The Third Revolution
Paul Harrison

II. The O'ergrowth of Some Complexion: 
Three Billion Years of Environmental Crisis

And God said unto them, Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

-- Genesis, i.28.

Environment, says the Oxford English Dictionary, means `the objects or the region surrounding anything'; or `the conditions under which any person or thing lives or is developed.' This flexible meaning stretches like a piece of chewing gum and sticks onto almost anything: from home decor to social ambience, from city streets to forested wilderness.

I shall use environment in a more restricted sense, for the external conditions of life of humans and other living organisms. External, that is, to each species. For any one species, other species are part of the environment.

Organisms relate to their environment in two basic ways. First: the environment is a source of resources for consumption, of raw materials needed to maintain existence. That doesn't mean just food and energy. Even for animals it means territory, nesting sites, twigs, soil or mud to build homes. Humans require resources and energy not just to feed and shelter our biological existence, but to maintain our elaborate and increasingly massive social and technological structures.

Second: the environment is also a sink for wastes. Wastes are not only excreta and dead tissue. They include material displaced as a side-product of feeding or home-building. Mole-hills, debris outside badger warrens, tree stumps felled by beavers or elephants. Humans are the leaders here too. Our waste and laying waste reaches every corner of the globe.

Yet there is nothing uniquely wicked or idiotic about Homo sapiens. We are not the only species that modifies the environment. We are not the only one that manipulates it to its own advantage. We are not even the only organism that creates large scale environmental change to the detriment of other species.

All organisms impact on their environment through their consumption, production activites, and waste. They consume what they need for nourishment or nest building. What they cannot use they excrete or dump. When they die they make the biggest impact of all. Soil humus, peat, coal, limestone, coral reefs and coral islands, all are built of the remains of living organisms.

Often the manipulation of the environment is a deliberate part of the game of survival. When organisms develop the ability to change the environment in a way that helps them to thrive, they leave more offspring and their numbers increase. Evolution helps those that help themselves. 1

Plants, when they decay, produce acids. These break down rock into the soil which the plants' decendants need to survive. Trees exude chemicals that help rain to condense: they induce their own water supply. Elephants knock trees over and stop forest invading grassland. Beavers rival humans as landscape shapers. They cut trees down, chop them into logs, dig canals to float them along, build dams hundreds of yards long, out of hundreds of tons of timber, create miniature lakes covering several acres.

Some organisms have evolved inbuilt mechanisms to adapt their numbers to the resources at their disposal. Territorial behaviour in birds ensures that each breeding pair has a range big enough to provide sufficient food. Where territories cannot be marked out - as at sea or in open grassland - competition for leks or sites in breeding colonies has the same effect. When resources are short, egg production declines in many animals and spontaneous abortions increase.

But many orgamisms have no such regulatory mechanisms. Some predators eat their prey, and themselves, to the brink of extinction. The old Hudson Bay company kept a record of trappers' deliveries. Pelt numbers trace the underlying population changes. The graph of lynx and its prey snowshoe hare looks like a double scenic railway. When snowshoe hares had a population explosion, the lynxes' diet improved. More lynxes survived, and a leap in the lynx population followed. The extra lynxes ate up the surplus hares, and more. Then the hare population collapsed. The lynxes starved, and died back to very small numbers. This switchback cycle repeated itself about once every ten years. 2

In the main it is not the individual species, but the whole ecosystem that prevents one organism from wreaking excessive damage on the environment. Predators limit the numbers of the herbivores they prey on - and vice-versa. Herbivores and predators, by eating dominant species, may make room for wider diversity. Competing species limit one another, forcing rivals to focus on slightly different niches. Decomposers ensure that the globe is not buried in excreta and corpses.

Nature is usually protected by its diversity and complexity. This works at the level of the local ecosystem. It may even work at planetary level. Life makes earth habitable for life. James Lovelock, in his Gaia theory, has suggested that life and the planet earth have evolved in tandem. Despite fluctuations in the sun's output, living organisms have kept the climate equable for the past three billion years. 3

But we can't afford to get too misty-eyed about the goddess Gaia. The mechanisms don't always work smoothly. They don't protect individual forms of life - just Life with a capital L.

And there have been times, long before humans appeared on the scene, when the whole balance of life on earth was threatened by massive environmental crisis.

 

Revolutions and eco-crises

 

A crisis is a turning point. Environmental crisis presents a challenge to the existence of one or more species. It may lead to local or total extinction - or to adaptation, through evolution. Indeed it could be argued that environmental crisis has been a motive force behind many of the major changes in evolution.

Crisis can occur at every level, from the microhabitat of a single orgamism, to the entire biosphere. It can be caused by factors external to the system, as when a pond dries for lack of rainfall or a massive meteor strikes the earth. Or it can come about internally, through a failure of nature's mutual policing methods. One species or group of organisms succeeds to excess, threatening the basis of its own life and that of others.

I shall be concerned mainly with the latter situation. Internal crisis comes in two forms, corresponding to the two ways in which organisms relate to their environments.

The first type we can call a resource crisis: the organism or society eats up the materials or energy sources it needs to maintain and extend itself - to the point where its resources are exhausted and its own survival threatened. The descending trough of every wave in the lynx-snowshoe hare cycle is a miniature resource crisis.

The second type is a pollution crisis. This results not so much from input as from output; less from consumption than from disposal of wastes and side products. Pollution is waste that is harmful to other organisms - or to the waste producer. In a pollution crisis there is no underlying shortage of resources. But the organism's waste output, or the side effects of its consumption, injure its environment to the point where many other organisms die out. A pollution crisis is intially a crisis for other species.

But it may hit back at the organism that has created it. Eventually the resources on which it depends for its own survival may be damaged. Indirectly a pollution crisis can phase into a resource crisis.

Instinctively we think of environmental crisis as destructive. And destructive it always is, wiping out species, habitats, societies. Gaia is not invulnerable. She suffers from fevers and chills that can make life uncomfortable for whole swathes of species. She has had a number of grave illnesses and accidents. Even Life with a big L has its close shaves.

Yet crisis can also be creative. Like revolution, it destroys what went before. But it also provides the opening for what follows. An old system dies: a new one is born out of the ruins. The infinite creativity of matter rescues the situation, throwing up new organisms, or new technologies, to control or counterbalance the threat.

Many of the most revolutionary steps in the evolution of life and human society have come about as the result of environmental crisis.

 

Succeeding to excess

 

The first crisis in the history of life on earth was a resource crisis. It left no record, and can only be inferrred. 4

Comets, lightning and ultra violet radiation gradually turned the early ocean into a brew of amino acids. The first self-reproducing organisms probably lived by slurping up this high-protein broth. But they were drawing down capital that had been built up over hundreds of millions of years. At some point the original larder must have grown bare. The first heterotrophs were at risk of eating themselves out of house and home.

As the organic soup grew thin, organisms that could produce their own food would have a big advantage. Several types of bacteria evolved to fit the niche. One of them came to rule the earth in its day. Cyanobacteria, blue green algae, used photosynthesis to convert the inexhaustible energy of the sun into chemical energy to sustain themselves. Life no longer depended on the depleting amino acid soup: it became self-sustaining.

In time these humble single-celled organisms transformed the Earth more radically than the human race has yet managed. The earth's original atmosphere was probably like that of Venus and Mars: more than 95 per cent carbon dioxide, with around 3 per cent nitrogen, and traces of other gases. But no free oxygen at all. 5

Yet the earth's atmosphere is now totally different: 77 per cent nitrogen, 21 per cent oxygen, 1 per cent water vapour, 1 per cent the inert gas argon, with less than one two thousandth of one per cent of carbon dioxide. This transformation was the work of of the blue-green algae.

Their appearance precipitated a second crisis, this time a pollution crisis. They made their food harmlessly enough, from solar energy, water, and carbon dioxide. But it was their waste gas - oxygen - that brought problems. At first it combined with iron in the sea. The ocean rusted, and iron oxides precipitated to the sea bed as banded ironstone. Then the land rusted. When these sinks could absorb no more, free oxygen began to accumulate in the atmosphere. The ozone layer, which shields life from damaging ultra-violet radiation, was formed. Without it life might never have been able to colonize the land.

But there were minuses. Oxygen has a lecherous appetite for coupling with other elements. Poisonous to organisms that have not learned to harness it, it killed off the dominant bacteria of the previous era, the methanogens, in astronomical numbers. The methane bacteria, giving off the greenhouse gases methane and carbon dioxide, had helped to keep the climate warm.

The surviving methanogens retreated to the margins, into swamps, wetlands, the guts of animals. Methane and carbon dioxide output declined. And the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere dropped as cyanobacteria consumed it. The atmosphere began to cool. Some 2,700 million years ago the earth entered the first and longest ice age, the Huronian, which lasted for 900 million years.

Evolution rode to the rescue. Animals, inhaling oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide, multiplied and ate the photosynthesizers. Although they were and still are vastly outweighed, they pumped out just enough carbon dioxide to raise the temperature of the earth to equable levels again.

 

What a piece of work is man

 

We have not yet had quite as much impact on the globe as the cyanobacteria - but it's clear that we are capable of doing so.

We are not alone in the animal kingdom to possess technologies. The humblest termite has architectural techniques of moisture and temperature control that we are only beginning to learn. Many birds and mammals use tools, or transmit technologies by learning rather than genetic inheritance. We are not alone in possessing language, or in understanding and investigating cause and effect.

We have an advantageous arrangement of thumb and fingers and a vocal set-up that allows an extraordinary range of sound to be transmitted. But what sets both these capabilities to work is the size of our spare brain capacity - unprogrammed by genetics and therefore free for programming by ourselves.

This does not free us from evolution. We too have to adapt or die when faced with environmental crisis. But now we adapt through cultural, not genetic evolution. Genes change slowly. When the environment changes faster, the organism dies out. Humans can adapt faster still, simply by reprogramming spare brain capacity.

We invent technologies to manipulate the environment. We expand and improve our inventory. We build on what went before. When circumstances change, we change our technologies. We adapt even our own behaviour, liberating ourselves from instinct. In the service of ideas we become capable of things that defy all our instincts: lifelong sexual abstinence, flagellation, martyrdom, mass suicide. Our social organization becomes another of our technologies.

These talents have enabled us to adapt to environmental change. Shortage of food has rarely held us back. We are omnivores, and have learned by trial and error to eat thousands of plants and animals. The invention of fire and clothing liberated us from a limited climatic range. We thrive from the hottest deserts to the coldest arctic. Predation has not kept us down. Since the first flint was sharpened we have sat, like an eskimo over a hole in the ice, at the top of every food chain. Our only systematic predators are other humans, yet all the murders, raids and wars of history have done nothing to slow our expansion. Indeed they have honed our genetic and cultural abilities to organize, to invent, to control.

Yet we too have faced major environmental crises before the present one. Two of these were of our own making. And they stimulated two major leaps in human technology and society - the agricultural revolution and the industrial revolution.

We survived both, and emerged with even greater powers to escape nature's control.

 

Who would fardels bear? The agricultural revolution

 

Until a couple of decades ago we viewed hunter-gatherers through agro-centric eyes. They were though to lead miserable, brief, animal lives. The invention of agriculture came as a liberation and was joyously embraced. Agriculture alone permitted rapid population growth, and provided the foundations for civilization.

Over the past few decades these stereotypes have been inverted. Research has demonstrated that hunter-gatherers enjoy a better diet than their agricultural neighbours, for a lot less effort. Like the Semai, they draw on a very wide variety of leafy vegetables, roots, fruits, nuts, seeds, game and fish - the sort of diet the affluent choose when they have the money.

The !Kung live in the Kalahari desert, one of the least hospitable environments on earth. Yet US anthropologist Richard Lee found they had a typical daily calorie intake of 2,140 calories - 8 per cent more than the recommended daily allowance for people of their stature. Protein intake was 93 grammes a day, almost 50 per cent more than the RDA. They were quite choosy, too. Out of the three hundred edible plants and animals known to them, they ate only a quarter. Unlike their agricultural neighbours, they did not appear to suffer from a lean season. There was less kwashiorkor. The very variety of their food sources protected them from famine. If some failed, others would stil thrive. And they managed all this on a leisurely 15 hours of work per week. 6

Contrast the life of typical agriculturalists. At peak periods they work from dawn till dusk. The grains they subsist on have to be planted, harvested, threshed, ground and cooked. And this for a monotonous diet, a few tasteless staples that prematurely wear their teeth out. And a less reliable subsistence, depending on artificially bred plants, often outside their natural range, liable to failure from drought or pest attacks.

Who would voluntarily give up what has been called the `original affluent society' of the hunter-gatherers, to grunt and sweat under the weary life of agriculturalists? Most hunter-gatherers are well aware of the principles of planting and tending seeds. They know the places and times under which their favoured foods grow. They often have elaborate conservation measures to avoid exhausting them. They cannot fail to notice seeds growing on their waste heaps and toilet areas.

Hunter-gatherers do not maintain their traditional life-styles out of ignorance, but out of choice.

The transition to agriculture was not a sudden breakthrough. Not a wonderful discovery that eased the way to a better life. Cultures that adopted agriculture did so because they were forced to, by a resource crisis of their own making, as increasing populations pressed on shrinking wild food resources.

In the Near East, early hunters got a large proportion of their diet from big game such as elephants, rhino and hippo. When these became extinct, from 18,000 years BC onwards, the diet was broadened to include a much wider range of plant and animal foods. This so-called broad-spectrum revolution was the first adaptation to man-made shortage.

Then, from about 10,000 BC onwards, there is evidence of increasing reliance on gathered cereals: storage pits, grinding slabs, sickle blades. Human skulls begin to show severe wear and tooth loss - a symptom of cereal eating. 7

The fertile crescent, sweeping around Mesopotamia from the hills of Judea to the Zagros, may be desolate now. But twelve thousand years ago it deserved its name. Here the wild ancestors of wheat and barley, cattle, goats, sheep and pigs lived in close proximity. In some areas wild einkorn wheat grew in stands so thick that a family using primitive sickles could harvest enough in three weeks to live on for a year. 8

As long as wild supplies sufficed, there would be little incentive to start planting seed deliberately. But gradually there is increasing interference in the natural habitat. Axes are found - a sure sign that trees are being cut. Fire seems to have been used to keep woodland open, and create favourable conditions for pasture, and for cereal grasses to grow.

The transition to agriculture happens from around 8,000 BC. It is not a sudden affair. Agriculture was not, as we used to be taught in school, a one-off invention which spread like wildfire as soon as it had been discovered. It was a slow business stretching over several thousand years. During that time the share of gathered and hunted foodstuffs gradually declined, and that of planted foods grew until it came to dominate the diet.

Plants show growing signs of domestication. In wild cereals, the rachis - a segment of stalk that holds the kernels on - grows brittle as the plant ripens, so it will shatter and spread the seeds. In domesticated wheat the rachis strengthens. Seeds don't scatter to the ground on harvesting. The husk separates from the grain more easily, to facilitate threshing. As humans grow increasingly dependent on cereals, domesticated cereals come to depend on humans for their propagation.

There are several theories as to how population increase led to the gradual spread of agriculture. US archeologists Philip Smith and T. Cuyler Young have suggested that people congregated around places where wild cereals were locally abundant. Because the harvest was hard to transport, they settled in one place. Sedentarization and plentiful food brought population increase. Childbirth and infant rearing became easier, and the old and infirm could more easily remain with the group. Eventually populations would grow towards the limit of the carrying capacity of the wild stands. There would be more and more pressure to increase the area of edible grains by deliberate planting. 9

An alternative theory, advanced by Lewis Binford and Kent Flannery, suggests that agriculture originated not in these areas of abundance, but in neighbouring marginal zones. As people learned to live off a broader spectrum of foods, population increased in the most favoured zones. Small groups of these sedentary gatherers budded off into more marginal areas, already inhabited by more nomadic hunter-gatherers, creating excess population pressure. The migrants were forced to recreate the dense stands of wild cereals that they remembered from the optimal zone. But since cereals were not adapted to the marginal zones, they could only be maintained there artificially. 10

US historian Nathan Cohen pondered why agriculture was adopted, independently, in four or five separate centres ranging from the Andes and Central America, through China and South East Asia, to the Near East. Why did such a large proportion of the human race shift to agriculture, in a relatively short time span, between 9,000 and 2,000 years ago? Cohen proposed that a very slow global population increase had spread humans across the globe. This would have built up pressure gradually across wide areas. In other words, at the time agriculture appeared, the world was already full in relation to the technology of hunting and gathering. 11

Land degradation may be a fourth factor in creating higher population density. If excess populations from favourable centres spread into marginal areas, these would be degraded by the pressure of harvesting and forest clearance. Later they would have to be progressively abandoned. People are then forced back into smaller areas, creating excess population pressure. At this point people are forced to turn to agriculture. 12

 

Permanent revolution

 

The agricultural revolution is a permanent revolution: a never-ending adjustment of technologies to the availability of land and the numbers of people to be fed from it. There is a continuous increase in intensity, on a scale that leads from shifting cultivation like the Semai, to permanent agriculture with two or three crops a year.

Before the emergence of the market, increasing population density is the chief stimulus to agricultural change. As Ester Boserup has shown, population growth stimulates changes in technology to meet the demands of population growth. 13

In the early days of farming forest or woodland, people are few and land is plentiful. Plots are farmed for a year or two, then left fallow. During the fallow period, nature is fertilizer. Microbes and rain carrying dissolved nitrogen build up soil fertility. Tree roots, reaching deep into the subsoil, bring up nutrients that have been leached out of the top layers. When leaves fall, these nutrients are restored to the surface.

Nature does the backbreaking work. All the farmer needs to do is to cut the trees down and burn them. Worms, grubs and other soil creatures living in leafmould make the soil friable. Seeds can be planted with a sharpened stick. The forest shade suppresses low level vegetation, so there are few weeds.

Uphill and downhill of the plot, forest and thick wild grasses act as fairy godmothers for soil and water conservation, collecting rainwater, filtering it into the soil, preventing erosion and floods, ensuring a constant supply of moisture.

But as population density grows, plots cannot be left fallow as long as before. Everything begins to change. Trees don't get time to regrow. Shrubs, and later grasses come to dominate the fallow, leaving their seeds and massive root systems to create weed problems for crops. Worms grow less numerous. The organic content declines. The soil is exposed to sun and rain for longer, and gets harder to work. Soil fertility is no longer fully restored. Yields start to decline.

Generally farmers do not watch passively as the problems pile up. They adapt. The digging stick gives way to the hoe or mattock, to break up the land and weed. But this means more and more labour. Food production per person holds up, but only because each person puts in longer and longer hours. At Gbanga in Liberia, where land is farmed one year out of ten, farmers put in about 770 hours per year on each hectare of land - two hours per day, averaged over a year. But at Bamunka, Cameroon, where land is farmed permanently, they put in 3,300 hours a year on each hectare - four times a much. 14

As farming intensity increases, life gets harder. Just as no-one would voluntarily shift from hunting and gathering into farming, so no-one would move from long fallow cultivation to permanent farming, unless they were compelled. And once again, growing population density provides the compulsion.

At some stage the demand for extra labour is more than humans can provide. At this point they make a further adaptation. They turn to draught animals and ploughs. This transition helps with weeding and land preparation. And it deals with the fertility problem as well. The animals' manure is applied to the fields and helps to maintain or increase yields. 15

 

Rise, Peter; kill and eat 16

 

When human beings began engineering nature, they began engineering their own societies, and their own minds.

The agricultural revolution, as it moved from shifting cultivation to permanent farming, brought massive changes in social structure and culture. Control over nature led to control over people.

Hunter-gatherer bands are anarchical, egalitarian, easygoing. There is a premium on individual resourcefulness in finding game or wild plants. There is rarely a surplus over the needs of subsistence. If one person kills a big animal, everyone in the band gets a share. Not much is needed in the way of political organization. Such authority as does exist is limited to the task in hand, and depends on skill and wisdom. 17

The earliest stages of agriculture brought modest changes. At first private property in land is uncommon: there is so much of it that no-one needs to assert ownership. The primary group may assert control over a certain area of forest, to keep outsiders out. And as the fallow period shortens, they may invest a chief with powers to allocate land.

Population grows, farmers return at shorter intervals to the same field, until they are cultivating it more or less permanently. Everyone's fields meet up, and there is a shortage of land. At this stage a field will generally be handed down from father to son, and be recognized as the property of that family. The larger society may then recognize this state of affairs in its laws, and private property in land becomes the norm. Permanent claims are staked. Private ownership of land develops.

Then village lands spread until they meet the territory of adjoining villages. Disputes and conflicts arise. Centralized authorities are needed to resolve them - and to organize defence and aggression against neighbours. Urban settlements grow in size and become cities.

Permanent agriculture brings with it hierarchies of wealth, status and power. Surplus grain can be stored. Land can be mortgaged and forfeited, bought and sold. Wealth accumulates in fewer hands. Some people live, not by direct cultivation, but by directing or exploiting the labour of others. Classes emerge. Warfare spreads, and with it slavery. Male dominance increases. The ultimate consequence of permanent agriculture is the huge empire.

Empire represents the total denial of local environment. Imperial elites live in capitals far from the periphery where agricultural production takes place. Soils and peoples are plundered in pursuit of tribute and slaves. Crops and trees are deliberately burned to harm the enemy. In time of peace animals are there for sport or gluttony. The wildlife of the Roman Mediterranean was decimated to fill the amphitheatre or the banquet platter.

Culture changes in parallel. The hunter-gatherer band is, of necessity, in tune with nature. The religion is usually animist. All living things, and many non-living, possess soul, and demand respect, just like humans. There are elaborate rules, closely linked to the local environment, controlling which animals may be hunted and eaten. Technology is the primary limit on human impact on the environment. But culture reinforces those limits.

Early agrarian states often retain gods and ceremonies linked to the natural forces controlling agriculture and the seasons of the farming year. But as warfare intensified and became the general condition of life, transcendental religions emerged. Zoroastrianism, Orphism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam: these religions are transcendental in two senses. They transcend the real present world, teaching that a future invisible world is more lasting and more significant. And they transcend locality - offering universal messsages, designed for a universal audience, divorced from particular environments. 18

The transcendental religions hastened the death of ecological awareness. The present world became a transit hall to the next, a human threshing ground where grain is divided from worthless chaff. God and soul are separate from matter, not inherent in it.

The agricultural revolution did much more, then, than transform the natural environment. It led to the development of ideologies which legitimated the dominion of men over nature; of men over women; and of men over men. These provided the ideological basis for environmental destruction right up until the present time.

 

The second environmental crisis and the Industrial Revolution

 

The first resource crisis revolved around food. The second was an energy crisis.

The schoolboy's view of the industrial revolution is that it was due to inventions like the steam engine or the spinning jenny. The truth is that these inventions would never have been made were it not for a deepening energy crisis in Europe from the seventeenth century onwards. That crisis was the result of populations pressing on limited supplies of timber and fuel. 19

The Black Death marked a pause in the growth of Europe's populations. It was almost a century and a half before they regained their 1340 peak of 73 million. For the next two hundred years, growth was slow, averaging less than 0.2 per cent a year, but the needs of growing populations for farming land and wood continued to lay heavy pressure on woodlands and forests.

Wood had a surprisingly wide range of uses. It was the main fuel for homes. It was the basic construction material for houses, ships, machinery, pit props. Freiberg's silver mines used over 60,000 cubic metres of timber a year for props and fuel. Wood was the principal fuel for industry. Four cubic metres were needed to make a tonne of pig iron, another nine cubic metres for a tonne of wrought iron. Wood ash was one of the main raw materials in making glass, soap, alum and saltpetre.

From the later sixteenth century shortages began to develop. As early as 1560, Slovakian smelting works at Stare Hory and Harmanec were forced to cut production savagely because of scarcity of timber in neighbouring forests. Lack of timber held back shipbuilding in Venice and the Bay of Biscay. By the seventeenth century serious wood shortages had spread to France and England. These began to constrain shipbuilding, smelting, iron production and other industries. 20

The price of firewood rose tenfold in England between the latter half of fifteenth century and 1700. Inevitably, people turned to substitutes. In the mid Seventeenth Century there was `so great a scarcity of wood throughout the whole kingdom' that people were burning sea-coal or pit-coal. John Stowe, in his chronicle of early seventeenth century London, complains of fog due to coal burning. Coal replaced wood fuel in glassmaking, brewing, smelting of lead, tin and copper.

Demand for coal surged. In England, output rose from 200,000 tonnes in the mid-sixteenth century to 3 million tonnes in 1690s. But this demand lead to other problems. Coal mines had to be sunk deeper and deeper below water tables. Traditional drainage methods using horse-driven pumps could no longer cope. This challenge spurred the development of the steam engine from Newcomen to Watt. `Technological innovation was more effect than cause,' writes economic historian Samuel Lilley. `The development of the steam engine came . . hesitantly and reluctantly, as and when it proved no longer possible to cope with expanding needs by traditional means.' 21

Unlike wood, which was widely distributed, coal deposits were localized, and coal had to be transported in bulk over long distances. British historian Richard Wilkinson suggests that this provided a powerful stimulus to the development of canals, and then railways. The early chemical industry blossomed around the articifial production of alkalis for making soap, glass, alum and saltpetre, to replace wood ash. The brick industry developed as timber for building grew scarce. 22

In his 1976 book Poverty and Progress Wilkinson boldly extended the Boserup thesis. Population growth was not only the driving force behind agricultural change. It also explained changes in industrial technology too. Land based resources such as wood or wool grew scarce due to population pressures on land and forest. The industrial revolution replaced land based resources with mineral ones. `Industrial expansion was . . liberated from the constraints of the land supply.' 23

`These initial changes were made under duress' writes Wilkinson. `They were not introduced when the traditional economic system was functioning in ecological equilibrium, but when scarcity threatened the continuation of the established system.'

 

The third crisis

 

Since the end of the last glaciation, the major environmental changes we have had to respond to have been of our own making.

Our hunting and gathering activities continued for perhaps a hundred thousand years. Then slowly rising human populations depleted the renewable resource base. We coped with this first world food crisis by developing agriculture.

Within the space of less than 10,000 years, Western Europe hit the second crisis, as expanding populations and towns pressed on the renewable fuel supply. We weathered this, the first world fuel crisis, by shifting to fossil fuels. The industrial revolution ensued.

Now, within less than four hundred years of the second crisis, we have entered the third.

It will lead either to our destruction, or to a Third Revolution.

Endnotes.

1. Lovelock, James, Ages of Gaia, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1988, p33.

2. Ricklefs, Robert, Ecology, Third Edition, W. H. Freeman, New York, 1990.

3. Lovelock, James, Gaia, and The Ages of Gaia, both Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979 and 1988.

4. The account of early crises is based on Cowen, Richard, History of Life, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1990; Lovelock, James, Ages of Gaia, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1988; and Stanley, Steven, Earth and Life through Time, W. H. Freeman, New York, 1986.

5. The following section is based on Cowen, Richard, The History of Life, Blackwell Scientific Publications, Oxford, 1990; Lovelock, James. The Ages of Gaia, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1988; and Beatty, J. Kelly and Chaikin, Andrew, The New Solar System, Third Edition, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1990.

6. Lee, R. B., cited in Cohen, Nathan, The Food Crisis in Prehistory, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1977, pp28-30. Much of the following section is based on Cohen's book.

7. Origins of agriculture based on Redman, Charles L., The Rise of Civilization, W. H. Freeman, San Francisco, 1978; Wenke, Robert J., Patterns in Prehistory, Oxford University Press, 1980; Cohen, Mark Nathan, The Food Crisis in Prehistory, Yale University Press, 1977; Boserup, Ester, The Conditions of Agricultural Growth, Allen and Unwin, London, 1965.

8. Harlan, Jack and Zohary, Daniel, Distribution of Wild Wheats and Barley, Science, 153: 1074-80, 1966.

9. Smith, Philip and Young, T. Cuyler, The Evolution of early agriculture and culture in greater Mesopotamia, in Spooner, B. J., ed, Population Growth: Anthropological Implications, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachussetts, 1972.

10. Binford, Lewis, An Archeological Perspective, Seminar Press, New York, 1972.

11. Cohen. Nathan, The Food Crisis in Prehistory, Yale University Press, 1977.

12. Young, T. Cuyler, Population Densities and early Mesopotamian origins, in Ucko, P. J. et al, eds, Man, Settlement and Urbanism, Duckworth, London, 1972.

13. Boserup, Ester, The Conditions of Agricultural Growth, Allen and Unwin, London, 1965; further refined and expanded in: Population and Technology, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1980.

14. Ruthenberg, Hans, Farming Systems in the Tropics, 3rd edition, Clarendon Press.

15. This transition has been carefully studied for Africa by Pingali, Prabhu, Bigot, Yves and Binswanger, Hans, in Agricultural Mechanization and the Evolution of Farming in Sub-Saharan Africa, Report ARU 40, World Bank, Washington DC, 1985.

16. Acts, x: 13.

17. See Coon, Carleton, The Hunting Peoples, Penguin Books, London 1976, and Service, Elman R., Primitive Social Organization, Random House, New York, 1971.

18. See Harrison, Paul, The History of Heaven, forthcoming.

19. The following account is based on: Wilkinson, Richard G., Poverty and Progress, Methuen, 1973; Kellenbenz, Hermann, Technology in the Age of the Scientific Revolution, in Cipolla, Cipolla, Carlo, ed., The Fontana Economic History of Europe vol 2, Fontana, London, 1973; Lilley, Samuel, Technological Progress and the Industrial Revolution, and Sella, Domenico, European Industries 1500-1700, both in Cipollla, Carlo, ed., The Fontana Economic History of Europe vol 3, Fontana, London, 1973.

20. Kellenbenz, Hermann, Technology in the Age of the Scientific Revolution, and Sella, Domenico, European Industries 1500-1700, both in Cipolla, Carlo, ed., The Fontana Economic History of Europe vol 2, Fontana, London, 1973.

21. Lilley, Samuel, Technological Progress and the Industrial Revolution, in Cipolla, Carlo, ed., The Fontana Economic History of Europe vol 3, Fontana, London, 1973.

22. Wilkinson, Richard G., Poverty and Progress, Methuen, 1973.

23. Ibid p136.

Formatted for the web by:
Committee for the National Institute for the Environment
1725 K Street, NW, Suite 212, Washington, D.C. 20006-1401

Phone (202) 530- 5810 [email protected] Fax (202) 628-4311