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Chapter 1: Roots of the modern environmental dilemma: A brief history of the relationship between humans and wildlife

Marine Conservation Home / Essays on Wildlife Conservation / NEXT: Marine Conservation Organizations »
Edited by Peter Moyle & Douglas Kelt
By Mary A. Orland1

Late Agrarian Societies
Food acquisition and social structure

As agrarian societies evolve, techniques for planting and harvesting become more technologically advanced and more efficient (Richerson et al. 1996). Domesticated animals such as horses and oxen are used to pull plows, which increases yields. Beasts of burden are also used to mill grains, along with water and wind mills. Large-scale irrigation systems are often used, although even early agrarian societies may possess small-scale irrigation systems. Often late agrarian societies are highly dependent upon a small number of grain crops, such as wheat, corn, or rice. Crops are also grown to feed livestock, which are the primary source of protein. Natural ecosystems provide only a small amount of the food in such societies; nearly all of the food comes from the human-manipulated agricultural ecosystems.

The higher crop yields in advanced agrarian societies can support dense human populations and large cities because many people do not have to work to procure food (Richerson et al. 1996). This division of labor allows for the development of complex societies with a considerable degree of specialization. Writing is present is advanced agrarian societies, and there often are well-developed artistic, literary, and religious classes, all of which further accelerates the rate of technological innovation and cultural evolution. The social structure of such societies is often highly stratified. The monarchy and aristocracy often control all the land and therefore the supply of food. Much of the rest of the population is pressed into service as peasants, serfs, or other laborer class members. Classic examples of late agrarian societies include Medieval Europe, Chinese feudalism, the Indian caste system, and the American South before the Civil War. The greater physical intensity of labor involved with using large animals and plows made women less able to contribute to food procurement, which generally resulted in a lower social status for women in the nearly universally patriarchal agrarian societies. The need for farm labor motivated people to have large families, which combined with other factors, makes human population growth rates generally quite high in agrarian societies.

Beliefs and attitudes toward nature and wildlife
Agrarian societies largely rely upon controlling and manipulating ecosystems to procure food, rather than on interacting with natural ecosystems and wildlife. Furthermore, the world's great religions, including Christianity, Buddhism, Islam and Hinduism, all arose in late agrarian societies. The god or divinity of agrarian religions is often an abstract entity, not something material, and generally separate from wildlife or nature (Wilber 2000). Agrarian gods may have a human face associated with them in some form, but even this may be just a symbol of an unseen force. Animals are only occasionally associated with gods, and are certainly not in themselves considered to be in possession of great powers. In fact, particularly in the western agrarian religions, there was an active attempt to assert that humans were superior to animals, and that it was God's will that humans fully utilize the natural world for their own benefit (Warren 2003). The wilderness was often considered a bad, evil place, and taming wilderness for farms and killing wild animals was as much a moral act as an economically beneficial one (Snyder 1990). There were also active attempts by agrarian religions in the west to suppress the practice of the more animistic and nature-oriented horticultural and hunter-gatherer religions, although we still practice the vestiges of old European pagan rituals during Christian holidays in the west today, such as Easter bunnies, Easter eggs and Christmas trees. It might be fair to say that late agrarian religions often have an “otherworldliness” quality to them, especially in the west (Wilber 2000). The school of Ecophilosophy asserts that the corresponding lack of sacredness in nature and the material world helped fuel the environmental destruction that accompanies this form of society (Wilber 1996, Gottlieb 1996).

Influences on natural ecosystems and wildlife
The impacts of agrarian societies on wildlife and natural ecosystems can be quite considerable, which is not surprising given both the high population densities of such societies and their increasingly potent technology for altering nature. When Western Europe was in a late agrarian stage of development, natural habitat and large wildlife species such as deer and wild boar were mainly found in either the aristocrats' protected hunting grounds, or in areas too mountainous or too far north to allow for agriculture. The rich, thick soils of grasslands makes them especially amenable to agriculture, and nearly all the area of this ecosystem type in Europe, North American and Asia has been completely modified for human food production. The high population densities of agrarian societies also have high demands for firewood and timber, so it is not uncommon to see deforestation for firewood (and resultant accelerated erosion of hillsides) in such societies. The bare hills of much of the Middle East are the result of removal of forests thousands of years ago, followed by erosion of soils and intensive grazing by goats and other livestock. The grazing continues today, keeping the hills in a perpetual state of biological poverty and low productivity. However, agricultural societies can only exist in those climates that are amenable to growing the key domesticated crops, so often habitats that are too cold, mountainous, or dry (deserts) can escape being completely altered, and hence may provide wildlife habitat.

Early Industrial Societies
Food acquisition and social structure

The invention of steam engines and other machines to perform physical labor began the early industrial era (Richerson el al. 1996). Some of these technologies were applied to agriculture, which made food production even more efficient. This allowed for yet more urbanization and professional specialization, which in turn led to great advances in the arts and sciences during this time. Many people in early industrial societies make their livelihood producing manufactured goods, often in an urban center. It is quite possible for a person in an industrial society to live their entire life and have little or no direct contact with either natural or agricultural ecosystems. Industrial societies also brought about the extensive use of capital as the life-blood of the economy, which created markets for many specialized goods and began the creation of a mercantile middleclass that traded goods and managed capital. Western Europe and the United States were in an early industrial phase from the eighteenth century to roughly through World War I. China and some other industrializing Asian countries are often characterized as currently being in an early to middle industrial phase.

The burgeoning populations and sharp class structure of late agrarian societies may often provide a surfeit of workers to countries in the early stage of industrialization, and these workers often have no choice but to work for low wages under poor conditions. However, the concepts of modern democracy, civil liberties, and human rights were born in early western industrial societies, under the Enlightenment idea that “all men are created equal.” Scientific rationalism and the discovery of the fundamental scientific principles of Newtonian physics and Darwin's theory of evolution also were developed during the early industrial era. The printing press was invented and literacy rates greatly increased. In industrial societies machines perform much of the labor performed by people in agrarian or horticultural societies. The status of women also usually begins to increase in industrial societies, presumably because economic productivity becomes less linked to physical strength.

Beliefs and attitudes toward nature and wildlife
Different segments of society hold different attitudes toward nature and wildlife in early industrial societies. The new market-based industrial economy viewed wildlife and other products from natural ecosystems as goods to be sold on the open market. The result was the rapid plundering of wildlife by market-hunting, particularly in the western hemisphere (Warren 2003). This rapid plunder was aided by the attitudes toward wilderness as being “evil” or purely for human use, which were held over from the agrarian religious worldview.

However, the rational, scientific view of nature also arose during this area, exemplified by Darwin's theory of evolution. Many naturalists who painstakingly collected and documented the diversity of the Earth's species, which helped people to develop an appreciation for the wonder of the natural world (Warren 2003). Concurrently, the Romantic philosophers such as John Locke, began to rail against the harshness of the industrial world, and argue than humans need to return to nature and a more natural way of being. The scientific appreciation of nature and wildlife combined with the sentiments expressed by Romantic philosophers and the work of artists and naturalists such as John Muir were some of the cultural forces that come together to start the conservation movement in the US and northern Europe during the early industrial era. This movement aimed to protect wildlife and nature from those who would overexploit it for financial gain or subdue it for its own sake. Yellowstone National Park and the National Park Service were established during the early industrial era of North America.

The increasing secularity of industrial society is seen by the fact that the arguments for conservation are generally not seen as primarily religious. It is easy to see how the intense exploitation of wildlife for markets reflected the view that nature is separate from humans. However, even the appreciation of natural places for their beauty, as reflected in 19th Century landscape paintings (Figure 1), contained the subtle message that humans are separate of humans from nature. In fact, the entire concept on looking at a “pretty view” in a natural landscape did not even exist in the West until approximately the 17th century, and is attributed by social scientists to the increasing psychological separation between humans and nature (Tuan 1982). It could also be argued that the increased scientific understanding of nature in this time was to some degree founded upon the separation of humans from nature allowing for an objective perspective. As complex as attitudes toward nature became during the early industrial era, perhaps they were all influenced by increasing separation of people from nature; thus, the livelihoods and daily activities of most people in industrial societies require little direct contact with natural ecosystems, wildlife, or plants.

American West by Alfred Bierstadt, 1866

Figure 1: 19th century landscape painting of the American West by Alfred Bierstadt (Storm in the Rocky Mountains, 1866, Brooklyn Museum, N.Y.). In the age before photography, gigantic paintings such as these introduced the people of America to the natural splendor of the continent, and helped create public support for the protection of wilderness.

Influences on natural ecosystems and wildlife
The influence of early industrial economies on nature and wildlife is considerable. Increasingly powerful technologies allowed for the exploitation of wildlife populations that had hitherto been protected because of remoteness or difficulty of hunting and fishing. For example, the railroad brought numerous people to the Great Plains, and harvesting of buffalo rapidly drove them to near extinction (Warren 2003). Likewise, better ships and harpooning technologies lead to the over-harvest of whales during the early industrial era. It is important to keep in mind, however, that the overexploitation of wildlife populations was ultimately driven by the demand of the market. Industrial societies are marked by economies based upon the flow of capital, and by demand for goods by a large population with ever-increasing wealth. The demand of market economies for wildlife nearly always continues to grow until wildlife populations are driven extinct or to very low densities. Thus, the tough leather of American bison hides made good belts for industrial machines in the Eastern US, and commercial hunting for this purpose was ultimately what drove them to near extinction. In general