The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis
Lynn White, Jr.
A conversation with Aldous Huxley not infrequently put one at the
receiving end of an unforgettable monologue. About a year before his
lamented death he was discoursing on a favorite topic: Man's unnatural
treatment of nature and its sad results. To illustrate his point he told how,
during the previous summer, he had returned to a little valley in England
where he had spent many happy months as a child. Once it had been
composed of delightful grassy glades; now it was becoming overgrown with
unsightly brush because the rabbits that formerly kept such growth under
control had largely succumbed to a disease, myxomatosis, that was
deliberately introduced by the local farmers to reduce the rabbits'
destruction of crops. Being something of a Philistine, I could be silent no
longer, even in the interests of great rhetoric. I interrupted to point out that
the rabbit itself had been brought as a domestic animal to England in 1176,
presumably to improve the protein diet of the peasantry.
All forms of life modify their contexts. The most spectacular and
benign instance is doubtless the coral polyp. By serving its own ends, it has
created a vast undersea world favorable to thousands of other kinds of
animals and plants. Ever since man became a numerous species he has
affected his environment notably. The hypothesis that his fire-drive method
of hunting created the world's great grasslands and helped to exterminate
the monster mammals of the Pleistocene from much of the globe is
plausible, if not proved. For 6 millennia at least, the banks of the lower Nile
have been a human artifact rather than the swampy African jungle which
nature, apart from man, would have made it. The Aswan Dam, flooding
5000 square miles, is only the latest stage in a long process. In many
regions terracing or irrigation, overgrazing, the cutting of forests by
Romans to build ships to fight Carthaginians or by Crusaders to solve the
logistics problems of their expeditions, have profoundly changed some
ecologies. Observation that the French landscape falls into two basic types,
the open fields of the north and the bocage of the south and west, inspired
Marc Bloch to undertake his classic study of medieval agricultural methods.
Quite unintentionally, changes in human ways often affect nonhuman
nature. It has been noted, for example, that the advent of the automobile
eliminated huge flocks of sparrows that once fed on the horse manure
littering every street.
The history of ecologic change is still so rudimentary that we know
little about what really happened, or what the results were. The extinction of
the European aurochs as late as 1627 would seem to have been a simple
case of overenthusiastic hunting. On more intricate matters it often is
impossible to find solid information. For a thousand years or more the
Frisians and Hollanders have been pushing back the North Sea, and the
process is culminating in our own time in the reclamation of the Zuider Zee.
What, if any, species of animals, birds, fish, shore life, or plants have died