguishing features of mankind as illustrated in his Green History of the World were: a large brain, ability to walk upright on two feet, use of speech, and the adaptation of technological means to overcome hostile environments (p. 24). It is commonplace to consider the first use of stone and rock tools to cut meat and later to hunt, which is dated back to 2 million years ago, as the first instant of technological industry. After all, anthropologists assert that other animals use tools, but man is the only species to manufacture them. When man began to use and manufacture tools, he simultaneously invoked the ability to create and was able to articulate his hunting skills. Although this may have affected some change over man's surrounding environment because his increased hunting ability could have devastated local populations of megafauna (as explored in the NPR broadcasts about megafauna in Australia), dramatic environmental change was not affected directly by man's own hand. While this invention was critical in the evolution of early man, the use of fire is similarly significant. When man discovered the use of fire, he stumbled upon a force that could be utilized to directly alter the environment around him. He tapped into an energy that had been otherwise reserved for the creator. Fire was able to both create and destroy. It provided warmth and light, but could also transform the living into ash. Thus, the invention of these two new technologies initiated mans new role and a species that was able to affect dramatic change over his environment by selectively creating and destroying what was needed in order for his more convenient survival. This role has only magnified exponentially, and today man's main two functions are to create and to consume.
Although it is generally accepted by the anthropological community that stone tools were first used and manufactured by Homo Habulis (Handy Man) 2 million years ago, the discovery of fire is more controversial. Because fires occur naturally it is difficult to determine at which point in time man harnessed this natural energy and began to generate fires for his own use. Currently the discrepancy arises over whether men have been lighting controlled fires for the past 1.6 million years, or only for the past 400,000-250,000 years. John McCrone asserts in his article "Fired Up" that although fire may have been tamed 1.6 million years ago it would have been primarily used for protection and warmth, rather than as a culturally significant symbol. In later years, Homo Sapiens would gather around a "fireside" and eat, talk, sing and remember. Whether fire was tamed 1.6 million years ago during the lifetime of Homo Erectus, or not until 400,000 years ago by Homo Sapiens who used it as a cultural mechanism, the implications of man's control over fire remain crucial for the patterns of early habits and modern day societies.
Even our modern societies consumption patterns as espoused by Economist Adam Smith in his Manufacture-Consume-Manufacture equation have their roots in this utilization of tools and fire by early mankind. Just as this pattern of living became destructive to the environments of early man, so too, are our modern environments severely disrupted and manipulated by this formula. However, since we have been so far removed from the first instance of domination over our environment with fire and tools, we can barely recognize that it is intrinsic in almost all of our everyday actions today. At one time, the direct slashing and burning of forests for use in agriculture or farming was an explicit form of environmental degradation. Today, however, when we turn on the TV, drive a car, cook a microwave dinner or buy a shirt, we are not aware of our direct toll on the earth's resources because we do not have to see it. We have removed ourselves so far from contact with the earth's resources with the use of tools that only the people on the fringes of society even live in direct contact with what they eat and kill, grow and burn. We are blind to the amount of energy we steal from the natural flow of the sun's energy through our ecosystem that was intended to be distributed in a balanced manner for other species. Instead, we live like the earth's resources were exhaustible. At times, even, it seems that any human presence is inherently incompatible with the natural state of the universe. At what point did we diverge from our natural place on the ecological wheel? And why?
A good question to ask might be what it means to be human, and how this is different from the ways in which other species live. We pride ourselves on our industrious nature. We invent, manufacture and consume like no other species on earth. Often, it may seem that we are constantly searching for ways to make our own lives more comfortable, or at least to create a leisure class that can live without toiling away in a hostile environment. Ironically though, every power achieved by man over his environment becomes a power over mankind in the greater scheme of things. This can be explored through the example of Easter Island. In A Green History of the World, Clive Pointing reminds us of the tiny island in the middle of the pacific, completely cut off from the rest of the world. The humans there lived extravagantly and comfortably for many years, priding themselves on their leisure time and the art that they were capable of producing. Of course, since their lifestyles were not resource-conservative or environmentally sustainable, the people soon exhausted their environment and were unable to survive any longer. Wars began between tribes over the scarce resources and people even subverted to cannibalism in search of protein. Perhaps if every society on earth was independent geographically from one another, if every one lived on their own Easter Island, we would soon learn how unsustainable our way of living is. But since we have joined into a global community linked by multi-national corporations and Starbucks, we can always search somewhere else for our resources. Somebody and someplace are always left to be exploited. Or…have we began to exhaust our own resources already and only the people at the fringes of human civilization are affected by it? Are people dying somewhere so that we members of the leisure class can turn on TVs and computers without toil? Perhaps we are already involved in what is the beginning of the world's future resource wars, just like the people were on Easter Island before their demise. Many people argue that the current international disagreements between the Western and Eastern countries are over Oil- the most crucial form of energy to our modern society.
Thus, we may now find ourselves in the position were the same industrious and inventive nature that separated our ancestors from other species and caused us to lean away from the uniform motion of the ecological wheel of life, has caused the wheel to topple out of control, bringing us down with it. The power that we acquired for ourselves in the ability to affect our environment so that it pleased us, also required that we consumed what we made. We drank up the pond in which we swim. The question is whether we will be able to invent our way out of this situation, or if that would be like fighting fire with fire. And essentially, that is exactly what is happening. At the point when we began to control fire, and symbolically the natural creative and destructive force of Mother Nature, we relinquished her care. Now we might have to deal with her justice.