Human Travel and the Environment


Humans began their existence as travelers, slowly making their way across the earth hunting and gathering. This travel was quite slow and gradual, and could be termed a period of “human expansion”, as traveling groups rarely encountered other humans. It really wasn’t until the sixteenth century that a new kind of travel developed, a kind that was more global, occurred rapidly, and was filled with many encounters with other civilizations. This sort of travel signified not simply the spreading of humans across the earth, but more the spreading of ideas among people. And during this particular period, the travelers were predominantly European, and so it was Europeans who had the opportunity to incorporate other civilizations’ ideas into their own thinking, and it was they who, believing in their own superiority, most imposed their ideas on others. Overall, therefore, human travel could more accurately be termed European: its effect was to increase both the power and scope of European ideas. These ideas, in turn, affected many different civilizations, changing the thinking, and actions, of people all over the world, and therefore changing their impact on the world.

While many civilizations have traveled at various points, it was the Europeans who, beginning in the sixteenth century, began to travel the most. “It was the Europeans who went out to the peoples of Africa, Asia, and the Americas, and never the reverse” (Adas, p. 2). As soon as European ships could be built that were large enough to endure long voyages, the Europeans set out in them, realizing that this was advantageous: “the relative advantage of Europeans was on the seas” (Cippola, 138). Through this, they visited many foreign countries, and were usually the ones doing the conquering. Other people were unprepared for these ambitious foreigners, and, for various reasons, had trouble getting rid of them. As a result, “it took only a few decades for the Europeans to establish their absolute predominance over the Oceans” (Cippola, 140).

The Europeans had a huge effect on the local peoples in the various regions that they visited. For one thing, they brought with them many germs. As Diamond noted, “the importance of lethal microbes in history is well illustrated by Europeans’ conquest and depopulation of the New World” (210). The microbes killed Aztecs, Inca, and the populations of many Indian towns in the Mississippi. Additionally, “Eurasian germs played a key role in decimating native peoples in many other parts of the world, including Pacific Islanders, Aboriginal Australians, and the Khoisan peoples of Southern Africa… the Indian population of Hispaniola… Fiji” (Diamond, 213). Because of this, “European immigrants came to supplant… much of the native population of the Americas and some other parts of the world.” (Diamond, 214). So, it came to be true that, if in nothing else, the Europeans certainly came to outnumber many of the native peoples in many of the areas that they occupied. This gave them added power over them, if only because of their larger numbers.

However, it was not simply the germs that the Europeans brought with them that altered life for the native people. The technology that the Europeans had, while at first not superior, quickly became superior. “The Europeans rapidly improved upon [military technology naval artillery and sailing ships] before the non-Europeans were able to absorb [them]. The disequilibrium grew, therefore, progressively larger…” (Cippola, 144). As Europeans’ technology grew better and better, it helped them control native populations more and more.

This ability to control other peoples only fed the European sense of superiority. “In the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, most European thinkers concluded that the unprecedented control over nature made possible by Western science and technology proved that European modes of thought and social organization corresponded much more closely to the underlying realities of the universe than did those of any other people or society” (Adas, 7). Furthermore, “these attitudes shaped the ideologies of Western dominance and informed colonial policy-making” (Adas, 9). The Europeans did not simply want to dominate these foreign people. In the end, their goal was to “civilize” them, to convert them to Christianity, Western modes of thinking, dressing, etc. This, of course, because such Western methods were superior. Adas referred to this as “the civilizing-mission ideology that… justified Europe’s global hegemony” (4). The foreign peoples wanted access to the superior technology of the Europeans. This, combined with the way that European illnesses had shrunk their populations, made such goals of “civilizing” them all the more achievable. “In order to acquire Western techniques, the non-European people had to undergo a more profound and general process of ‘Westernization’”(Cippola, 147).

This process of Westernization, and even just the general dominance of Europeans around the globe, did much to spread European ideology to many different places and people. This ideology included, as Adas put it, “the Western obsession with material mastery and its consequences: pollution, the squandering of finite resources, and the potential for global destruction” (15). While it may seem like an oversimplification to say that people lived in ways that were more harmonious and less destructive to the earth before they came into contact with Europeans, there may be some truth to it. For the Europeans brought with them the goal of mastery of nature, something that is not a natural goal of all people. The spreading of this goal, of the whole European mindset, changed the way that people related to the Earth.

This goal much resembles our modern view of our place on the earth: that science advances civilization only if it enables us to manipulate natural materials in new ways, that powerful people are those who are most above nature, who have somehow transcended the natural human state and achieved some level of independence from everything else that exists in nature. Perhaps much of the environmental degradation that we see around us today had its roots in this early European notion. In some ways, it may be argued that human travel, which was predominantly European travel, spread values that today are used to justify using natural resources for our own benefit. The loss of respect for the planet, trading in such notions for, instead, the valuing of obtaining control over the planet, have only encouraged us to be less and less careful in our actions. We have, as a result of European travel, come to feel more and more justified in using our natural ability to manipulate materials towards our own ends.

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last updated 2/6/03