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Human beings share with all other animals strong drives to survive, to consume, and to reproduce. We’re just better at it. We’ve been able to elbow other other large animals into domestication, decline or extinction as we move towards full human utilization of the Earth’s photosynthetic capacity. We’ve changed the mix of plants which do the photosynthesizing, particularly by clearing forests and substituting food and fiber crops to satisfy our needs.
There’s a downside in being better at harnessing Earth’s ecosystems than any other species ever. “Ecocide,” a society’s unintended ecological suicide, has brought down past civilizations through too much harnessing, with deforestation often a large part of the ecocide death spiral. Jared Diamond is a UCLA geography professor with extraordinary intellectual range, and his book, “Collapse – How Societies Chose to Fail or Succeed,” draws lessons by contrasting behavior of civilizations which successfully met environmental challenges with others which failed and vanished.
Deforestation, forest destruction and conversion of cleared land to other human uses, started long ago with simple burning. About half of forests that existed 10,000 years ago had disappeared by 2011, the majority during the last 50 years. The world’s rain forests in particular are being rapidly destroyed. Diamond reconstructs many past ecocides, and some are guides for help with present realities: consider Easter Island’s relatively “pure” ecocide, pure because because its geographic isolation minimized other factors.
Diamond estimates that Polynesians first settled Easter Island, volcanic land in the Pacific Ocean totaling about 66 square miles, more than 1100 years ago. Polynesian Easter Island was almost as isolated in the Pacific Ocean as Earth is in space. Its population grew from a few bold and lucky seafarers to perhaps 30,000 before a steep population crash began in the 1600s. The island was densely forested when its first settlers arrived, but completely deforested when Europeans discovered it in 1722. A growing population had consumed the island’s forests as logs for ocean-going canoes, as firewood, as aids in building and moving huge stone statues which are still the island’s trademark, and as cleared land for crops. Wars and starvation had accelerated when the forests, and the food animals and plants which once lived among the trees, were gone. Population had dropped by more than half, and the island’s political kingdoms had vanished, before European explorers came and added more stresses.
On the good story side, the islands which constitute Japan suffered extensive deforestation until a political elite, the Tokugawa shoguns, developed top-down forestry management in the late 1600s. The shoguns decided to use laws and force to protect and regulate trees as a slow-growing crop, one essential to the continued success of Japan and its leaders. In 1666 the shogun issued a proclamation warning about the dangers of erosion, stream siltation and flooding caused by deforestation; within a few decades the shoguns and daimyos had created an elaborate system of woodland management and also reduced wood consumption through technological innovations. The rulers’ success in nurturing forests was helped by policies which discouraged population growth and by strong discipline among Japanese people.
We have more information about natural systems and of forces which threaten them than ever before. We have computing powers beyond our grandparents’ dreams. What is perhaps missing is a world shogun who can turn the science into effective action.
Image by Jami Dwyer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.