via Shaun – Speaking of grass as an invasive species (see previous post), check out this video animation of changes in ‘global land cover’ over the last 8,000 years, detailing the loss of ‘natural vegetation’ during that period:
The problem remains of how to define ‘natural’. If it simply means the presence of human beings then practically nowhere on the map should be coloured dark green even at the start because a) all the continents except Antarctica were populated by humans by at least 14,000 years ago, b) there’s no way to inhabit a landscape and not affect it and c) hunter-gatherer peoples are known to have shaped plant and animal communities, sometimes drastically, even before the onset of full-scale cultivation. If ‘non-natural’ vegetation means that native species have been gradually replaced by non-natives then this gets us a little closer to the above depiction but you then have to define what you mean by native, a task that runs into difficulties as soon as you observe that 1) no species has been around since the dawn of time and, 2) they have all come to the space they currently occupy through, if not physical migration, then a journey into existence through evolutionary design space. Also, wouldn’t you have to admit that the various crops and weeds responsible for changing these ecologies had their own native ranges? Therefore, strictly speaking, China should stay green because of its subsistence on native rice, as should the Middle East (the home of wheat and barley) and the various regions in Africa and South & Central America who developed their own crops. Maybe the best description for what is being measured here is the spread of plant & animal domestication. Again, this runs into problems of definition, given that i) low-key forms of cultivation have been around in one form or another since the dawn of humanity ii) (again) there’s no way to inhabit a landscape and not affect it and iii) where exactly are you supposed to draw the line anyway? I suppose it would correlate pretty well with deforestation too. But, dammit, where do you draw the line between ‘pristine’ forest and planted fruit & nut orchards? It would help to know what data this was based on…
Anyway, what I meant to say originally was that it was interesting to watch this while reading Marvin Harris’ classic, Cannibals and Kings, which talks about the origins of ‘hydraulic societies’ (a term coined by the historian Karl Wittfogel) in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, India and China, each of which developed
[...] amid arid or semi-arid plains and valley fed by great rivers. Through dams, canal, flood control and drainage projects, officials diverted water from these rivers and delivered it to the peasants’ fields. Water constituted the most important factor in production. When it was applied in regular and copious amounts, high yields per acre and per calorie of effort resulted. (p.174)
These massive public works, which were necessary if the settled populations were to be fed (an important factor was the lack of opportunities for subsistence in the wilderness surrounding the floodplains – beyond a certain level of population density the people were trapped), led to the emergence of totalitarian hierarchies, enforced by bureaucracies acting out of self-interest for their share of the spoils of the wealth which was produced by the masses, most often living in a state of abject poverty a few steps removed from starvation.
Interestingly, Harris thinks that these states were initially quite self-contained and that the sickness took quite a while to reach the same ferocity in the Northern regions of Europe and Russia – a contention which the above animation seems to confirm. While he describes iron age societies in Britain, France and Germany as ‘secondary states called into existence to cope with the military threat of the Mediterranean empires and to exploit the possibilities of trade and plunder provided by the great wealth of Greece and Rome’ (p.183), the fact that meltwater and rain provided all a peasant farmer needed meant there was no need for a huge state superstructure:
Despite the rigidities introduced by serfdom into the feudal system, the post-Roman political organisation of Europe continued to contrast with that of the hydraulic empires. Central bureaux of internal and external plunder and of public works were conspicuously absent. There was no national system for collecting taxes, fighting wars, building roads and canals or administering justice. The basic unit of production were the independent, self-contained rainfall-farming manorial estates. There was no way for the more powerful princes and kings to interrupt or facilitate the production activities that took place in each separate little manorial world.
Unlike the hydraulic despots, Europe’s medieval kings could not furnish or withhold water from the fields. The rains fell regardless of what the king in his castle decreed, and there was nothing in the productive process to necessitate the organization of vast armies of workers. (pp.185-6)
Indeed, he even goes as far to say that ‘Long after the great river valleys were packed from horizon to horizon with human settlements, northern Europe stood to the Mediterranean and the Orient as America was later to stand to Europe: a frontier still covered by virgin forests’ (p.183) – forests into which they could escape if the going got too rough. At least until iron axes, saws and ploughs became cheaply & widely available enough to allow mass felling and the instatement of the open field system….
Okay, next: a cool little animation by Steve Cutts, simply titled ‘MAN’*:
And, one I’ve been saving – You know you’re making progress when a video about the chemical extermination of unwanted plants and the whole culture built around this act upsets you more than a documentary about the Nazi holocaust. Witness Dow Chemical’s 1947 advertisement / propaganda piece for 2,4-D herbicide (later used in Agent Orange as previously discussed), ‘Death to Weeds':
OMFG I nearly crapped my pants when I saw this footage in a BBC/Discovery documentary series, ‘Human Planet‘. If you think I’m exaggerating when I describe agriculture as an all-out war against the rest of the living world, just … wait for it:
(There’s some context missing from this clip. You can watch the whole Grasslands episode here, with the relevant passage starting from 24:30. Count how many military metaphors the narrator uses.) This is what I mean by my talk about ‘wealth redistribution’. Brief wikipedia research tells me that the Red-billed Quelea ‘is the world’s most abundant wild bird species’ with a total population of up to 10 billion individuals all living in sub-Saharan Africa. They feed mainly on ‘annual grasses, seeds and grain’, although they apparently feed their chicks with caterpillars & insects for a few days before switching to the seed diet. Here’s the telling passage:
Being such a considerable part of the savanna biomass, Red-billed Quelea flocks and colonies attract huge numbers and diverse types of predators and scavengers. Birds known to live extensively off queleas include herons, storks, raptors, owls, hornbills, rollers, kingfishers, shrikes and corvids. Additionally, snakes, lizards and several types of mammals, especially rodents and small carnivores, are regular predators.
And why do they form ‘such a considerable part’ of the biomass? Because human farmers have made available highly concentrated stores of food that support their population at numbers massively higher than they would otherwise be! I think there’s a message to be read in the huge swarms of these ‘locust birds': If you grain farmers keep on hoarding all of the land’s productivity for yourselves, we will be forced to descend upon you in great numbers, ruining your efforts and returning the biological wealth to those you stole it from; those who will now feed on us.
I could be wrong…
Finally, a hero:
(source – please ask me to take it down if it’s not okay for me to republish)
Later in the day a quick-thinking defender scaled this time not a tree but a telegraph pole on the other side of the road to where the chainsaws were felling. Work had to stop because of the potential danger and this time security climbers found it impossible to evict the defender, unable as they were to find a higher point to secure on to. Instead, a bunch of coppers closed off the road (which was unecessary, and no doubt intended to hack off the locals) and stood about ready to nick the pole-sitter when he came down. Holding out until the contractors had beaten a retreat a valiant attempt was made by supporters to “de-arrest” the defender upon his descent, but were met with the full force of sussex police, who piled out of a nearby riot van screaming “pepper spray them, pepper spray them all”, and duly dispensed their canisters. In the ruckus the pole-sitter cut open his leg and, after being nicked, was taken to hospital for 8 stiches. He was released in the early hours and, just as in the previous arrests, bailed off site. He was charged with obstruction of the public highway (that is, the same public highway that the police themselves closed…?!). (link)
Protestors are resisting the construction of a new road between Hastings and Bexhill (near the south coast of England) which will carve through a valley containing a peaceful water meadow and pockets of ancient woodland. Go to: Combe Haven Defenders for more information and to see how you can help.
* – Obligatory nit-pick: these actions do not represent all of humanity. As Daniel Quinn wrote:
Man was born MILLIONS of years ago, and he was no more a scourge than hawks or lions or squids. He lived AT PEACE with the world … for MILLIONS of years.
This doesn’t mean he was a saint. This doesn’t mean he walked the earth like a Buddha. It means he lived as harmlessly as a hyena or a shark or a rattlesnake.
It’s not MAN who is the scourge of the world, it’s a single culture. One culture out of hundreds of thousands of cultures. OUR culture.