If they were empty-handed, empty-headed, and naked.....

Erin Dwyer-Frazier

Environmental Studies, Essay 3

The Effects of Travel on the Evironment.

Human history has been defined by movement and expansion, as humans slowly moved throughout the globe. Even after humans had populated the entire world, humans continued to travel for many reasons: war, trade, adventure, and even religion. It would seem that the human species are filled with inveterate travelers. Throughout history, those nations and civilizations that had the best modes of transportation seemed to have a real competitive advantage. The “northern barbarians” who savaged and conquered much of Europe in its early history, the Greeks, the Romans, and eventually all of Europe in the age of Exploration dominated because they had superior transportation. Horses, boats, and well-built roads are all examples of this general trend. Travel has had a significant impact in human history, and it has also had a significant impact on global ecological history. However, it is not the movement of humans that seems to carry environmental significance. If humans moved throughout the world, empty-handed and naked perhaps the effects of travel would have been minimal. Instead it seems that often the things that humans carried with them caused many more calamities then humans themselves. The plants, animals and technologies, which travelers carry with them often had devastating affects on the environment.

When humans travel, they often brought their plants and animals with them. Early man brought their dogs with them, even to the Americas, while much later settlers also brought their cows, horses, and agricultural plants to the New World. However, things also traveled the other way, and potatoes and corn became widespread in the rest of the world after the Europeans brought it back from the Americas. The Irish potato famine, and the dependence on potatoes that caused it, would not have been possible if many years earlier, settlers had not traveled to the New World and discovered and cultivated the crop. Even plants that naturally occurred in certain areas were changed by human travel. Native plants to an area, such as cotton or flax, were crossbred with other forms of the plant from elsewhere to produce a better crop. The result of better, more durable crops is the inevitable over-use of the land, because the plant can survive increasingly difficult conditions.

The animals that traveled with humans also caused major ecological side-effects. The horse, the cow, and the other large domesticated animals were unknown in the Americas before the Europeans “discovered” it. The addition of the horse to Plains Indian lifestyles made the damage that they did to the buffalo herds much more severe. In general, the excessive graining and over-planting that caused the Dust Bowl catastrophe of the 1930’s would not have happened if it was not for the plants and animals brought to the New World by the Europeans. In addition, the introduction of animals that are outside the established food chain can cause serious problems. In Australia, there is an annoying modern day example. The cane toad was introduced to Australia in 1935 from Hawaii to combat the scarab beetle. They had no natural predators in Australia, and therefore multiplied and spread throughout much of eastern Australia. They are considered a pest because they poison pets and large animals, and eat honeybees and native fauna. (http://www.austmus.gov.au/factsheets/canetoad.htm) The rampant population growth of any animal that is outside the local food chain can have potentially severe ecological effects. When humans travel with animals, they disrupt the local ecology in a very unexpected way.

However, it is the knowledge and ideas that humans bring with them that may have had the most significant impact on the environment. Human technology has a way of spreading very rapidly throughout the world, and therefore spreading it’s deleterious effects. However, I will spend less time on this topic since I think that it has been very thoroughly covered in class and in my other essays. Agriculture is perhaps the most obvious example of a spreading technology, and it has caused a wide range of severe environmental effects worldwide. However, there are also less revolutionary technologies that cause ecological damage. Examples from this class abound, spear guns for the Inuits, gunpowder for the Europeans, and the steam engine for the entire world. The human tendency to travel has also meant that human technologies have also traveled. Unlike the humans though, who often travel merely to visit a place, technology often stays, is adopted by others, and has the ability to have long-term effects on the ecology of an area.

Humans have found a myriad of reasons to travel throughout their history, and they continue to do so through today. However, often it was not the actual travel of the humans, which had significant effects on the environment of the places they visited. In fact, as travel increasingly became about trade and exploration and not about settlement, humans often did not stay in the new places long enough to have a real effect. Instead, it was often the things that they brought with them that stayed behind, such as plants, animals, and technologies, which often had the most significant effects on the environment. If humans traveled alone, empty-handed, empty-headed, and naked, then travel would most likely not have an important impact on the ecology of the world.

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