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