True Green: How Did We Get To #LEED? Or Where’s My Hanging Gardens?

 I am writing a series on sustainable design because there are a number of highly visible attacks against current practices. So far, I summarized the debate and broadly defined sustainability. This post is the first on how we got to this state of environmental affairs.

While I am no environmental historian, sustainable design deserves a long view, even if it’s a short version. Starting with the ancient world, here’s some milestones that I find most memorable.

Ancient Catastrophes

You might say that environmental damage begins the moment someone decides to make bread. Sounds strange, yes? Imagine, hunters and nomadic tribes can walk fairly lightly on the earth, leaving plenty of food for next generations. (Granted, there’s specific societies that over-hunted, vividly told by Jared Diamond in Collapse.)

However, since the beginning of recorded history, food production meant modifying eco-systems to farm. When we settle into a certain place or landscape and depend on it for generations, we fundamentally change it.

  1.  For starters, consider the Fertile Crescent, previously called Mesopotamia and Babylonia, now part of Iran and Iraq. Once the site of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the most flourishing paradise on earth became dry deserts unworthy of vegetation. Deforestation, canals to divert water to farming, and population growth transformed thriving forests and wetlands to barren deserts.
  2.  You might envision the Ancient Greeks as the ideal of balanced living? Three thousand years ago, through poor agricultural and deforestation practices, they turned marshes and oak forests into dry, barren land. Some say the magnificent city of Troy was decimated by soil erosion, burying the ruins beneath layers of weakened soil and sand. An ancient Dark Age ensued for four centuries, fortunately followed by the Golden Age and the rise of Athens.
  3.  The Romans diverted streams, deforested, over-mined, over-farmed, and paved large portions of watersheds. Jeremy Rifkin claims that Rome collapsed due to its inability to maintain agricultural production on declining soil fertility. Furthermore, sustaining massive infrastructure marked the beginning of the end for the Roman Empire.
  4.  Ancient Chinese mines turned forests and farms into wastelands. During the Bronze Age, the first known large scale copper mine operated for around a thousand years at Tongling, causing toxic soil and polluted water. Notably, they just moved their cities, leaving behind destroyed environments.

Each situation literally changed history. Depleting natural resources transformed societies, destroyed cities, and depopulated regions.

In other words, people have degraded the natural environment for several millennia; we are nowhere near the first generations. Furthermore, more people with more technology and higher consumption patterns strains even the most abundant, finite resources.

Yet we didn’t learn. That disappoints me as much – perhaps more than – the fact that these societies continued to exploit resources despite substantial decline. They may not have realized critical nature of the environment. We do. We know it from their losses. We know it from our losses.


Do Ancient Blunders Matter?The decisions of these societies resulted in hefty near-term prices. Their errors were system-wide, damaging or completely destroying societies. Environmental destruction and its consequences are the part of the story on which I am focused. The Roman Empire’s search for adequate resources led them into rainy, colder northern climates, and stretched their capacity. Exposed to militant barbarians, civilization collapsed. The ensuing Dark Ages lasted nearly one thousand years.

In fact, the abuses of the early societies were feeble compared to the substantial environmental changes to come. They made regional errors and affected specific groups, the perpetrators. Plus they were restricted by simple tools. No machines, no electricity, and far fewer people. Their contagion was geographically confined.

However, the ancient Mesopotamians, Greeks, Romans, and Chinese did affect us. We are their future generations.

If the Romans had behaved wisely, if they had monitored resources, been peaceable neighbors, sustained a strong rural population and middle class, would they have ushered in the golden age of the Renaissance in the 5th or 6th century rather than the 14th century?

What if we were already a millennium further into our global development?

That’s an unknowable “what if” for a history that never happened.

We are not the first generations to damage the environment. However, we are the first to damage the whole planet. While atomic bombs empowered elites with the capacity to destroy entire cities and populations, environmental bombs sit in the hands of virtually every person on earth.

That’s extraordinarily difficult to fathom. Moreover, it’s even harder to change.

Images: Fertile Crescent Map, Iowa State University Public Images; Drought, photo: Infinite Unknown ; Hanging Gardens of Babylon: Wikimedia