The Morality of Environmental Destruction

31 Dec

Am still reading Jared Diamond’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee, and still enjoying his brutally measured logic. Here I found passages concerning our understanding of how past humans behaved towards the environment (contrary to what we understand of some tribes, many destroyed their environments) and how to consider the issue from a moral standpoint. I believe it is vital to make this differentiation.


(…) Today, environmentalists view people who exterminate species and destroy habitats as morally bad. Industrial societies have jumped at any excuse to denigrate pre-industrial peoples, in order to justify killing them and appropriating their land. Are the purported new finds about moas and Chaco Canyon vegetation just pseudo-scientific racism that in effect is saying, Maoris and Indians do not deserve fair treatment because they were bad?


In a previous passage, Diamond mentioned how the disappearance of several large land animals from North and Latin America and New Zealand coincided with the migration of Indians and Maoris to these lands.


What has to be remembered is that it has always been hard for humans to know the rate at which they can safely harvest biological resources indefinitely, without depleting them. (…) By the time that the signs of decline are clear enough to convince everybody, it may be too late to save the species or habitat. Thus, pre-industrial peoples who could not sustain their resources were guilty not of moral sins, but of failures to solve a really difficult ecological problem.


Tragic failures become moral sins only if one should have known better from the outset. In that regard there are two big differences between us and eleventh-century Anasazi Indians – those of scientific understand, and literacy.


And among his proposed solution:


Archaeology is often regarded as a socially irrelevant academic discipline that becomes a prime target for budget cuts whenever money gets tight. In fact, archaeological research is one of the best bargains available to government planners. All over the world, we are launching developments that have great potential for doing irreversible damage, and that are really just more powerful versions of ideas put into operation by past societies. We cannot afford the experiment of developing five counties in five different ways and seeing which four counties get ruined. Instead, it will cost us much less in the long run if we hire archaeologists to find out what happened the lasat time, than if we go on making the same mistakes again.


(…) the American Southwest has over 100,000 square miles of pinyon and juniper woodland that we are exploiting more and more for firewood. Unfortunately, the US Forest Service has little data available to help it calculate sustainable yields and recovery rates in that woodland. Yet the Anasazi already tried the experiment and miscalculated, with the result that the woodland still has not recovered in Chaco Canyon after over 800 years. Paying some archaeologists to reconstruct Anasazi firewood consumption would be cheaper than committing the same mistake and ruining 100,000 square miles of the US, as we may now be doing.

I found it particularly poignant as he mentioned Greece. In movies concerning the region, particularly from Jesus stories, you would not think that it is possible for such an arid area to sustain Israeli population as it was purported to do: allowing for religious factions to develop and young men to forgo their trades in order to follow prophetic figures, most notably Jesus of Nazareth. Such movies depict the landscape in that area as it is today. But biblical entries suggest a far more lush terrain, one of ‘milk and honey’ which allowed for the excesses of King Solomon and foreign tribes to pay tribute from as far as Ethiopia. Watching a food travelogue recently, I was also surprised to see how arid and sparse (vegetation-wise) modern-day Greece appeared. When you match it up with stories concerning the Roman empire: how the grains were able to be carried abroad in battle to sustain their fighting troops. Something is definitely off. The idea he put forth is this: That these great empires, the cradle of civilization, was so devasted ecologically by its inhabitants that they crumbled; and today we see only the shadow of what it was, because the environment that was there to allow such kingdoms to flourish are no more.


Today, Israel has become a food net exporter in the region due to energy intensive techniques such as drip-farming and concentrated chemical fertilization. Technology that was not available at that time. The fact that much of that energy and fertilizer comes from petroleum should strike fear into our hearts: that our means to keep back the consequences of our way of using land could very well be used up within the next century.


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