Culture Destroying Culture

Peter Brennan

            Cultural evolution has been essential and perhaps more powerful in the path of human development than biological evolution.  In just 250 generations humans evolved from scattered bands of nomadic hunter-gatherers to sedentary empires with complex cultures.  For the purposes of this discussion, a society’s culture can be defined as its political and social customs, ideas and belief structures.  It is this culture which dictates the practices in which a society engages in and, by extension, the technologies it employs in that pursuit.  Throughout this culture-driven technological advancement, which brought us from starting fires on the edges of forests to flying jets over them, many cultures have employed technologies which have had negative effects on their environments.  In most cases the eventual damage to the environment has had lasting effects on the culture and people of the place.  Today we can see evidence of these effects in the desertification of the once-fertile Mesopotamia, the degradation of the once-advanced culture of Easter Island, and the high lead content legacy of the Roman Empire.  More troubling than the effect of past cultures and technologies is the prospect of some unforeseen consequence to the technologies of our culture today.  While it was our cultures which shaped humans into more than other animals, those same cultures can destroy or damage the environment and themselves. 

            One of the first regions of significant human development was Mesopotamia, in the modern day Middle East, and the cultures there had a lasting effect.  The region changed hands many times, from the Sumerians in 8000 B.C. to the Akkadians in 2300 B.C. followed by the Assyrians and Babylonians before the Egyptians and Romans.  Yet technologies, especially those dealing with water and agriculture, passed on between civilizations and continued to develop in the region.  The early Mesopotamian civilizations irrigated their desert environments and began to improve their agricultural practices through technological use of water.  The cultures of these civilizations depended on technological use of water and agriculture to survive.  Water was essential in feeding and maintaining cities like Babylon, where in 450 B.C. there were 500,000 people and the hanging gardens, a biosphere in the desert.  Similarly when Babylon was defeated by its successor, the cultural technology of water was used to wipe it from the map, literally, by diverting a river to wash over it.  As late as 4000 B.C., the headwaters of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers were covered with forests and grasslands.  Most of current day Iran and Iraq was productive, well-watered land.  Herds of domestic cattle, sheep and goats had arrived around 6300 B.C., where they found plentiful grazing.  These populations of livestock stimulated the developing civilizations in the region, feeding their cultures.  The Mesopotamian’s culture of water-working and agricultural technology allowed them to develop and thrive in sedentary empires.

            While the heavy grazing and farming of the land did provide Mesopotamia with the fodder to grow and sustain flourishing cultures, it did not come without a price.  As can be seen in many cultures of agriculture and sedentary living, a process of desertification began.  Desertification is caused by both human and climatic factors.  The high stress on the land caused by overgrazing and deforestation makes natural climatic disasters like droughts more difficult to recover from.  The sedentary nature of the civilizations, which allowed them to further develop their cultures, also kept constant pressure on the land, preventing its recovery.  The herds of domestic animals, which had stimulated the growth of their populations, overgrazed the land.  Sheep grazed grass to the roots, exposing the soil to erosion, and goats climbed smaller trees, eating all vegetation.  As the civilizations cleared more forests for pastures and timber for the growing cities, conditions became steadily drier.  Elaborate water-working technologies were passed on, from the Sumerians to the Babylonians, and used to covert the worst of land to farmland with systems of irrigation canals.  However, silt buildup in these canals became a problem over time and increasing numbers of slaves and other laborers had to be employed in an effort to control the silt.  The loss of vegetation from the overgrazing, and the loss of soil from deforestation-caused erosion and silt buildups lowered water-tables leading to declining rainfall.  This desertification, combined with the economic burden of cleaning silt in the canals significantly contributed to the collapse of the last of the great Mesopotamian civilizations, Babylon.  The cultures of Mesopotamia, with their almost too productive water-working and agriculture practices contributed to the desertification of their environment, and the collapse of their own cultures.  Now, much of what was once the fertile grasslands and forests of Mesopotamia is barren desert, and some might argue that the current conflict in the region has some beginning in the desertification of the environment and subsequent struggles for watered land. 

            Two other Civilizations which had a more direct, yet not quite as visible effect on their environments were the Greeks and Romans.  Both had a developed economic culture of trade and currency.  This culture depended on a system of coinage to operate, silver coins.  During the 800 year period from the Hellenistic Greeks to the fall of the Roman Empire, there was large-scale harvesting and smelting of silver ore to make coins.  The smelting of silver ore is a 300 parts lead to 1 part silver process, making these silver smelters extreme lead polluters.  Tests on ice cores in Greenland containing troposphere fallout from the time show that the lead pollution from 300 B.C. to 500 A.D. was equivalent to 15% of the lead pollution from leaded gasoline engines since 1930.  During the height of Roman influence, lead was being released into the atmosphere at a rate of about 80,000 metric tons per year, a rate equivalent to that of the industrial revolution.  While the downfall of the Roman empire can be attributed to many things, it is certain that the overabundance of lead in the environment was damaging and poisonous. 

            Perhaps the most direct and pronounced case of a culture’s technology leading to the destruction of the environment and culture comes from Easter Island.   The first Polynesian settlers arrived in canoes in the 10th century in a small band of no more than 30.  With them they brought basic livestock of chickens and domesticated rats, and began to develop a civilization subsisting on light yam farming and livestock.  They lived in outdoor settlements constructed with the timber from the island’s forest.  The culture of this civilization involved carving huge stone heads in a quarry and erecting them around the island, facing the ocean and usually oriented to some significant astronomical point.  There is even evidence that rival clans competed in head production, existing to erect as many heads as possible.  Their technology for transporting the heads around the island was long lines of logs, over which they would roll the head.  In 1550, just before the first Europeans visited the island, the population peaked at around 7000.  Unfortunately, in around 1600, the last of the island’s trees were cut down to transport heads, the civilization’s culture ground to a halt.  The population collapsed.  The soil suffered badly from erosion, and the people regressed, retreating into the caves and practicing cannibalism to subsist.  By the time Europeans next visited the island the islanders had forgotten all technological knowledge of their former culture, and could not even remember how the great stone heads had come to be placed around the island.  In the most direct way possible, the culture of the Easter Islander’s caused the devastation of their environment, and the collapse of their culture. 

            There is an abundance of evidence throughout human history of certain cultures and the technologies they employ damaging their environment, and eventually causing harm to themselves.  If anything, we can expect that this will continue to be the case today, with global warming the effect of a culture of mobility and fossil-fuel consumption with the technology of the gas engine.  It would, perhaps, be wise to at least recognize history’s pattern, and give more thought to the environmental endgame of our cultures and their technologies, lest they come back to bite us.


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last updated 3/12/06