What are the interrelatedness of society, environment, and health …

  • Your premise is incorrect; less advanced societies do not necessary respect the environment. As a very general rule of thumb, the more technology a society has, the more it is capable of exerting its will in the world, and therefore creating more environmental damage. However, more “primitive” societies wouldn’t necessarily treat the Earth any better than more “advanced” societies, if given modern tools.

    I’ll cite a few well-known examples as evidence. The first people to cross the land bridge from Asia over into Alaska, approximately 20,000 years ago, should be categorized as “primitive”, right? They were hunter-gatherers. They showed absolutely no respect for the land now known as North and South America whatsoever. Since animals in the “new-to-humans” area didn’t evolve with humans and weren’t as afraid of them nor as used to evading human hunters, the first people in the Americas were easily able to slaughter them. Within about 1,000 years of humans first entering the Americas, almost every single large beast went from flourishing to extinct. We no longer have armadillos the size of Volkswagons, giant sloths, or saber toothed tigers in the Americas thanks to the actions of those people, to only mention a very few of the species that they extinguished.

    The same pattern played out everywhere hunter-gatherers explored. Every single island, including Hawaii, Papau New Guinea, and New Zealand, as well as every other smaller island, experienced a burst of extinction of species immediately after the arrival of hunter-gatherer humans.

    We don’t only cause extinctions everywhere we go; we also destroy landscapes, redirect streams, overfish, and chop down entire forests. And by “we”, I mean all human societies, including hunter-gatherers. It’s a fallacy to think that hunter-gatherers are environmentally-aware, while the rest of us are terrible for the environment; we’re ALL terrible for our environments.

    The best book I can recommend on this subject is “Collapse”, by Jared Diamond. He explores dozens of different societies in history and their relationships with their environments. It turns out, humans do sometimes live in harmony with our environments, but only after we’ve destroyed our environments first so much that we realize we MUST change or we’ll all die. For most of human history, this realization has only happened in societies that were so isolated (like remote islands), people couldn’t just pick up and move on to another environment. For example, the Easter Islanders seemed to be remarkably ecologically aware when Europeans first encountered them. Anthropological examination of their history, however, reveals that either they, or the rats that came with them on their boats to Easter Island, destroyed every last tree on the island until the Easter Islanders had no more wood to make boats with. They were stranded on the island, had to figure out a way to survive with only whatever renewable resources they could use, and therefore developed an ecologically-aware culture. This basic story has been repeated dozens of times across the globe; people don’t act in an ecologically-aware way unless we have to.

    So where did the idea come from that “primitive” people are in tune with the Earth? It was fostered by Europeans after Columbus, who romanticized Native Americans by portraying them as “natural” and “childlike”. (This, of course, excused Europeans’ domination of the supposedly “weaker”, “innocent” Native Americans, and was part of the entire ideology that white people needed to educate the naive natives in Christianity.) This was only one side of the coin. Europeans actually portrayed Native Americans in two polar opposite ways — either as sophisticated, sneaky people who had lots of gold were likely to destroy Europeans if not subjugated — or as innocent, natural, childlike figures who didn’t even understand farming. The Europeans were blinded by greed and racism, and were dead-wrong about farming. They were used to farms planted in rows, with fences around the farms, so they didn’t recognize the Native Americans’ farms, which garnered far higher yields by planting multiple crops in the same square footage. For example, Native American farms would plant corn, which would provide a stalk which a vine could grow up, all of which would shade another plant below. (Forward-thinking small farms are bringing this technique back and getting higher crop yields even than industrial farms with tractors and fertilizer today.) European “explorers” and “colonists” would land smack dab in the middle of Native American farms, look around, and say it was primitive, “undeveloped” land because the crops weren’t in rows or fenced. In reality, Native Americans had already greatly altered the landscape, and even the forests Europeans first saw were as carefully managed as a park — not at all “natural”.

    After smallpox, malaria, yellow fever, and other diseases killed 90% of the Native Americans, the land did become wilder for lack of management. Most Europeans did not realize the extent of the apocalypse the native people were living through, and when they encountered truly wild land, it fed their false preconception that native people somehow lived wild on the land. However, careful examination of diaries from the very first European “explorers” as well as later “explorers” reveals how dramatically the genocide of Native Americans affected the landscape. For example, the very earliest Europeans to walk around North America commented on how the forests had virtually no underbrush, and could be navigated as easily as parks in Europe. After disease decimated the natives, European colonists found the same forests extremely difficult to navigate. Both groups of Europeans (early and later) believed they were walking in “natural”, “virgin” forest, because both believed the natives were incapable of altering their environment. Now we know that Native Americans carefully burned the forests at specific times, in specific places, to clear the underbrush to make it easier for them to hunt, and once smallpox killed so many millions of people, the underbrush grew back.

    These are just a few examples which I hope illustrate to you that your question itself is incorrect. Native people gained a false reputation as being more in tune with nature because of Europeans after Columbus, but this idea was based on mistakes and deliberate attempts to foster an idea they thought would excuse slavery and genocide. No group of people lives in tune with its environment unless those people have to, no matter their technological development.

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