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Environmental Damage through History

The world has reached a crisis point. Our modern lifestyle is destroying the fragile environment. It's important to be aware of what is happening to the environment today. One of the major problems nowadays is the destruction of the rainfоrests. Many communities today burn down trees to clear land for growing crops. Some of the earliest human communities also burned large areas of woodland for this purpose. Human societies evolved from small groups of hunter-gatherers to larger societies based around agriculture and domestic animals. According to many anthropologists, this was the beginning of "civilization." But it was also the beginning of mankind's destructive influence on the environment. We probably discovered how to manipulate fire about a million years ago. Until that time, most of the earth's land surface was covered in thick forests. Large forest fires, probably started deliberately by humans, created a new type of landscape in many parts of the world - the savannah or scrubland. The world's population then was only five or ten million. But these people literally changed the face of the earth. Several centuries later, the inhabitants of Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean cut down all their trees in order to erect huge religious statues. The islanders apparently forgot that the trees were their major source of food, fuel and shelter. Within a few years, the rich and sophisticated society on Easter Island was reduced to destitution and starvation.

The threat of extinction affects many animals and plant species in the world today, and people become more and more unnecessary cruel to animals. We first demonstrated our ability to eradicate other species several centuries ago. The dodo was a large bird, rather like a turkey, that lived on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. The bird had no natural predators and never developed the ability to fly. Despite this, the dodo population thrived on the island for thousands of years. When the first humans arrived in Mauritius in the early 16th century, they found that the dodos were very tame. The birds walked right up to the human settlers and did not try to run away. The settlers killed the dodos, partly for food and partly for sport. By 1680, less than 200 years after the first human settlement on Mauritius, the last dodo was dead. Only the expression "as dead as a dodo" lives on in the English language.

Other animals who suffered at the hands of our ancestors include the elephant and the buffalo. Thousands of years ago, elephants walked freely over much of the earth. Elephant hunting by humans, mainly for the ivory trade, eliminated the elephant population from the Middle East and North Africa several centuries ago. The great explorer Marco Polo discovered a lucrative market for ivory in China because the Chinese had already killed all their own elephants. The European explorers who settled in the Americas spent several centuries trying to eradicate the native American Indian population. In the 19th century, they deliberately set out to kill all the buffalo in North America, because the Indians ate buffalo meat and used the hide of the buffalo for making clothes and shelters. In 1800, there were more than 60 million buffalo in the United States; by 1890 there were just 1,000 animals left. Today, the buffalo remains an endangered species.

Modern man has done a great damage to the soil by intensive farming methods. One problem is salinization from excessive irrigation. But salinization is not entirely a problem of modern, high-technology agriculture. Our ancestors probably discovered irrigation about 5,500 years ago. The ancient Mesopotamians, who lived about 4,500 years ago, were enthusiastic farmers. They built extensive irrigation channels in river valleys to try to increase their crop fields. Unfortunately, this led to waterlogging and salinization of the soil. The field of the staple crop, barley, fell dramatically and a prolonged famine occurred. The people who survived the famine had to change their staple crop from barley to wheat, which tolerated the salty soil better. The problem of soil erosion has occurred ever since man began to destroy forests. There is geological evidence that a rapid increase in the rate of soil erosion occurred about 4,000 years ago in the northern European countries, particularly Britain, France and Germany. There was also an increase in silt deposits in rivers.

The time of this change corresponds to the introduction of agriculture to Europe. The destruction of forests, together with ancient man's agricultural methods, almost certainly caused this environmental damage.

The problems of urban expansion, industrial pollution and waste disposal are largely the problems of an overpopulated world in the 21th century. But ever since humans first tried to live together in towns, there have been problems providing food, fuel, water and sanitation for urban communities. Until less than a century ago, disposal of sewage was so inefficient that diseases such as cholera were endemic in many towns. With very few exceptions, urban communities used rivers and lakes as lavatories and garbage dumps. The ancient Romans, who understood the connection between sewage and disease, built their famous aqueducts to take the waste out of the city center. But the aqueducts simply transported raw sewage to the countryside and dumped it there! The ancient Romans were pioneers of public health but they were very short-sighted about the health of the environment.

Environmentalists often claim that modern people are selfish, but modern people are probably no more selfish than most of their predecessors.

However, there are two important differences between ancient civilizations and the world today. First, there are so many more people in the world today. We no longer live in isolated communities many hundreds of miles from our neighbors. The world, is now a global village. World population is reaching critical levels. Second, during the past 200 years, humankind has invented powerful technology that multiplies each individual's destructive impact on the environment. One man with an ax can cut down one or two large trees in a day; with modern machinery the same man can cut down a whole forest. Population growth and modern technology mean that we cannot afford to repeat the mistakes of our ancestors. The environmental crisis we are facing today will not just destroy a tiny corner of the earth. If we do not take action soon, it may cause irreversible damage to the entire planet.


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