Greatest Human Ecological Disaster

The global warming debate is driven by growing public unease throughout the world over our visible disregard for good husbandry practices in our industrial economy. It is expressing itself most clearly over the CO2 issue, even though this is most likely a red herring. The direct linkage to global warming is at least controversial, and I for one have a great deal of faith in the Earth’s carbon cycle and its ability to restore such imbalances.

More importantly, the ecological movement is about good husbandry. And strange as it may sound, it is not about conservation. Mankind has already transformed most of the environment to serve its needs thousands of years ago, and mankind’s task increasingly is to improve on this legacy. The only areas that we can rightly conserve are inimical to human habitation and even that often needs the fine hand of good husbandry practice.

With the true wild a policy of haven maintenance must be implemented to properly manage human exploitation. An ideal model of this is to overlay a checkerboard and designate every ninth square as a haven. Of course in practice, this must be negotiated and studied in detail to ensure proper sizing sufficient to the various needs. For example, it makes plenty more sense to preserve old growth forests as a corridor along river beds. Once stake holders understand what is at stake, it can sort itself out quickly.

Let us put this argument in reverse. Extinction is the direct result of a loss of habitat havens. Distributed havens of old growth forests sufficient to support the spotted owl ends threats to that species and as the forests recover their range naturally expands. If we learn to manage havens then our industrial scale exploitation can be recovered from.

Remember, the bison succumbed to the global shoe leather market. Had havens not existed in Canada, the current 500,000 animal herd would simply not exist. Today that herd is on the way back to its millions and people living today will live to see many millions of bison on the prairie because it is simply a better meat animal for that particular climate. I also expect to see the bison introduced into the steppes of central Asia, restoring the native bison hunted to extinction thousands of years ago. That is good husbandry.

It came as a complete surprise to me to learn that the areal extent of the terra preta in the Amazon basin equals that of France. If this is true, then the acreage and the corn and cassava culture would easily have supported massive populations equal to that of contemporaneous India and China. What really stunned me is the fact that if it was not for the soil itself, we would have no evidence whatsoever that such a culture even existed. The Amazon was a lousy place to build permanent structures that could be found in the jungle, although we now will be looking.

What I find most sobering is that tens of millions of individuals have lived theirs lives and passed leaving almost no trace of their existence. How often has this happened globally over the past 10,000 years? Societies do not build with stone unless they are highly organized so a lack of such evidence is very misleading. The so called Stone Age for example did an excellent job of leaving evidence of its existence behind, even though a better name would be the wood and bone age. I have no difficulty setting out to construct a very sufficient tool kit with those two items as the Indians in the Amazon do to this day.

When copper became available and later iron, both metals were too valuable to throw out, so the material was constantly recycled. Yet populations expanded and social complexity increased. The only evidence left would be in the form of pottery. You can also bet that even broken pottery had some commercial value and was largely recycled.

We all know that large populations existed in the Middle East and even Europe, simply because we have looked hard enough. The Sahara desert represents several million square miles and it was once populated and the climate was amenable to agriculture. At least they raised goats. Recall today that the southern edge of this desert currently houses 100,000,000 people in conditions almost as technically primitive as 6,000 years ago on perhaps ten percent of the Saharan littoral. The fools still raise goats.

It has been argued that the collapse of the Sahara was a natural disaster. I suspect that just the opposite is true. It was instead the greatest human caused ecological disaster ever. It is as if China or India disappeared abruptly. Of course we do not know to what extent the desert was fully covered with vegetation. Since an extensive lake system existed I am inclined to err on the side of a nearly one hundred percent coverage, however fragile and terribly susceptible to easy devastation by the grazing of goats.

It is just now in our power to restore this desert back to human agriculture and general fertility just as it is possible to restore the terra preta fields of the Amazon to agriculture. It would be nice to actually absorb that big chunk of solar energy hitting the Sahara and bouncing back out. And a Sahara restored can support a couple of billion people at least.

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