A History of Ecocidal Tendencies

What now remains compared with what then existed is like the skeleton of a sick man, all the fat and the soft earth having wasted away, and only the bare framework of the land being left … there are some mountains which now have nothing but food for bees, but they had trees not very long ago … there were many lofty trees of cultivated species and … boundless pasturage for flocks. Moreover, it was enriched by the yearly rains from Zeus, which were not lost to it, as now, by flowing from bare land into the sea; but the soil it had was deep, and therein it received the water, storing it up in the retentive loamy soil, and … provided all the various districts with abundant supplies of spring water and streams, whereof the shrines still remain even now, at the spots where the fountains formerly existed. [1]  –Plato

 There is an old Chinese expression: “If we don’t change our direction, we’ll wind up where we are headed.” The irony of Plato’s words quoted above, written over two thousand years ago, would almost be amusing if it were not so tragic given the unprecedented ecological crises facing us today. In thinking about our current environmental challenges it might be helpful to turn to the pages of history to get a sense of trajectory. The evidence of man’s failed relationship with the earth everywhere abounds. The rubble of ancient monuments buried in dirt and decay, forlorn and long forgotten, tells stories of ancient peoples that once roamed the lands and lived, much as we do now, busy lives full of aspirations and great activity. Many of the sites of past civilizations are today barren and desolate landscapes standing, as it were, as testaments to the unique capacity of the human species to degrade its own habitat. While many of these places are now largely uninhabitable in themselves, traces of the former grandeur and glory of the people who once thrived there betray the fact that these were once highly productive landscapes, rich in natural resources, and capable of sustaining large populations and complex societies. The degeneration of the land and the people are intimately connected, and in this essay, I would like to explore the stories of past peoples whose ends were brought about through the overexploitation of natural resources and environmental degradation. With this objective in mind, I would like to put forward my conclusion and propose those two factors as ultimate determinants –not sole or necessary, but almost invariable and inevitable – in the decline of civilizations

Having made this assertion, making a few preliminary clarifications is in order. First, it is not my contention that environmental degradation and over-extraction of resources are always, or the only causes of the collapse of civilizations; such a statement, apart from being historically untrue, would be simply silly. One can easily imagine a multitude of hypothetical scenarios where such a theory would not hold and cite half a dozen real life examples to boot. However, most reasonable people would agree that both the rise and fall of civilizations are predicated upon a variety of complex and often interconnected factors. Therefore, in exploring any “putative environmental collapse” it is important to regard other possible contributing factors, such as the five-point framework developed by Jared Diamond, which considers: 1) environmental damage, 2) climate change, 3) hostile neighbors, 4) friendly trade partners, and 5) the society’s responses to its environmental problems.[2]

Second, it is important to distinguish between a “proximate cause” and an “ultimate cause.”[3] The former is the immediate and most apparent reason, and the latter, often overlooked or not well understood, is the underpinning set of conditions that facilitate the actualization of the immediate cause. For instance, the simplest and most concrete reason for the fall of the Western Roman Empire is the barbarian invasion. However, many would argue that this is merely a superficial reason, and that the fall was the result more of a long-term process of internal decline due to a “combination of economic, political and environmental” factors rather than single discrete event. [4] After all, Rome was able to successfully withstand constant barbarian attack for over a thousand years, and only succumbed in 476 A.D.: what changed?

Third, a pertinent point to appreciate in this discussion is that settling on an exact parameter of “collapse” after a certain point becomes arbitrary. What is important to recognize is that when environmental degradation becomes too severe there is a “drastic decrease in human population and/or political/economic/social complexity over a considerable area, for an extended time.”[5] The scale of the collapse differs for individual societies, and the process is rarely sudden, total or uniform. Periods of decline are often followed by recuperation and resurgence, followed by further decline, and a society can go through a series of small collapses happening at uneven intervals and spread out over different geographic regions. The collapse and its effects can be localized or national, or both, or even transnational (the term “national” being used in a loose sense of the word) where the collapse of one group affects another –an example of this, which also serves as an example of the fourth point of Diamond’s five-point framework, friendly trade partners, is the collapse of the Pitcarn and Henderson islanders due to “environmental catastrophe hundreds of miles overseas” in Mangareva, their sole trading partner who they were completely dependent upon for essential goods and services.[6]

Finally, many historians – and modern academicians in general –attempt to isolate and analyze discrete events as independent phenomena intelligible in themselves, rather than seeking to understand them within a universal narrative that places individuals and societies within a broader reality of inter-connected events. Our approach to history, as in other fields, is limited by our tools of measurement, which can in reality measure only the things we make, with what we make. The specialized approach is not without its usefulness and can yield highly fascinating insights, but the big picture, though fuzzier perhaps, is the background that sets the stage for everything else, and anyone who ignores it does so at their own peril. John Haldon in his A Social History of Byzantium, discusses three types of “temporal frameworks” in studying the formation (and by extension, dissolution) of “states and social systems,” which he categorizes as macro, meso, and micro.[7] The Macro level put forward by Diamond suggests “very long-term evolutionary pathways determined primarily by ecological conditions.”[8] Haldon finds this approach too general and “of little help,” and feels that it undermines the “value of specific data”.[9] It is understandable why historians and social scientists might find such an approach broad and unhelpful; their enterprise by nature is anthropocentric. Diamond, is however, a physiologist and an ecologist, as well as being an anthropologist, and brings in a perspective that attempts to put the human story in its proper place, amidst a tapestry of diverse and interactive life forms living on a finite planet that is governed by set laws and principles. Clive Ponting, in his A New Green History of the World writes:

Human history cannot be understood in a vacuum. All human societies have been, and still are, dependent on complex, interrelated physical, chemical, and biological processes. These include the energy produced by the sun, the circulation of the elements crucial for life, the geophysical processes that have caused the continental land masses to migrate across the face of the globe and the factors regulating climate change.”[10]

An ecological and energetic framework is like a canvas on a wall where the picture is constantly changing, but the canvas itself never moves, which makes it the most stable framework through which we can make sense of the apparent chaos of this world – past, present, and future. Having set up this rudimentary foundation, we can now finally turn to our three case studies.

One can hardly speak of environmental collapse without some mention of the Easter Islanders. Sitting in the middle of the Pacific Ocean in one of the most remote regions of the world, thousands of miles away from any other landmass or human settlement, Easter Island was one of the last places to be colonized by the Polynesian ocean voyagers. The first written record of Easter comes from the Dutch admiral Jakob Roggeveen who visited the island on his way to Indonesia in 1722. What he described was a barren wasteland, “virtually treeless,”[11] with a population of about three thousand impoverished people “living in squalid reed huts or caves … and resorting to cannibalism in a desperate attempt to supplement the meager food supplies available on the island.”[12] The mystery that Roggeevan was unable to solve, like other visitors to the island after him, was the existence of hundreds of gigantic statues (moai) carved out of stone, some at that time still standing erect on great stone platforms (ahu). There are some 887 moai in total, 13 feet tall and weighing 10 tons on average, and the largest 70 feet and 270 tons.[13] Undoubtedly, it must have taken considerable resources and organization over a long period of time to achieve such a remarkable feat, yet the islanders were very obviously lacking in both. The mystery has continued to puzzle both visitors and historians, even leading some to suggest extraterrestrial involvement.[14] However, scholarship over the past several decades paints a more ‘down to earth’ picture that helps us understand the tragic misfortune that befell the Easter islanders brought about by an evidently self-inflicted environmental collapse.

It would appear, based on pollen analysis (palynology) and archeological studies, that Easter was once well forested and home to a number of native trees, including, while it still existed, the largest palm tree in the world; at least 21 of those species had become completely extinct by the time Europeans discovered the island.[15] These trees provided essential resources for building, fuel, heating, cooking, food supplement, and –the answer to our mystery–manufacturing of ropes and ladders for transporting the statues. The island also supported a number of land birds, and was home to at least 25 seabirds, which made a significant contribution to the diet of the islanders in the early stages of occupation.[16] The population of the island, greatly disputed by historians, ranged from 6,000 to 30,000Diamond suggests the higher number as he finds it unrealistic that the “1864 post-smallpox population of 2000 people represented the residue of a pre-smallpox, pre-kidnapping, pre-other-epidemic, pre-17th-century-crash population of only 6000 to 8000 people”),[17] a large number given the size of the island (about two day’s walk from one end to the other). The rise of the population and the over-extraction of wild food sources led to agricultural intensification, and desperate measures for increasing food production all of which led to further degradation of their resource base.[18] The islanders cleared more land, felled more trees, and cause more soil to erode. With the dwindling of their resources, competition and hostility between themselves also increased and led to warfare and cannibalism. It is interesting to note that the statues also got bigger as things became worse – perhaps as a desperate plea to the ancestors or as failed strategy employed by the leaders to appease their people.[19] Ironically, building bigger statues only accelerated the depletion of the resources.

The Easter islanders were incredibly resilient people who managed to survive in complete isolation with meager resources, and built the “most advanced of all the Polynesian societies and one of the most complex in the world for its limited resource base.”[20] In the end, however, they were “unable to devise a system that allowed them to find the right balance with the environment,”[21] and essentially committed “ecological suicide.”[22] What was left of the Easter islanders were essentially wiped out soon after European contact through a combination of smallpox and kidnapping of a large segment of the population by Peruvians in the 19th century.[23]

In case someone were to argue that Easter Island can hardly constitute a fair representative model for human caused environmental collapse, due to its fragility, relatively small size, population, and novel setting (not to mention the recent scholarship[24] and heated debates over the blogosphere[25] suggesting that introduced rats may have been a larger contribution to deforestation than previously understood), let us now turn to the Mayans (who, to the best of our current knowledge, did not have a rat problem) as our second example.   This Mesoamerican culture has been described as one of, if not the most, advanced of its time. The Mayans had incredibly complex social, political, and religious organization. They are notable for their astronomical achievements, particularly their invention of the Long Hand calendar, and their indigenous writing (which has been difficult to decipher but has been very helpful in gaining a better grasp of Maya history[26]). Unlike the Easter islanders they lived in a stable environment with plentiful resources. The population at the height of their civilization is estimated to have been as high as 14 million people in Central Pete. However, when Cortes passed through there in the mid 16th century, there were only some paltry 30, 000 or so people left.[27]

The Mayans practiced a form of slash and burn agriculture, sometimes called ‘Swidden agriculture’. The practice involved burning part of the woodland, which initially releases the fertility needed for intensive crop production in poor tropical soils, and then leaving the area fallow for several decades and allowing it to regenerate with rapid and dense growth typical of the tropics.[28] [29] This method is relatively sustainable if the area cleared is not too large and the rest period is long enough. However, in order to meet the demands of a growing population the Mayans had to clear more and more of their forests, decrease the rest time, and possibly abandon it altogether.[30] The need for more arable land also led the Mayans progressively uphill onto steep slopes and marginal lands, which created disastrous soil erosion problems. Hill slope erosion not only reduced productivity of the naturally infertile and acidic hill soils, but also created problems below by covering up the more fertile valley floors with poor soils.[31] Most of the fertility in the tropics is held in the biomass above ground, and deforestation leads to rapid decline in fertility. For us modern folk (made up of fossil fuel based nitrogen fertilizer)[32] who are far removed from the dirt beneath our feet and may have never walked barefoot, nor grown a head of lettuce in our lives, soil loss may sound trivial. Although we may not be able to fully appreciate the fundamental importance of soil it is nevertheless the most important resource that we have; it is the dynamic interface between life and death. David R. Montgomery, in his ground-making work (pun intended), Dirt: The Erosion of Civilization, which traces the connection between the fates of past civilizations and theirs soils, writes: “”If Earth had come with an operating manual, the first chapter might be titled something like “How to Protect Soil, Mother of All Life.”” [33] Montgomery’s verdict on the Mayans is unequivocal: “Mayan civilization provides the best studied, but by no means the only, example of soil degradation contributing to the collapse of a society in the Americas.”[34]

Maya collapse is considerably more complex than Easter Island, and serves as a good example for the points mentioned in the first half of this essay. In the case of the Easter Islands only two of the factors of Diamond’s five point framework were present: 1) environmental damage, and 2) failure of effective societal response.[35] However, with the Mayans all five factors played a role, albeit with different degrees of severity in different regions: 1) Environmental damage definitely occurred, mostly in the form of deforestation and soil erosion. The removal of forests, which play a significant role in the water cycle, is believed to have caused anthropogenic droughts.[36] 2) Climate change happened in the form of drought at the time of the Classic collapse, accelerating the process in some regions. Droughts were fairly frequent, however the Mayans had previously been able to survive them under better conditions.[37] 3) Hostility increased between the different kingdoms as they competed for limited resources. Interestingly, one of the reasons the Maya kingdoms were unable to be consolidated into one large empire was the lack of draught animals for carrying food supplies, which constrained their capacity for distant and prolonged military campaigns; this problem translated into frequent but indecisive warfare.[38] 4) Obviously, the fighting did not facilitate the best trading conditions, which further compounded the crises as it prevented the different regions from supporting each other through exchange of essential goods in a time of crisis. 5) The ruling class failed to address the underlying problems insofar as they were able to perceive them. “Their attention was evidently on their short-term concerns of enriching themselves, waging wars, erecting monuments, competing with each other, and extracting enough food from the peasants to support all these activities.”[39]

As we can see there is sufficient room for historians to debate the possible “proximate cause” for the collapse. Yet, it is evident that ultimately the root of all their problems was in the simple fact that their ecological base could no longer support them. What further adds to the complexity of recreating the narrative is the difficulty in identifying a definitive point of collapse due to the variance in the rate of decline across geographical and political space. What the historians call the “Classic” collapse, which occurred between eights to ninth century, however, led to over 99% reduction in population in the southern lowlands.[40] Nevertheless, despite its catastrophic proportion, the Classic collapse was not the total end for the Mayans, and the more ecologically stable areas continued to support some population of survivors. However, with the drastic reduction in human population, the jungle reclaimed most of Maya, and the once rich and thriving civilization remained lost from sight and thought until the 19th century.[41]

For our third and final example of a civilization that brought about its ruin through unsustainable environmental practices, we will examine Mesopotamia, The Land Between the Two Rivers. Widely considered to be ‘the cradle of civilization,’ what was formerly Mesopotamia is today one of the most war-torn and politically unstable regions in the world, and its environmental condition is no better.  The term ‘fertile crescent’ sounds like a cruel joke given the vast desert expanse and treeless landscape that is the hallmark of modern day Mesopotamia.  Yet, this is where it is all reputed to have begun: the start, and perhaps, as we shall see, also the end, of ‘project civilization.’

The transition from hunter-gatherer to agricultural societies was the most radical change to take place in human history.  This transition, often called the ‘Neolithic Revolution’, is, as Ponting points out, a misnomer as it was neither as immediate nor intentional as the term ‘revolution’ suggests.[42] Instead, this was a long-term process that unfolded through small and incremental changes that were barely noticeable in themselves but, nevertheless, over time had a profound impact on the nature and complexity of human social organization.  It facilitated the creation of permanent settlements, growth of human population, multi-tiered socio-political hierarchies, rapid cultural and technological advancements, and ultimately all the ingredients of civilization itself, all of which led to the need for more and more agriculture.  The system is self-perpetuating and structurally irreversible in that, once it is adopted, there is no going back – you either persist with it or perish.  Although to us hunter-gatherers may seem like backward, primitive people who lived lives that were, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, “nasty brutish and short,” it is worthwhile to note that that lifestyle constituted ninety-nine per-cent of human history and, as such, was more sustainable than anything that we have known.[43] Recent scholarship suggests “a much more positive view of gathering and hunting groups”[44] than previously held, and it would appear that most of them lived reasonably healthy, secure, and satisfying lives –let alone that they survived as long as they did without wreaking total havoc on the earth. Agriculture –slowly, but surely –changed all of that.  For the Mesopotamians, it changed everything.

Some of the most significant innovations in early agriculture appeared in Mesopotamia. The limited availability of resources, such as stone, copper, and timber, combined with the harsh conditions possibly served as the impetus for their inventiveness and ingenuity –‘the stimulus of hard country,’ to borrow a term from Toynbee.  The process began sometime around 5000 BC, and as the population grew, thanks to the resulting food surplus, so did the demand for more agricultural land, forcing farmers to extend farther away from the riverbanks and the naturally fertile floodplains.[45]   They began to dig extensive irrigation canals in order to meet the challenge of watering their crops, especially in the south where rainfall was low when it was most needed to plant new crops in August and October.[46]  Within a few hundred years, all the land was taken up by agriculture.  This required farmers to intensify their methods, and soon the plow (possibly the most destructive implement ever invented) entered the picture.  All of this further increased production, population, and demand –the cycle was in full motion.

The high summer temperatures of the region, often exceeding 100 degrees Fahrenheit, meant high evaporation rates, which necessitated massive irrigation in order to have a successful harvest.  As the water evaporated off the fields, it caused the salt level to rise, which poisoned the soil[47], and as any farmer will tell you, salting the ground is one of the worst things you can do to the land.  The problem of salinization was compounded further by the low permeability of the soil, which prevented the water from draining into the ground and led to waterlogging.[48]  Salinization became Mesopotamia’s number one environmental crisis.  Sumerian written records provide us firsthand documentation of the problem.  The Mesopotamians had to replace their main staple crop, which is particularly sensitive to salt, with more and more barley, which is more salt-resistant, but a poor substitute for making flour.  In some places, like Ur, wheat almost went out of production and amounted to “just 2 percent of the crops.”[49]  Even more disturbingly overall crop production declined by “40 percent between 2400 and 2100 BC.” due to salinization; in the words of the Sumerians themselves, “the earth turned white”.[50]  The resulting food shortage significantly impacted, among other things, the states capacity to feed and maintain an army, making it vulnerable to attacks and conquests.  This caused the empire to relocate itself to the North and Sumer eventually became an insignificant “under populated, impoverished back-water of an empire.”[51] The rest of Mesopotamia suffered a similar fate over the next few centuries, and “between 1300-900 BC there was an agricultural collapse in the central area following salinization as a result of too much irrigation.”[52]   Leonard Woolley, one of the first archaeologists to work in the region wrote:

Only to those who have seen the Mesopotamian desert will the evocation of the ancient world seem well-nigh incredible, so complete is the contrast between past and present … it is yet more difficult to realize, that the blank waste ever blossomed, bore fruit for the sustenance [sic] of a busy world.  Why, if Ur was an empire’s capital, if Sumer was once a vast granary, has the population dwindled to nothing, the very soil lost its virtue?

Salinization was not the only ecological crisis that affected the Sumerians; there were other problems, such as the accumulation of silt, which clogged the irrigation canals and required great efforts to maintain them.  Similarly, the Mayans too had a complex of ecological issues to deal with apart from deforestation and soil erosion, as did the Easter Islanders, and everyone else who has ever lived on this planet, issues ranging from water, food, shelter, waste, climate, biodiversity, and so on. However, the existence of a pattern is evident; if an alien anthropologist visited planet earth and was asked to make an assessment of us, the diagnosis would probably read: Homo sapiens, a clear history of ecocidal tendencies.  History is as much about the present and the future as it is about the past.  The people who came before us were not altogether different from us.  It is difficult to imagine that they would have consciously destroyed themselves, yet the fact that they did so should give us pause. It behooves us to be wary of any hubris that makes us believe we are beyond suffering the same fate as the Easter Islanders, or the Mayans, or the Mesopotamians.

In fact, all the evidence indicates that ours has been the era of the greatest ecocide. As I write this an article in the Guardian pops up on my newsfeed titled, “Peak Soil: industrial civilization is on the verge of eating itself.” The subtitle reads, “New research on land, oil, bees and climate change points to imminent global food crisis without urgent action.” Just one of the many disturbing facts presented in the article says that:

Over the past 40 years, about 2 billion hectares of soil – equivalent to 15% of the Earth’s land area (an area larger than the United States and Mexico combined) – have been degraded through human activities, and about 30% of the world’s cropland have become unproductive. But it takes on average a whole century just to generate a single millimeter of topsoil lost to erosion.”[53]

How great a percentage of soil loss did it take for the Mesopotamians? What will be the number that pushes us over the tipping point? In the past two hundred years alone, we have altered the earth in ways that are entirely novel, the full effects of which are beyond our current understanding.  If we are to continue occupying this world, we must first acknowledge that we are a part of it, and what we do to it we do to ourselves.  The only viable, and possibly permanent, culture is one based on sound ecological principles, conscious design, and ethics. It is time we changed direction.

I will end with a personal reflection. One of the signs of the end of times according to narrations attributed to the Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him) is the building of tall buildings and large structures. It is interesting to note that the Mayans too, like the Easter Islanders, built their largest monuments right before their collapse.[54]  If this serves as an indicator of a civilization’s peak, then we have cause to worry.  History is about lessons, and the Qur’an invites us to reflect upon them:

By the break of Day

By the Nights twice five;

By the even and odd (contrasted);

And by the Night when it passeth away;-

Is there (not) in these an adjuration (or evidence) for those who understand?

Seest thou not how thy Lord dealt with the ‘Ad (people),-

Of the (city of) Iram, with lofty pillars,

The like of which were not produced in (all) the land?

And with the Thamud (people), who cut out (huge) rocks in the valley?-

And with Pharaoh, lord of stakes?

(All) these transgressed beyond bounds in the lands,

And heaped therein mischief (on mischief).

Therefore did thy Lord pour on them a scourge of diverse chastisements:

For thy Lord is (as a Guardian) on a watch-tower.

(Surah Fajr, Verses 1-14)


[1] Clive Ponting, A New Green History of the World (New York: Penguin Books, 2007), 76.

[2] Jared Diamond, Collapse, How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (New York: Penguin Group, 2005), 11.

[3] ibid, 13.

[4] Ponting, 77.

[5] Diamond, 3.

[6] Diamond. 121.

[7] John Haldon, A Social History of Byzantium (Chichester: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2009), 23.

[8] ibid, 23.

[9] ibid, 24.

[10] Ponting, 8.

[11] David R. Montgomery, Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2012), 217.

[12] Ponting, 1.

[13] Diamond, 96.

[14] ibid, 96.

[15] ibid, 102-103.

[16] Ibid, 104-105.

[17] ibid, 90-91.

[18] Montgomery, 217-220.

[19] Diamnd, 108.

[20] Ponting, 4.

[21] ibid, 7.

[22] Montgomery, 219.

[23] Diamond, 112-113.

[24] Terry Hunt, “Rethinking the Fall of Easter Island,” The American Scientist, 94, no.5 (2006); DOI: 10.1511/2006.61.1002.

[25] Mark Lynas, Jared Diamond “The myths of Easter Island – Jared Diamond Responds.” 19 Nov. 2014. www.marklynas.org Web. 5 Dec. 2014.

[26] Ponting, 78,

[27] Diamond, 175.

[28] Ibid, 163.

[29] Montgomery, 74

[30] Ibid, 74.

[31] Motgomery, 75.

[32] Wes Jackson “Tackling The Oldest Environmental Problem,” The Post Carbon Reader. Ed. Richard Heinberg and Daniel Lerch City of Publication: H, Year. 128-139. Print. In reference to the Haber-Bosch process that converts atmospheric nitrogen to ammonia, an invention that essentially gave birth to the so called ‘green revolution, Vaclav Smil of the University of Manitoba says, “Without Haber-Bosch 40 percent of humanity wouldn’t be here.”

[33] Montgomery, x.

[34] Montgomery, 74.

[35] Diamond, 118.

[36] ibid, 116.

[37] Ibid, 176.

[38] ibid, 165.

[39] ibid, 177.

[40] ibid, 175.

[41] Ponting, 82.

[42] ibid, 37.

[43] ibid, 18.

[44] ibid, 19.

[45] Montgomery, 37.

[46] Ponting, 69.

[47] Montgomery, 39.

[48] Ponting, 69.

[49] ibid, 71.

[50] ibid, 71.

[51] ibid, 71.

[52] ibid, 71.

[53] ibid, 69.

[54] Diamond, 168.

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One comment on “A History of Ecocidal Tendencies
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