Travel, Human Culture, and the Environment

John Pottage

Travel and mobility play indispensable roles in our lives as modern Americans. Their largest impacts are seen within cultural realms: airplanes, automobiles, trains, and, to a lesser extent, boats allow fast and easy transportation to virtually all parts of the world. Such easy access to the inhabited portions of the planet has facilitated face to face meetings with family, friends, and colleagues living in distant parts of the world; the ability to move quickly and efficiently from home to work or school; and the ability to visit exotic locations for brief, recreational purposes. Usually, these cultural aspects of travel are the most salient when the subject is suggested. Yet, the environment is also a significant factor that deserves consideration during a discussion of travel. For instance, the environment may be the predominant factor when making a decision to travel: one might escape to the beaches of Florida during a snowy winter in Boston, or one might choose to visit the beautiful mountains of Colorado or an exotic South American rainforest in order to flee the less than thrilling flatlands of the American Midwest. The environment also brings to bear considerable influence during the process of travel. For instance, a flight may be canceled because of a summer storm, or local roads may become impassable during a blizzard. Finally, the process of travel itself greatly impacts the environment. Airplanes and automobiles produce large amounts of harmful air pollutants each time they make a single trip, and the gases they emit have played a significant role in expanding the hole in the ozone layer and increasing global warming. The air pollution has also negatively impacted numerous species of plants and animals that depend on clean air for survival. Boats can also cause much harm to the environment. Recently, an article on (see link below) described how authorities in Monterey, California had banned a cruise ship from landing there because its crew had admitted to dumping 36,000 gallons of bilge water into the bay. The potential harm of such an act to the local marine life in the bay is considerable. This event, though not nearly as catastrophic to the environment, recalls the disaster of the Exxon Valdez, the oil tanker that spilled 11 million gallons of oil into the Prince William Sound in Alaska in 1989 (see link below for an account of the tremendous damage caused to the local environment). Though these are all modern examples of the interactions among travel, culture, and environment, evidence of these associations can be found in the history of the "Age of Exploration," when Europeans explored and conquered the New World of the Americas during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the expansion of textile production, and the development of triangular trade among Europe, the New World, and Africa.

The overall impact of European exploration of the New World is acutely felt within the domains of culture and the environment. Agriculture and disease each play major roles in the nature of this particular relationship. One of the main effects of agriculture is that food production becomes increasingly more efficient: more food can be produced from a given area of land than by earlier hunter-gatherer techniques. With this rise in efficiency, a larger population can be supported: "agriculture sustains much higher human population densities than does the hunting-gathering lifestyle - on the average, 10 to 100 times higher." (Diamond, p. 205) As a result of the widespread transition to agriculture during the "Agricultural Revolution" in Europe, its population skyrocketed. Cities became increasingly crowded as fewer people were required for the production of food. With the overcrowding, and the concurrent lack of strict sanitation measures, cities became a breeding ground for bacteria and diseases (Diamond, p. 198-9). The production of agriculture itself, was also an important catalyst for the evolution of new diseases: "Some farming populations make it even easier for their own fecal bacteria and worms to infect new victims, by gathering their feces and urine and spreading them as fertilizer on the fields where people work" (Diamond, p. 205). As agriculture progressed, Europeans simultaneously invested heavily in the domestication of livestock. Animals such as oxen and horses provided the power needed to pull the plows, while cows, pigs, chickens, and sheep produced milk, food, and wool to support the escalating populations in the cities. Along with these positive uses of animals, however, Europeans, because of their close proximity to the livestock, were also constantly bombarded by their particular microbes, bacteria, and viruses (Diamond, p. 207). Consequently, livestock was a rich source for infectious diseases (Diamond, chart p. 207). As generation after generation lived in these conditions, they began to develop immunity to certain of these diseases. Often, a milder strain of the disease would evolve so that its humans host could live longer and spread the disease to a wider area (Diamond, p. 209-210). Thus, at the dawn of the Age of Exploration, conditions in Europe were characterized by people packed together in filthy, disease-infested cities (or living on farms rich with animal pathogens), seeking to compete with their close, also densely-packed, neighbors through travel, exploration, and expansion. This desire to grow would have disastrous consequences for the indigenous peoples the Europeans would soon encounter, particularly the Native Americans.

Native American societies were quite different from their European counterparts. They had only a few large cities, no established trade routes, and they had not made the transition to agriculture and livestock as primary methods of food production. As a result, they had not gained exposure to the multitude of diseases that had evolved in Europe. When the Europeans arrived, therefore, they transmitted their diseases (such as smallpox, measles, typhus, and influenza) to the Native Americans. These natives, possessing no immunity, were utterly defenseless to the diseases, and they were soon wiped out (Ponting, p. 230-1). As the various epidemics swept through Native American populations, the small bands of Europeans that had traveled to the New World found colonization to be a relatively easy process, given the greatly reduced nature of their opposition. It is important to note that the transmission of disease was not entirely one way: "In the 1490s Europe was ravaged by syphilis [which had been acquired from the Native Americans]" (Ponting, p. 231). While the cultural forces of colonization and agriculture are generally emphasized during a discussion of the Age of Exploration, it is equally important to acknowledge the vital role of the environment. The transmission of different diseases across continents was both a result of the European society and their desire to travel, and it was also a major cause of the Europeans' relative ease in colonizing America.

The growth of the textile industry in Europe from the fourteenth through the sixteenth centuries represents another area that illuminates the relationship among travel, culture, and the environment. During this time period, two main systems of linen production evolved. The first, known as the kauf system, involved "individual households or towns controll[ing] total production of textiles from raw materials to finished cloth" (Meyers, p. 3). The other major method of production was the verlag system, whereby "there was a division of labor among various stages of production, finishing and merchandising to separate communities each having specialized skills" (Meyers, p. 3). Travel played a major role in the relative impact on culture and the environment of both systems. Although less predominant within the kauf system, travel was primarily used in order to trade the completed linens among different towns and cultures along the main trade routes. With this travel came cultural exchanges through the personal encounters among members of different societies. Environmental changes also occurred, as new roads were constructed across Europe and Asia, and the production of flax greatly increased. In the verlag system, raw materials (flax) produced at one site were transported to a different site for spinning. The flax that had been spun was then transported to a different site for weaving into linen. Similar to the kauf system, the completed linens were then transported elsewhere for trade.

This system brought about tremendous changes both for culture, as well as for the environment. The major cultural effects of increased textile production have been well documented by historians: women became the primary producers of linen through spinning and weaving, and this new role greatly contributed to their growing independence and emergence of new gender roles. The verlag system also helped spread the new religious ideas associated with the Protestant Reformation: when people traveling among the various stages of linen production engaged one another in conversation, they often shared their thoughts on religion.

The environmental impact of the new textile system was also significant. Since the various stages of production were spread out at different locations, raw materials from one area could be quickly drained by the demand from many different spinning and weaving sites. Thus, people, calling themselves "promoters" (a cultural emergence), traveled about to convince farmers to increase their production of flax. Flax, however, is a labor-intensive crop and exhausts the soil of its natural resources (Schneider, p. 201). As more and more farmers shifted to flax production, negative environmental effects became acute as the soil was further damaged and depleted of minerals.

A similar set of developments occurred in the New World with the advent of "triangular trade." Under this process, improved travel conditions allowed the resources of one area to be transported elsewhere for the production of a "finished" good. For example, sugar cane grown in the Caribbean islands was transported to Europe for the production of rum. Similarly, cotton grown on southern U. S. plantations was transported to the North to be made into clothing. Inherent in these two processes was the major cultural shift towards the use of slaves, who were transported to the New World from Africa to work on the various plantations (cotton, sugar, tobacco, etc.). Environmental changes also occurred, as the original ecosystems of the New World were systematically removed and replaced with the agricultural environments that produced cotton, sugar, rice, tobacco, and other crops.

The relationship among human travel, culture, and the environment is truly complicated and interactional. Enhancements in travel and transportation serve to bring about positive and negative changes within these realms. European exploration of the New World, textile production, and triangular trade all illustrate the diverse effects of travel on culture and the environment. It is important to note, however, that, the travel itself is simultaneously affected by the culture and environment in which it is undertaken. As a result of these relationships, an interesting paradigm emerges: the particular aspects of the culture and environment that brought about an impetus to travel, are dramatically altered by that very same travel that they promoted.

Works Cited

Crystal Cruise Lines story, from on March 6, 2003:

Exxon Valdez information, from the EPA website:

Diamond, Jared, "Ch. 11: Lethal gift of livestock," in "Guns, Germs, and Steel" W.W. Norton & Co, 1997, ISBN 0-393-03891-2, pp. 195-214

Meyers, Barbara. "Textiles and the Reformation,"

Ponting, Clive. Ch.11 from "A Green History of the World," St. Martins Press, NYC, 1991, pp. 224-239.

Schneider, Chapter 6: "Rumplestiltzkins" pp. 177-213.

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last updated 03/06/03