The Effects of Human Travel on the Environment (and vice versa): Religious Ideologies and Disease

Thomas K. Madore

The consequences of the Europeans’ initial age of exploration and colonization, during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries of the Common Era, were motivated primarily by religion and greed. It is a widely accepted belief that “religion supplied the pretext and gold the motive (for human travel during this time). The technological progress accomplished by Atlantic Europe during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries provided the means.” (Cipolla, Carlo M., Epilogue from "Guns, Sails, and Empires: Technological Innovation and the Early Phases of European Expansion, 1400-1700" Sunflower Univ. Press, 1996, pp. 136) However, the underlying presence of epidemic disease, both inflicted by and upon Europeans at home and abroad-- products of the environment which were uncontrolled by people of the time- effected the early Europeans’ ability to travel. That is to say, the power of Mother Nature was paramount to the hindrance of Europeans’ potential to travel, not only with respect to disease, but also to the many other adversities associated with sea travel. For example, “it is difficult to overestimate the hardships of travel to the Indies in those days. Slow passages, bad and often insufficient food, overcrowding and lack of sanitation were the causes of extraordinarily high mortality on board the Indiamen.” (Epilogue, pp. 134) Here, it is evident that lack of adequate technology in terms of necessary refrigeration for the storage of fruits and other perishable foods, as well as unhealthy sanitation practices, were the result of humans’ inability to control the natural elements during their overseas voyages. In essence, the natural environment, as I will explore in further detail below, effected the travel patterns and the health of the participants involved; more importantly, these adverse effects served as a deterrent to the Europeans’ ultimate mission of becoming rich and expanding their empires.

Nonetheless, while European travel during pre-Industrial Revolution times was primarily a “commercial venture,” the notion remains that their religious ideologies fueled their expansionary movement by masking their true desire for “full-scale industrialization, which most…viewed as essential.” (Adas, Michael, “Machines as the Measure of Men: Science, Technology, and the Ideologies of Western Dominance”, Cornell Univ. Press 1989, pp. 16.) More explicitly, the Europeans exercised a particular air of superiority in their approach to dealing with the already established cultures with which they came into contact. That is, they not only flashed their gaudy new technological discoveries, such as the threatening portrayal of their cannons aboard their ships, but perhaps more importantly, Europeans believed their religious views set them apart from their newly founded, soon to be (in most cases) colonists and slaves. Moreover, I agree with Adas’ assertion that “whether they were merchants or missionaries, European travelers of this era viewed their Christian faith, rather than their mastery of the natural world, as the key source of their distinctiveness from and superiority to non-Western peoples.” (Adas, pp. 22) Ultimately, such presumptions of religious superiority led to transformations in the environment, such as the adoption of more pronounced forms of agriculture, as well as the spread of disease, in most cases, a product of interaction with the natural environment.

Disease was perhaps the single most profound effect of the environment on human travel (and vice versa), and is intriguing in the sense that many diseases spread as the result of humans’ manipulation of the environment with which they came into contact. This sort of cyclical, complimentary relationship between human activity and the environment, in the form of the transmission of disease, can be illustrated effectively through the agricultural process. For example, when Europeans arrived in the Americas and began to industrialize and colonize the people and the land, a combination of effects took place. Firstly, to say nothing of the diseases transmitted to the Natives by Europeans’ domesticated animals, the “adoption of agriculture and the transition to settled societies exposed humans to a wide range of diseases they had never encountered before.” (Ponting, Clive. Ch.11, The Changing Face of Death, from "A Green History of the World," St. Martins Press, NYC, 1991, pp. 225.) As we have learned in class, agriculture allows much denser populations to live together than does the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Such close living quarters resulted in even worse sanitation conditions, which “provided a perfect habit for intestinal parasites such as worms and made diseases such as cholera and dysentery endemic.” (The Changing Face of Death, pp. 226) (Lethal Gift of Livestock, pp. 205) Moreover:

The development of settled societies meant that a growing number of people came to be living in close proximity to, or at least in intermittent contact with each other and this fact had far-reaching consequences for the state of their immediate environment and their health…In particular the development of irrigation led to the spread of schistosomiasis, a blood fluke which causes extreme debilitation and listlessness. The blood fluke has an elaborate life style that involves humans and water snails as hosts at different stages. Irrigation ditches turned out to be prime breeding grounds for the snail and people working in them were, therefore, exposed to infection. (The Changing Face of Death, pps. 225-226.)

Ultimately, as this selection indicates, human interaction and manipulation of the environment for their own usages, such as irrigation, did not go without its serious health-related consequences. In addition to these effects of use of the environment on humans, humans also directly harmed the environment in their implementation of agriculture. For example, it is known that the cultivating of soil leads to the emission of nitrogen. Nitrogen forms nitrous oxides, forms of harmful greenhouse gases-- substances that are believed to be responsible for global warming. This greenhouse effect, a process of the absorption and reemission of infrared radiation to the earth’s surface, is believed to be causing an increase in the earth’s temperature, and the alteration of the world’s climate. (Chemistry and Context, Applying Chemistry to Society, (Chemistry 1 textbook) pp. 103)

In addition to the disease imparted upon people from agriculture in these new regions, immunity and susceptibility to disease are factors inherent to the environment which prohibited Europeans’ ability to penetrate these regions. An example of this phenomenon is the “geophysical condition (that) created an insurmountable barrier to white penetration” in Sub-Sahara Africa. Confined to coastal strongholds because of their susceptibility to disease present within this region, “the few Europeans who ventured into the hinterland were rapidly killed or incapacitated by malaria, tropical fevers, disease and lethal climate.” (Epilogue, pp. 142) Thus, such intrinsic environmental factors hindered Europeans’ capability to journey to certain locations. Similarly, when Europeans reached the Americas, the Natives were not immune to certain diseases carried by the Europeans and certain domesticated animals, such as smallpox and measles.

Moreover, certain extrinsic environmental factors such as the vastness of the Asian continent and the mountain ranges therein discouraged Europeans’ conquering of these lands despite their “religious intent” to convert the population to Christianity. Their previously described religious ideologies led them to formulate such ludicrous notions as those of Don Francesco Sande, Governor of the Philippines, “to undertake the conquest of China with an army of about 5,000 men. The Chinese, he wrote to his King, ‘are so cowardly that no one rides on horseback.’” (Epilogue, pp. 141) Nonetheless, particular extrinsic environmental factors characteristic of Asia made certain such potential conquests did not ever take shape.

Ultimately, the effects of human travel on the environment (and vice versa) that I have described, pertain primarily to the pre-Industrial Revolution time period, during which much travel took place. However, it is important to note, in closing, that the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, known as the Second Great Awakening, resulted in many of its own effects on the environment. Namely, the adoption of the process of “the exploitation of the earth’s vast (but limited) stocks of fossil fuels” (Ponting, Chapter 13, The Second Great Transition, pp. 267) became, and still is an issue of great concern to the environment. In addition to global warming, which was discussed earlier in the essay, fossil fuels release harmful particles into the air that can lead to ozone depletion, acid rain, and other forms of pollution. At first, these issues may not seem entirely relevant to the effect of human travel on the environment. However, they are absolutely a long term effect of travel in that such fuels may not have ever been necessary in such massive quantities unless demanded by dense populations worldwide. As travel increased, population simultaneously did so as well, thus stimulating the need for more abundant, reliable energy sources. It is therefore my belief that, as depicted, human travel effected the environment both in the short term and the long term. Moreover, it is important to note the manner in which all human actions ultimately alter the environment, (and themselves) usually for the worse.


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last updated 3/19/03