Humans changing the planet

Modern humans tend to consider their own destructiveness as being minimal up until around the time of the industrial revolution. And indeed, there is no doubt that our impact on the Earth increased. But that was far from the start of our planet-changing activities.

Archaic humans (Homo sapiens idaltu) were migrating from Africa around 70,000 years ago. (From here, I will use the abbreviation ‘kya’ for ‘thousand years ago’, so that would be 70 kya.) 100 kya, the world was dominated by at least three distinct great ape species, including our direct ancestors. By 30 kya, our ancestors were more or less alone; we’d overrun our cousins.

Migration from Africa seems to have been driven largely by population pressures and the need for food. We followed the big game west, out across Europe and Asia, over land and water and ice.

Around 65 kya we arrived in Australia. By 50 kya, many large mammal species here were extinct, hunted and eaten by our forebears. The same pattern can be seen in the Americas; extinctions followed the arrival of humans.

It wasn’t just animals we did as we wished with. It’s estimated that about 10% of the Amazon is in its current form due to the intervention of early humans. We encouraged the plants that were more beneficial to us: the plants we could eat from, or those which would suit the animals we wanted to eat. We discouraged or killed off plants that didn’t suit us. Burning the undergrowth left more space for large game herds.

For about 10,000 years we’ve been domesticating food plants, cultivating what we want to eat and clearing out the plants we can’t use. This in turn lead to an expansion of population, as our deliberately chosen and cultivated crops could support more people than foraging for naturally occurring plants.

So basically what I’m trying to say is that humans and our ancestors have been transforming Earth for our own benefit for a very very very long time, and that’s on top of natural events and constant climate fluctuations. There’s some food for thought when you consider trying to reverse it all. Good luck trying to figure out what’s ‘normal’, ‘natural’, or ‘pristine’; is it a hundred years ago, or a hundred thousand? I’m not saying don’t try. Just be aware of what you’re trying to save the planet from.

The more things change, et cetera…

As an integral part of my studies on Ancient History, as well as reading modern scholars and recent discoveries, I’ve also been reading ancient texts: documents written by the people living in that time. Some are intended as histories, some are letters, some are other types of documents. But what continues to strike me is  how so many of the texts deal with matters we still discuss and debate today, and how many comments are still relevant!

For your amusement, here are a couple of the more obvious examples:

Pliny the Younger, writing in around 100 CE (Common Era, also referred to as AD), excused his long and in-depth letter to a friend by adding, ‘Besides, hasn’t the time come to give up the commonplace “How are you? I hope you are well”?’ 

I don’t know about you, but that is how I learnt to write letters, almost 2000 years later!

Tacitus, also writing around 100 CE, wrote, ‘In the good old days, every man’s son, born in wedlock, was brought up not in the chamber of some hireling nurse, but in his mother’s lap, and at her knee.’ Tacitus went on to describe what he considered good parenting: a mother’s focus on her child, a mother’s presence and influence, not hiring staff to care for the child instead.

We still have these debates: Stay-at-home-mum versus working mum. The pros and cons of childcare. (If you’re not a parent, you might not have noticed these. But they are ongoing in the online mothering community, and occasionally in the news media!)

My last example is a little bit more complex: not a quote, but a scenario. A Roman tribune named Tiberius Gracchus, in 136 BCE, proposed a law intended to ensure fairer usage of public lands, a reduction in the number of slaves used to farm said land, and an increase in farming citizens – the pool from which soldiers could be drawn. In short, in Roman terms, it was a law intended for the benefit of the state, the greater good. But the law was strongly opposed by rich land-holders: the men who had been exploiting those very same public lands for their own gain, and who had used many slaves to do so. There was such debate and furore over this agrarian law that those rich, greedy men ended up killing Tiberius, or directly causing his brutal murder.

Short of the actual murder, it seems our way of doing politics and business is much the same. Unelected people still have power and influence via money, and sometimes brute force.

The more things change, the more they stay the same! My mother notes it for her lifetime; I am learning to note it for all of recorded history.