The Influence of Culture on the Environment

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Throughout all of history, humans have been evolving not only genetically, but also culturally. Of the two evolutionary processes, cultural evolution happens more quickly, and has had a more noticeable effect on the environment compared to genetic evolution. Early hunter/gatherer societies evolved to agrarian society, which then had technological changes that affected the culture of the society. Unfortunately, while humans have been culturally evolving towards what is perceived to be progress, the environment has been compromised, marginalized, and degraded as it is continually exploited for human benefit and consumption.

The culture of hunter/gatherer society was the least damaging to the environment in the long term before humans developed agriculture. There are several reasons for this. First, human population was much smaller in comparison to what it became during the agrarian age. Second, hunter/gatherer societies tended to be largely nomadic, which allowed the environment time to recover and regenerate whatever natural resources were used. Third, humans simply did not have the technologies to further exploit the environment. Human population was much smaller during the time of hunter/gatherer societies due to high rates of infant morality, infectious diseases, and social morality - infanticide, geronticide, and warfare (Southwick 128). Fewer people mean fewer demands on the environment. With growth in human population, the grasses and animal populations humans used for sustenance did not have time to recover, which turned into humans using the earth's natural resources in an unsustainable manner (class discussion 02.14.03). Humans living in agrarian society do not necessarily use the environment's resources in an unsustainable manner, but the greater the population density, the more land will be needed to support that population in a sustainable manner. As resources become more and more scarce, field owners will be less willing to let land lay fallow (class discussion 02.21.03). Humans then found a "tech fix" with the development of agriculture and the domestication of animals. Cipolla calls it the first great economic revolution (Cipolla 18). The development of agriculture lead to the development of communities, city-states, civilizations, and other settlements. The social structure that formed around agriculture brought about the possibility of specialization within a society, since not everyone had to hunt and gather all the time. Instead of living in an ecologically sustainable manner like the hunter/gatherers, people started living in an economic manner (Southwick 128). Specialization enabled the development of social institutions such as religion and government, and agriculture necessitated the development of irrigation. Religion has its environmental impact in warfare, which is environmentally abhorrent because it destroys the land. Government was necessary to distribute grain and other agricultural goods, and it also set up a system of elites, leading to social hierarchy. Irrigation was necessary for agriculture to be viable in areas like the Nile River delta, thus altering watersheds. Irrigation technology was further developed, with applications leading to advanced technologies such as systems of sewage. The culture of those who lived in agricultural communities differed greatly from those of hunter/gatherers.

Another technology that developed once agriculture had developed was metallurgy. Before the development of metallurgy, tools and other implements were made of stone. The disadvantages of stone tools were that they were heavy, and that they were brittle. The first metal to develop is bronze, an alloy of tin and copper. Individually, tin and copper were not very strong, but when mixed together to form bronze, people were able to utilize it to make tools and weapons that were lighter and less likely to break than tools made of stone. Then people learned how to manipulate iron. Previously, iron could not be used because wood fires could not become sufficiently hot to melt or soften the ore. As people developed charcoal, hotter fires became possible, so iron working also became possible. After the development of iron, humans learned to add a small amount of carbon to iron to make steel, which is even stronger than iron. The development of metallurgy has implications with regards to deforestation for the creation of charcoal and to warfare as weapons became stronger, giving an advantage to whoever had the most developed technology (class discussion 02.21.03).

The spread of the agricultural revolution throughout the world severely and permanently damaged the environment in many places. According to Southwick, the Sumerians, Assyrians, Phoenicians, Egyptians, Grecians, and Romans achieved the great achievements of their empires at the expense of the environment. There was massive overgrazing of the grasslands by their domesticated animals causing soil erosion, deforestation of forests to provide additional pasturelands, and elaborate irrigation systems that extended the flow of rivers that lead to lowered water tables (Southwick 131-132). When the environment could not continue to support the civilizations, they began to decline, thus making them conquerable, leading to warfare. This cycle of rise of civilization or culture, environmental degradation, vulnerability to outside invaders, and warfare is perpetuated throughout history. The present conflict over the Middle East can be seen not only as a religious conflict, but also as a conflict over land and resources.

Easter Island is a prime example of cultural practices leading to long term, permanent environmental damage that brought about the demise of the Easter Islanders. The building and transportation of huge statues were an integral part of the religious beliefs and culture of the Easter Islanders. The transportation of these statues required large logs, which lead to the eventual complete deforestation of the island. With the deforestation of the island, there was a collapse of the culture and the annihilation of the society (Bui 02.07.03).

Throughout the cultural evolution of human society, a noticeable recurring theme is one of continued environmental degradation. The concept of the "tech-fix" as the solution to the environmental problems that humans have created is not any sort of real solution. In solving one problem, the new technology creates others. This "progress" is nothing more than progress towards the destruction of the earth.

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last updated 03/05/03