Environmental effect of trade influenced by transportation methods

Chris Trucksess

Cultures in isolation, unless self-sustaining, cannot survive without interacting with other groups. The passage of goods from one area to the other, trade, provides an effective means of distributing supplies to those who seek it but cannot produce it themselves. The human travel needed to conduct trade, while beneficial to people, poses a negative consequence to the environment.

Trade routes started for the exchange of a particular good such as the spice trade. The existence of other commodities later led to the types of traded items to expand and include items ranging from copper to porcelain (Cipolla, 1996). While this increase in scope of goods traded improved the economic well being of the parties involved, it increased resource utilization of the environment. Few items for trade are truly renewable and synthetic items are more dependent on component goods that may eventually be difficult to obtain in necessary quantities. A scarcity of a particular good would increase the price until exhaustion but increase the trade revenue from an item. This short-term added economic benefit would not offset the environmental damage caused by a full depletion of that resource.

For example, the price of copper would increase as the ore became harder to find but it would eventually run out and the ground would be completely missing a mineral it once had. Also, the increase in number of goods traded instead of just a particular type seeks to accelerate the depletion of all kinds of resources. While a local ecosystem would not use up a particular resource in thousands of years based on usage limited to that area, trading this resource to the entire world would cause exhaustion in a much shorter time period.

Besides the resource use of traded goods, the transportation of those goods presents another environmental cost. The transpiration vehicles themselves are the most obvious parts that support trade. With the trade locations in distant locations, ships provided the most efficient means of transporting goods. While ships were primarily used for warfare they could also serve as transportation for traded goods (Cipolla, 1996). The construction and use of these ships posed an environmental impact however. Wooden ships required the destruction of areas of forest and at this stage in time there likely was not a economic incentive to replant the razed area since there still were large areas of remaining forests for future ship construction.

The strength of the Europeans was concentrated in the water and not on the land (Cipolla, 1996). If the Europeans needed to use their military might to forge a trade route, they would be best to keep the destination close to shore. In this case the Europeans would have a much more spread out trade network but it would also increase the degree of sprawl present in trading. It may seem beneficial for European countries to deplete resources in a broad sense over a large area since no particular region is severely impacted. However once major depletion occurs by the West the effect is worldwide and consequently severe.

The effect of trade on the environment can also be brought into play by the initiation of a war due to trade disputes. If a resource for trading becomes too scarce and multiple parties cannot agree to who owns the commodity, then a war can start that would increase the environmental consequences. Here the effect on the environment is created twice, first for the near depletion of a resource and second for the side effects caused by war. For example war often leaves large amounts of debris behind as a result of the fighting that may not be cleaned up for an extended period of time. This non-natural debris may interfere with the normal functioning of an ecosystem.

While European trading habits may pose an environmental impact, fortunately not all countries utilize resources at the rate they do. However, this disparity would eventually decrease as non-European cultures became more western by studying what deposits Europeans left behind, such as cannon balls (Cipolla, 1996). When more societies start adopting European ideals, they are likely to also cause the same amount of environmental destruction, such as by trade. This acceleration of resource utilization only seeks to make early depletion a short-term possibility and more scarcities induce additional conflicts leading to environmentally destructive wars.

Trade appears to be economically beneficial but it also sets in motion problems that are worse than the advantages. Also, the negative aspects of trade destroy the ability to conduct future trade due to the resource depletion. The transportation method for traded goods adds an increased layer of environmental impact that makes travel for trade a negative environmental effect. Effective management of trade by avoiding resource depletion, which minimizes conflict, would lessen the potential for the environment to be harmed.

Trading more renewable goods instead of less renewable items would ensure that trading could continue without the risk of over-harvesting a resource. For example, deforestation due to ship construction alone is an environmental problem but replanting trees would lessen the effect. Also, trading commodities with the geographically closest neighbor that has the desired goods would reduce the effects of long-distance travel on the environment. Europe would need to improve its land exploration abilities but it would avoid having an environmentally costly sprawl of trade partners. With effort the travel associated with trade can integrate better with the environment but economic motives traditionally have overridden these ecosystem friendly goals.


Cipolla, C. M. (1996). Epilog from “Guns, Sails, and Empires: Technological Innovation and the Early Phases of European Expansion, 1400-1700.” Sunflower Univ. Press.

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last updated 2003-03-06