(Black Press Media files)

Earth Day: The roots of our current environmental crisis go back 12,000 years

The story of how our current environmental state came to be is over 12,000 years old

By: Joshua Sterlin, Phd Student, NRS, Leadership for the Ecozoic Program, McGill University

Our global civilization may be doubting its mastery of the Earth as we temporarily close the shutters on many of our societies because of COVID-19. Among ecology scholars, one conversation has been about how wildlife and habitat destruction and ecosystem destabilization could be linked to our current pandemic. Some even argue — as ecology scholar Vijay Kolinjivadi recently wrote in Uneven Earth — the coronavirus is a product of capitalism’s own making.

The head of the United Nations environment program and other experts say the current pandemic is a warning sign from nature. They believe this may be the beginning of the spread of more infectious diseases.

This is no new development, however. The story of how our current environmental state came to be is over 12,000 years old.

Are we the virus?

In the wake of our recent retreat indoors, animals have begun to reclaim human-dominated spaces. Our stalled economy has led to improved air quality in major cities. The immediate effects of our societal contraction are stark.

This has brought to the surface a perennial narrative and fear, quickly rejected, that humans are the true virus and that COVID-19 is the Earth’s vaccine. However, people have been right to point out that a small minority of actors — large corporations and governments — are responsible for the vast majority of ecological destruction and carbon emissions.

As we debate the proposals for what the world should look like after the virus, we must discuss the roots of what got us here. Doing this will help us change in a systemic way, rather than merely at the surface.

Origin stories and the Anthropocene

We have changed the planet so much that it can be detected in the very crust of the Earth. This has led some to name our current age after our species, calling it the Anthropocene.

When did the Anthropocene start? An often suggested answer is the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, when some humans began to change the planet at a remarkable clip. This includes pumping out the first significant greenhouse gas emissions.

Not all humans beings have participated in this process, however. This is why some have argued for naming our era after the social and economic arrangements that created it. The development of capitalism is often singled out as the defining feature for our era.

But we have to look further back for the genesis of our current set of crises: environmental, inequality and domination, and epidemic disease affecting both us and domesticated animals, including COVID-19. They all have their roots in the first tilled soils.

Fertile grounds (for disease)

The agricultural revolution began approximately 12,000 years ago and sparked a cascading shift in human-environment relations among certain peoples that has yet to end. The domestication of cereals and livestock, on which this revolution is based, created the population sizes and densities that provide the basis for epidemic disease.

Fanning out from those initial centres, the agricultural revolution arrived in the Americas (though it too had already begun here), carried and enacted by European settlers — with disastrous results.

It continues in the Amazon rainforest as the forest is cleared, mined and planted. Indigenous peoples are again at major risk from introduced disease.

Society, not species

Agriculture began not long after the end of the last major ice age. The stable climate conditions made planting grains viable. Agriculture sprouted in multiple locations across the world at a similar time.

However, of the roughly 300,000 years of the existence of modern humans, our current style of agricultural civilization comprises at most four per cent of humanity’s time on the planet. This is the era that is taught to students in schools. But this is only a single strand of the human story.

This narrative is our culture’s origin story. No wonder it is so hard for us to think there are any viable alternatives. The idea of the Anthropocene fuses the very definition of our entire species with a single way of life that itself has been a relatively recent development.

The vast majority of humanity’s time has been of us living in a quite different manner. Some Indigenous Peoples, from the Amazon to the Bay of Bengal continue to live in some approximation of that different way of life to this day.

Implicit within the idea of the Anthropocene is not only that all these societies are unimportant, but also in a certain way, that they are not even really human. It further lends a sense of inevitability to our present. It seems to say that our trashing of the planet is unfortunately, just an inescapable part of our nature. Sounds like “we are the virus” – doesn’t it?

Civilization and survival

Perhaps we need a new frame and name for our current era instead of the Anthropocene. This might allow us to see alternative futures.

This does not mean we need to dismantle our modern structures to live as hunter-gatherers. Nor does it mean that hunter-gatherers live without hardship, or that the rest of humanity has fallen from grace, although climate destabilization may eventually make current agricultural practices impossible.

There are many aspects and achievements of agricultural civilization such as modern medicine, the internet and scientific advancements, that if we were to lose them, it would diminish us. We are relying on many of the most highly developed medical and logistical ones during this pandemic.

After the pandemic — and if we are to survive this geologic era — we must re-establish mutually enhancing relationships with the Earth and each other. There may be no better way to do this than to turn to the societies that have succeeded, such as the hunter-gatherer societies that have generally discouraged hierarchy and maintained sustainable and flourishing relationships with land.

Responses to the COVID-19 pandemic are being refracted through inequality, private property, class structures and state power — all agricultural inheritances. There is a temptation, for instance, for states to tighten control over human and non-human populations.

These patterns have recurred in crisis for the past 12,000 years, and there are troubling signs of it already happening throughout the world.

We must forcefully resist this inclination. We must instead endeavour to use this moment, and our best civilizational inheritances, in the mitigation of our worst ones, and at the service of just and sustainable cultures. By doing so might we live not in old, but in utterly new ways.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Disclosure information is available on the original site. Read the original article:

Joshua Sterlin, Phd Student, NRS, Leadership for the Ecozoic Program, McGill University , The Canadian Press

Environment

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

The two sites in question included a number of commercial buildings, some of them currently boarded up. (Langley Advance Times files)
Deal to add Fort Langley land to Kwantlen reserve called off

Elders and a land advisory group within the KFN opposed the project

The RCMP helicopter. (File photo)
Suspect escapes after police pursuit through Surrey, Langley, Abbotsford

Police chase involved two stolen vehicles, including one taken in Mission

Dwain and Lillian Seymour discovered their Murrayville home was listed for rent without their knowledge as part of a scam. (Langley Advance Times/file)
Guilty plea in Langley rent fraud case

Arrested man admits to 14 criminal counts

Police boats were called in to search the Fraser River after a report that a plane had crashed where the river runs between Langley and Maple Ridge. (Shane MacKichan/Special to The News)
Investigation enters final phase, missing aircraft last seen over Fraser River

Small aircraft was carrying a student and instructor on June 6

Trinity Western University students Nyssa Morgan and Braedon Sunnes take their comedy improv night online for the world to see. (TWU/Special to Langley Advance Times)
VIDEO: In year of uncertainties, Langley students try to lift spirits with laughter

TWU students brought 30-year-old comedy improv tradition online

Mary Foote (right) took part in the Gutsy Walk in August 2020 at the age of 104. She was joined by son in-law Clarence and daughter Edith Olson. (family photo)
Langley woman turns 105 on Oct. 25

In August, Mary Foote took part in the Gutsy Walk to battle Crohn’s and Colitis

With local MLA Adam Olsen looking on, BC Greens leader Sonia Furstenau said a Green government would convert BC Ferries into a Crown corporation Wolf Depner/News Staff)
Green leader Sonia Furstenau promises to convert BC Ferries back into Crown corporation

Promise comes Monday afternoon with five days left in campaign

IIO Chief Civilian Director Ron MacDonald. (File photo: Tom Zytaruk)
Police watchdog concludes Mounties didn’t shoot Surrey teen at strip mall

IIO finds tragic death of teenager ‘not the result of any actions or inactions’ by the Surrey RCMP

A passer-by walks past a COVID-19 testing clinic in Montreal, Friday, Oct. 16, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Canada ‘yet to see’ deaths due to recent COVID surge as cases hit 200,000

Much of the increase in case numbers can be attributed to Ontario and Quebec

Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Police confirm human remains were found in a recycling bin in Vancouver on Oct. 18, 2020. (Black Press Media file photo)
Human remains found in recycling bin floating near Vancouver beach

Police asking nearby residents to see if their recycling bin has gone missing

Emergency crews shut down White Rock’s Five Corners district on Feb. 19, 2020 after an altercation left an elderly man in critical condition. (File photo)
Trial dates set in White Rock manslaughter case

Proceedings against Ross Banner, 71, set for June 2021 in Surrey Provincial Court

The many faces of Daon Glasgow. (Photos: Surrey RCMP)
Glasgow found not guilty of trying to murder transit cop in Surrey

Transit Police Constable Josh Harms was shot Jan. 30, 2019 at Scott Road SkyTrain Station

Most Read