Indigenous populations live in harmony with their environment, don’t they?

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Pioneers and indigenous populations are often thought to represent living examples to others of understanding and respecting the rules of Mother Nature. One place once considered as an earthly paradise is Hirta Island off the west coast of Scotland in the Archipelago of St. Kilda. John MacCullogh wrote in 1815 after a visit to the island: “If this island is not the Eutopia so long thought, where will it be found? Where is the land which has neither arms, money, law, physic, politics, nor taxes?”

Andy Meharg wrote in the science journal Nature in 2005 that this utopia was a myth. There had been a population of around two hundred inhabitants living on the island since at least the Iron Age. The area of cultivated land was less than 20 hectares (40 acres). Therefore the way of life was centred around recycling and utilisation of sea birds. Centuries of composting had produced soil concentrations of contaminants so high as to be almost unbelievable. The levels of dioxin, lead and zinc were comparable to those in the most badly contaminated British industrial towns, because all waste produced in the island was composted as fertilizers, including faeces, peat ash, bird guts and bones. Moreover the superstitious islanders had severe effects on sea bird populations, e.g. they killed the last great auk of Britain as a witch in 1840.

As soon as the transportation to the mainland opened during the 1800s, most of the population wanted to emigrate, and the island has been uninhabited since 1930. Thus by that time it is not even possible to blame the effects of early industrialisation for the contamination of the environment.

A stone house of cards

The Anasazi Indians living in the canyon of Chaco, a tribute of Colorado River, established a flourishing culture which lasted from about A.D. 600 to 1200. The destruction of the culture within a few centuries describes very well the process in which the short-sightedness of people gradually undermines their entire existence as they destroy the forests and with that also their game and hunting possibilities. In the case of the Anasazi, their downfall was triggered by their construction of luxury buildings and pursuing a highly efficient agriculture based on irrigation in a very fragile environment. In good years, the population increased, but when the climate became drier, a catastrophe ensued.

A few prosper, some do not

Jared Diamond seeks an explanation in his book “Collapse” for the difference between those nations which have thrived and those who have destroyed their environment and with it also their means of living, condemning their citizens to an existence of misery and disease. A typical example of people living in the same conditions but coping very differently are Vikings who colonized Greenland after leaving Norway in the Middle Ages, and the Inuits who also immigrated there from Northern Canada. The Vikings managed to destroy their vulnerable habitat in both Iceland and Greenland, but because Greenland had much more limited possibilities for survival, the Viking colony there ended catastrophically in the death of the whole community in the 1400s. Iceland, initially a forested and partially flourishing island went through difficult centuries with an impoverished population and eroded soil. Only when the population turned to ocean fishing as their main mean of living, was a new viable growth possible.

It is believed that Greenland Vikings never learned to consume fish; instead they tried desperately to maintain agriculture and animal production in the hostile conditions of Greenland. Moreover they were never in good terms with Inuits, and made no attempt to adopt their successful practices such as using bone tools instead of iron utensils which were very difficult to obtain. They also did not learn to use blubber as fuel instead of relying on the scanty supply of wood. The Vikings colonising Iceland were also close to a catastrophe until they realised that under those conditions cattle ranching was destroying their environment and could not be sustainable in the future.

Diamond ponders why even many experts maintain the myth that traditional cultures are somehow superior in their relationships with the environment, and close their eyes to the obvious signs to the contrary. One of his explanations is that anthropologists and other scientists identify themselves so deeply with their research topic that they take it as a personal offence to even consider the mistakes made by the cultures so dear to them. However, wisdom starts in being humble, and the future cannot be made safe, unless past mistakes are understood.

“Five words with understanding”[1]

Diamond lists five basic factors that determine whether a nation is heading to a dead end because of the non-sustainable environmental development, or if it will thrive. Some of the factors depend on the populations themselves; some are factors that they cannot change. The five are environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbours, friendly trade partners, and how the society responds to the environmental challenges and other problems. The four first factors are variable in different cases but the fifth has always been crucial: how the society has responded to environmental change. So it would seem that it is the human being her/himself and their relations to the environment which are crucial for future survival.

One crucial factor is the slow change of the environment that cannot be easily appreciated by one generation. Therefore very slow insidious changes are the most dangerous. As in the story of Moronsville at the beginning of this book, no single act seems dangerous, but finally over generations the toll on the environment causes the whole system to collapse.

A typical slow factor always was land use. The forest was always gradually consumed at its borders. As the forest disappeared, so too did the game animals, which brought pressures on other means of living. When wood is in short supply, everything that burns is used as fuel, including peat, and stripping the land of peat impoverishes the land and leads to soil erosion.


One special risk feature seems to be a lack of democracy. Developing societies often have the tendency to give birth to some sort of aristocracy, be it druids, chieftains and priests, who are better informed than other members of the tribe. For example, they can predict periods of the year and take a lead in defending the society. Therefore they are useful to others, and are tolerated even if they are, in principle, parasites. The food they eat, the clothes they wear and their dwellings are based on the surplus of the working members of the population. These minorities have often led the societies down the road to catastrophes, if they have become too large or consumed more resources than their society could bear. This was the case in Easter Island, Chaco Canyon, and probably also in Greenland. Short-sighted inequalities serve as a warning to us in these times of quartile economies and unreasonable bonuses paid to executives.

Human being does not seem to have changed when viewed in the perspective of thousands of years. We can identify similar stupid mistakes in ancient cultures that we are making ourselves today. The most crucial point seems to be how the society is able to balance short-term profits and sustainable long-term development.

Notes and references

  1. Corinth. 14:19.

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