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A Green History of the World

The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations

by Clive Ponting

430 pages, paperback, Penguin, 1993

A Green History addresses the influence of the environment on human history over the past 10,000 years, starting with the expansion of hunting and gathering groups, and the transition to settled agriculture. Ponting describes how exhaustion of the resources to which they had access doomed many human societies.

Ponting begins with the history of human settlement on Easter Island. This history serves as a cautionary example of the inability of a human society to stop destroying its natural resources even when it is obvious that continued resource destruction will doom future generations to life on a barren island with no possibility of escape. Our global society is now embarked on an incomparably massive resource extraction. Will we transcend the barriers that previous societies did not? Ponting does not propose solutions. He provides a wealth of illuminating and extremely sobering historical detail.

Ponting substantially revised the book in 2007. We prefer the original book.

Quotes from A Green History of the World (1997 Edition)

"The Easter Islanders, aware that they were almost completely isolated from the rest of the world, must surely have realised that their very existence depended on the limited resources of a small island. After all it was small enough for them to walk round the entire island in a day or so and see for themselves what was happening to the forests. Yet they were unable to devise a system that allowed them to find the right balance with their environment. Instead vital resources were steadily consumed until finally none were left. Indeed, at the very time when the limitations of the island must have become starkly apparent, the competition between the clans for the available timber seems to have intensified as more and more statues were carved and moved across the island in an attempt to secure prestige and status. The fact that so many were left unfinished or stranded near the quarry suggests that no account was taken of how few trees were left on the island."

. . .

"All these states [the Sumerian states of Kish, Uruk, Ur and Lagash] were dependent on their agricultural base for the large- scale production of wheat and barley and that was being slowly undermined by environmental degradation brought about by irrigation. About 3500 BC roughly equal amounts of wheat and barley were grown in southern Mesopotamia. But wheat can only tolerate a salt level of half a per cent in the soil whereas barley can still grow in twice this amount. The increasing salinisation of the soil can be deduced from the declining amount of wheat cultivated and its replacement by the more salt tolerant barley. By 2500 BC wheat had fallen to only 15 per cent of the crop; by 2100 Ur had abandoned wheat production and overall it had declined to just 2 percent of the crops grown in the Sumerian region. By 2000 the cities of Isin and Larsa no longer grew wheat and by 1700 BC salt levels in the soil throughout the whole of southern Mesopotamia were so high that no wheat at all was grown."

"What is remarkable is the way that the political history of Sumer and its city states so closely follows the steady decline of the agricultural base. The independent city states survived until 2370 BC when the first external conqueror of the region-- Sargon of Agade--established the Akkadian empire. That conquest is contemporary with the first serious decline in crop yields following widespread salinisation. For the next six hundred years the region saw the Akkadian empire conquered by the Guti nomads from the Zagros mountains, a brief revival of the region under the Third Dynasty of Ur between 2113-2000 BC, its collapse under pressure from the Elamites in the west and Amorites in the east, and about 1800 BC the conquest of the area by the Babylonian kingdom centered on northern Mesopotamia. Throughout this period, from the end of the once flourishing and powerful city states to the Babylonian conquest, crop yields continued to fall making it very difficult to sustain a visible state. By 1800 BC, when yields were only about a third of the level obtained during the Early Dynastic period, the agricultural base of Sumer had effectively collapsed and the focus of Mesopotamian society shifted permanently to the north, where a succession of imperial states controlled the region, and Sumer declined into insignificance as an underpopulated, impoverished backwater of empire."

. . .

"In 1533 the English Parliament passed an act (the Scottish parliament had passed a similar one in 1424) requiring all parishes to have nets to catch rooks, choughs and crows. This was extended in 1566 so that churchwardens were authorized to pay for the corpses of foxes, polecats, weasels, stoats, otters, hedgehogs, rats, mice, moles, hawks, buzzards, ospreys, jays, ravens and kingfishers. In every area of England large hunts were carried out to try to exterminate various animals. In 1723 at Prestbury in Cheshire 5,480 moles were destroyed, at Northill in Bedfordshire between 1764 and 1774, 14,000 sparrows were killed (and 3,500 eggs destroyed) and at Deeping St. James in Lincolnshire in 1779, 4,152 sparrows were killed. On one estate in the Scottish county of Sutherland in the early nineteenth century, 550 kingfishers were killed in just three years. In the same county on just two estates 295 adult and sixty young golden eagles (plus an unknown number of eggs) were destroyed between 1819-1826 (in an attempt to preserve fish and game for sport). The deliberate slaughter continued into the twentieth century--during the First World War the British government ordered the destruction of sparrows in order to try and increase crop yields and special clubs were set up to carry out the task. Their success can be judged from the fact that the one at Tring in Herfordshire killed 39,000 in three years."

A Green History of the World Chapter Summary

Table of Contents of A Green History of the World

  1. The Lessons of Easter Island
  2. The Foundations of History
  3. Ninety-nine per cent of Human History
  4. The First Great Transition
  5. Destruction and Survival
  6. The Long Struggle
  7. The Spread of European Settlement
  8. Ways of Thought
  9. The Rape of the World
  10. Creating the Third World
  11. The Changing Face of Death
  12. The Weight of Numbers
  13. The Second Great Transition
  14. The Rise of the City
  15. Creating the Affluent Society
  16. Polluting the World
  17. The Shadow of the Past

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