Sunday, October 5, 2008

Early Civilizations and the Environment

The first civilizations on this planet had it rough. Like…really rough.

These small groups of people stopped chasing their food from place to place around 3000 B.C.E. (beginning what is known as the “Neolithic era”) and settled down in modern day Iraq to establish permanent homes that would rely upon the environment to insure the survival of the people. Unfortunately for these civilizations, the environment is not a consistently reliable source of survival. In fact, at times it does more to insure death and destruction than health and well being.

These first civilizations settled between two major rivers: the Tigris and Euphrates. Living between these two rivers would allow for inhabitants of the civilizations access to one of the fundamental benefits presented by the natural environment: water. Of course, the people of this civilization had to find ways to get that water to the central farms that were developing, as the movement from hunting and gathering to fixed locations required people to use the available land to plant and grow food. Irrigation was born. Civilization as a whole grew tremendously as people were able to successfully grow food for both themselves and their neighbors.

Of course, living between two major rivers does have its down side. Heavy rains at any given time would flood the rivers, potentially destroying the farms and/or killing a whole bunch of people. The people of the Neolithic era had to be constantly aware of the potential for disaster. Even more unfortunately for them, there was little they could do to prepare.

A similar catch-21 developed when the first civilizations realized the benefits of domesticating animals. Possessing and maintaining farm animals was a great way to help sustain early civilizations, as these animals (both living and recently deceased) could provide a lot of different resources for humans: eggs, meat and clothing are but three tremendous benefits of having animals around. But, like the dangers associated with living near rivers, domesticating animals also brought with it some danger. These animals carried a number of diseases for which humans had no immunities. Being in constant contact with these animals would eventually lead to the deaths of a number of people in these early civilizations, as they caught and passed on the viruses and diseases carried by the animals.

The inhabitants of the first river valley civilizations had to constantly be aware of their relationship to their environment, as any sudden change in conditions could literally mean the end of their society. With each innovation that would eventually lead to tremendous growth for the world as a whole, there was inevitably a cost that would have to be paid by some members of society. And that cost usually involved a level of give-and-take between mankind and his environment. Unfortunately for the people of the Neolithic time period, the “take” tended to be a lot more severe (and happen more often) than the “give.”

Most importantly, however, it is important to understand that, from even this early time period, there was an unmistakable connection between mankind and his environment. When the environment was cooperative, the early civilizations thrived. When the environment was uncooperative, civilization stagnated.


matthew levy said...

I think we all live in a relatively sustainable environment. Each day there is no question in our minds of how we will obtain food, find shelter and/or irrigate our crops. This is the major difference between society and early civilizations. Throughout history, the physical aspects of a society seemed to be observed more than the mental ones. If I were in a early civilization and I didn’t have to worry about food and shelter for one week, imagine the development and exploration that could be achieved. Today, global warming, depletion of natural resources, and dependency on oil is not a quiet topic, but yet it doesn’t have a major effect how I live day to day. It is important to note that geographically, early civilizations were more spread out. Therefore the negative effects of an early civilizations failure to sustain their environment rarely concerned more than themselves. Today, however, our population and industrialization of the world leaves very little land out of range of environmental damage. The ways in which we have damaged our environment are much more powerful and can affect neighboring countries miles and miles away. Returning to my original point, even though there is currently the most severe environmental crisis the world has ever faced, my life feels relatively steady. Why is that? Is that just me failing to be proactive or is that the way society has dealt responsibility? There are people begging our leaders to take action but our progress seems dwarfed by something. I can’t quite label it. Is there some risk involving sustaining our planet that no one in power wants to take? History has shown that sustainability is something that can be achieved. However, during our study of early civilizations the idea of risk was never brought up. The risk of a civilization changing its habits or reducing its production in order to thrive longer. Does the definition of survival prioritize tomorrow or the next hundred years?

cindy avila said...

It is quite obvious that the first civilization, or early societies in general, had a MUCH more difficult time with their daily lifestyles, and it could also be argued that it was further complicated as well. Matt, i read your blog comment and, for the most part, i agree with you. Shelter and farming is not a significant in our lives as it was VITAL back then. Yet, more specifically, there was one line that was interesting in which you wrote, "Throughout history, the physical aspects of a society seemed to be observed more than the mental ones." I would be really interested if you would explain what you meant there in greater detail because i feel as though you were on to something...but the way that you phrased it was a somewhat confusing. Additionally, I would like to disagree with how global warming and all of those other environmental aspects were not majorly effecting the day to day well being of yourself. I can almost guarantee that if you look through a newspaper of aol news or flip threw a few channels there is going to be something related to our environment. Whether it be "Save your energy bill" or "New Hybrid Car"--the only thing is that we dont notice it as much unless it is straightforwardly addressed. It, honestly, is SOO increadibly common in our daily lifestyle that we have learned to ignore the majority of these messages or just not think twice about them. Unless something specifically says "Environmental......." than would we consider that to be related. So, bottom line is that i think we should really think over this question again. Not to say that you are not responsibly in helping your planet or your not contributing to this crisis but some people just dont think that it is a main concern....yet. Not until disasters occur do they think that this issue should be addressed....
The changing of society will be a constant process if only we consider our surrounds first.