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At least it will taste smoke-grilled…

January 11th, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

In the aftermath of Copenhagen, it’s salutary to look back at past civilisations destroyed by bad ecological decisions.

There is the obvious example of Easter Island where all the trees were cut down for religious reasons, with disastrous effect:  the topsoil was subsequently eroded, fishing boats could not be made and famine followed.  There are the Maya, who likewise decimated the rainforests of the Yucatán over a millennium and are thought to have suffered drought as a result, which brought the classic period of their civilisation to an end.

But the example that is closest to home for me are the Nasca culture of Peru, about whom I’ve written in Cochineal Red. Famous for the lines they created on the desert plateau, the Nasca were wiped out by a series of ecological catastrophes in around 780 A.D. Recent research done by David Beresford Jones, an archaeologist from Cambridge, and his colleagues suggests this was because they did not value the huarango, the local extremely slow growing tree with unusually deep root systems that gives protection from harsh desert winds. By cutting them down, the Nasca exposed themselves to the elements with fatal results.

It’s not a lesson that modern Peruvians have gained much from: last time I was in Nasca, the huarango trees were still being cut down – not least because the local pizzerias valued the particular flavour they gave to the food when used under the grill. Sometimes one wonders if mankind’s criminally short term memory is matched only by the facile way we misuse our remaining resources.

But it’s a reminder that 21st century Western civilisation is not unique in the way that it has become so out of touch with nature – previous civilisations were often just as bad. Which is why they are no longer around.

  1. Cathy Schaffter
    January 17th, 2010 at 23:55 | #1

    You wrote this just days before the Haitian earthquake. With only 2% of Haiti’s forests left, I’d compare that country’s man-made ecological catastrophe with Easter Island’s denuding. But at least Easter Island isn’t on an earthquake fault line AND a regular hurricane path. Nor did Easter Island suffer from the impact of parasitic, meddling First World countries. France especially has a great deal to answer for. In the 19th century, it practically bankrupted Haiti by by demanding `reparations’ for French citizens’ loss of the value of their freed slaves! Today, the United States, followed by Canada, are the major donors of aid to Haiti. (And rightly so, as these are the richest countries in Haiti’s hemisphere.) But if the people of France were better educated about what their past governments did to Haiti, maybe a significant new source of aid to Haiti could be tapped. Here’s hoping!

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