The expanding anthroposphere
1. Life before humans
Human life, like all life, consists of matter and energy structured and directed by information. All life is part of an ecosystem, all ecosystems together constitute the biosphere - the total configuration of living things interacting with each other and with non-living things. Every form of life continuously affects, and is affected by, its ecosystem.
1.1. The first environmental crisis in the biosphere. The origins of life remain a mystery; yet it seems safe to assume that interactions between living and non-living matter are as old as life itself. According to current insights, life probably began around 3.8 billion years ago, deep beneath the earth's surface near volcanic vents, feeding on chemicals such as sulphur. These earliest forms of life consisted solely of bacteria - unicellular organisms, some of which gradually 'migrated' and reached the surface of the seas where they made contact with air and sunlight, and where they acquired the ability to absorb solar energy by means of photosynthesis.
Originally all microbes were anaerobic - that is, unable to digest oxygen. Any oxygen contained in the compounds they used as nutrients was rejected by their metabolism and released into the atmosphere. This made the atmosphere eventually so rich in oxygen as to be lethally poisonous to the anaerobic bacteria. By that time, however, some varieties had evolved a metabolism capable of coping with such high rates of oxygen. While the older varieties could survive only in anaerobic niches, these new varieties were able to thrive and reproduce in an atmosphere that had been filled with free oxygen by anaerobic life itself.
Thus, the dynamics of the biosphere brought about a drastic transformation of the non-living planetary atmosphere. From the earliest beginnings, organisms did not only adapt to the environment in which they lived: by the very act of living they also modified their invironment. The impact exerted by each single organism during its lifetime could only be minute; but the cumulative effect of countless generations has been enormous. The early environmental crisis also that shows that in the long run a species may destroy the very conditions for its survival. However, while the anaerobic organisms perished in their own emissions, their very destruction created space for new forms of life. As the biogeologist Peter Westbroek observes:
This event must have been the greatest environmental disaster ever. Oxygen, a calamitous pollutant, made the atmosphere reactive to organic matter and poisonous to most life then in existence. Virtually all the existing biota were forced into sediments, stagnant waters, and other environments where this poisonous gas had no access. Some organisms, however, managed to survive the reactivity of oxygen, and others even "learned" to exploit it for energy. They transformed the peril of oxygen into a driving force of life on earth. (Westbroek 1991: 202)
The crucial factor in the further evolution of life was the potential for individual cells to combine, and to enter into increasingly more complex forms of specialization and collaboration such as fungi, plants, and animals. The great bulk of living biomass is still made up of bacteria, even today (see Gould 1996). And all the bacteria that live within the intestines of humans and other large animals are still anaerobic.
We may well find the tenacity of the most ancient unicellar life forms, persisting over billions of years, spectacular. No less spectacular has been the capacity of certain cells to combine, to form larger structures, and to continue life collectively, in the form of 'higher' organisms - organized in particular individual physical structures such as trees or bodies, as well as in swarms, flocks or societies comprising many distinct physical structures.
All such swarms, flocks, and societies consist of separate organisms in which myriads of cells are competing and collaborating. Each organism is a distinct structure of matter and energy, feeding on its environment, and engaged in a continuous exchange of information with other members of the flock. Humans, latecomers in the evolutionary process, are no exception.
Continental drift. Globes often contain a small lamp, enabling us to
see two very different aspects of the earth's surface. As long as the light is
switched off, the globe shows the political division of the earth's surface,
with for example
Whereas it is generally known that political boundaries are subject to change, the natural contours of the earth's surface appear to be fixed. But that is, of course, a misleading impression: the natural condition of the soil, including the partition of water and land, is also subject to continuous changes. From a geological perspective, the very soil on which we live is a transient cover to the planetary surface, half way between the stages of solid mountain rock and submerged ocean mineral.
At one time
The continents continue to move.
South America and
About fifteen million years ago similar
processes caused a rupture from south to north in East Africa, splitting the
2. Early humans and their first impact: fire.
1. Human origins and extensive growth. The first stage in human evolution is still in many respects shrouded in uncertainties (see Lewin 1999). Most experts agree, however, that climatological changes most likely gave strong impulses to the process of hominization - in line with the current view that changes in temperature and precipitation have generally played a major part in the formation of new species ('speciation') as well as in their extinction (see Vrba 1995). New evidence for Kortlandt's original idea about the connection between geological events and the origins of the human species, has been put forward by the Belgian paleontologist Yves Coppens (1994) under the heading 'East Side Story' - a felicitous allusion to humanity's supposed East African roots.
BOX. It is customary to use the word 'man' in discussing the relations between humans and the biosphere. There are several reasons for not following this custom. First of all we have to acknowledge that humankind consists of men and women; the male form 'man', which is matched by the personal pronoun 'he', actually leaves out half of all human beings - and even more, if we take into account that it also does not immediately evoke an image of children. The grammatically singular form of the word 'man' also obscures the fact that humans are social beings, who live and develop in interdependence with other humans. So, rather than resorting to the familiar image of a 'man' as a single, male, and adult individual we prefer to speak of humans or people, in the plural, in order to bring out the inherent diversity and the thoroughly social nature of human beings.
After they made their first appearance, humans gradually strenghthened their position in the biosphere - at first slowly and almost imperceptibly, later at an increasingly more rapid pace with ever more striking consequences. In the process, they expanded their domain extensively as well as intensively. They engrossed increasingly more terrain and incorporated increasingly more non-human resources into their groups: first fire, then, much later, certain selected plants and animals, and, later again, fossil fuels. As they incorporated more energy and matter into their societies, those societies grew in size, strength, and productivity, while at the same time also becoming more complex, more vulnerable, and more destructive. Throughout this entire process of transformation, humans shared the same natural environment with other species, including microbes, plants, and animals; this fundamental fact continues to be part of the human condition.
The first stage in human history and 'prehistory' is known in archaeology as the Palaeolithic or Old Stone Age. During this stage, which lasted for thousands of millennia, the overall pace of social and cultural development was slow in comparison with later stages. Yet some momentous changes took place, with great consequences for the relationships between humans and the natural environment. Humans began not only to use but also to make tools of their own, and they learned to control fire. The combination of tools and fire enabled groups of humans to leave their original habitat, the savannas of East Africa, and to migrate into other parts of the world, penetrating first into remote corners of Eurasia and then also into Australia and the Americas. The Palaeolithic can thus be seen as a long run up, which was later followed by an enormously accelerating sprint of which our present age is the latest episode. It was the scene of incipient 'extensive' and 'intensive' growth of the anthroposphere.
BOX. THE CONCEPTS OF EXTENSIVE AND INTENSIVE GROWTH.
The concepts of 'extensive' and 'intensive' growth are derived from economic history (see Jones 2000), and are intended to serve 'sensitizing' or 'heuristic' purposes. The distinction allows us to perceive different dimensions, and thus to broaden and enrich the idea of growth.
Analytically, the concepts of extensive and intensive growth have distinct meanings. Empirically, however, the processes thus designated need not exclude each other. They may sometimes counteract, and sometimes support each other. Their actual interaction is a matter for empirical investigation.
In economic history, extensive growth refers to the extension of human numbers - first of all in a demographic, then also in a geographic sense. Intensive growth refers to a general rise in the standard of living: increase per capita in income.
The distinction may be applied to various other fields as well. Thus, in military-political development, extensive growth may refer to the extension of military-political units (regimes) - first of all in a territorial, then also in a demographic sense: more land, more people. Intensive growth may then refer to a general rise in political commitment and participation and an increasing complexity of political institutions.
We may also conceive of a similar use of the two concepts in human ecology. Land that has been cultivated intensively (in which a great deal of human labour has been invested) represents a high degree of interdependence between humans and the vegetation. Even a monoculture of sugar cane or soja beans which looks like a homogeneous extension of one single crop can be shown in a more comprehensive perspective to reflect a high degree of ecological complexity.
Extensive growth in the
Palaeolithic had two related aspects: humans increased in numbers, and came
to occupy more and more territorial space. According to the hypothesis that
is currently considered most plausible, there were at least two big movements
'out of Africa': at first, groups belonging to the species Homo erectus
migrated into Asia Minor, from where they dispersed over large sections of
the Eurasian continent; much later (between 250,000 and 150,000 years ago)
members of the Homo sapiens species followed similar routes.
The great waves of migration have
never since come to a halt, and continue to this very day. The Pacific
islands were among the last regions to be reached; human settlement there was
completed by circa 500 CE. Only about the migrations of the past few
centuries do we have sufficient evidence to establish their size and
trajectories. Because of the general growth of human numbers and big advances
in the means of transportation, these most recent migrations were probably
the largest of all time - both in human numbers and in distances covered. In
addition, more and more animals and plant seeds travelled along with these
movements of humankind, causing major changes in the earth's flora and fauna
For humanity's early demographic development we have to rely on informed guesses. As for any other species, the total number of humans at any given moment has been a function of two variables: birth and death, fertility and mortality. The available evidence suggests that, during the Palaeolithic, both were relatively high (although not as high as in the succeeding, agrarian phase), with a slight excess of births over deaths. The nomadic way of life tended to act as a constraint limiting the number of children; it may also have made exposure to lethal micro-parasites less frequent among foragers than among sedentary farmers (Harris and Ross 1987: 21-36) The net result of these factors was a slow overall rate of extensive growth, as explained at greater length in Chapter 4.
According to the Italian demographer Massimo Livi-Bacci (1992: 2), the total human population must have reached one million at some time in the Paleolithic, ten million at the beginning of the Neolithic, a hundred million during the Bronze Age, a thousand million at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution; the next tenfold increase, to ten billion, may be expected to be completed in the near future. On the basis of the same material Livi-Bacci (1992: 33) estimates that the total lifespan of all members of the world population today amounts to no less than one seventh of the total life span of all human beings who ever lived. Along similar lines the Russian physicist and demographer Sergey Kapitza (2000: 40) concludes that the human species now numbers at least one hundred thousand times more members than any other mammal of similar size and with a similar position in the food chain. There is only one exception: animals domesticated by humans. Their numbers include more than two billion cattle and sheep which consume more food than all humans together. (See also Grübler 1998: 133-4; McNeill 2000: 264)
2.2. Intensive growth: technology, organization and civilization. Intensive growth is harder to define and to measure than extensive growth, but its impact on the biosphere is at least as important. In the process of intensive growth, things and forces which were previously completely beyond human control have been brought within the human domain and subjected to a certain measure of human control. Intensive growth always implies innovations in behaviour, which usually lead to a shift (however slight) in existing balances of power as well as to changes (again, however slight) in mentality or habitus. Extensive and intensive growth are not mutually exclusive. They can either support and reinforce, or obstruct each other.
A basic trend in all human history, and certainly during its earliest phases (often designated as 'prehistory'), has been the increasing differentiation between humans and all closely related animals in terms of their behaviour, their power, and their general orientation or attitude - their habitus. Thanks to the flexibility acquired in the course of evolution, humans were able to learn a large repertory of new forms of behaviour. Especially successful were those innovations in behaviour that added to human power vis-a-vis other large animals, both predators and competitors. Transmitted by learning from generation to generation, those innovations entered into the human habitus, and became 'second nature'.
The primary condition for the process of differentiation in behaviour, power, and habitus has been, and continues to be, the inborn human capacity for culture as manifested in technology, organization, and civilization - each of which represents the results of social learning. Indeed social learning is the crux of culture: gathering information and passing it on to others - at first in direct interaction, at a later stage in history through written texts and today by other audio-visual means as well. The stores of cumulated information (or 'cultural capital') have enabled people to tap increasingly larger and more varied flows of matter and energy, and to integrate those flows into their societies.
The term 'technology' refers primarily to the means of harnessing various forms of matter and energy for human purposes. With the aid of technology, extra-somatic forces are used to supplement human strength and to compensate for human weakness and slowness.
Technology could not have developed without 'social organization': the various means by which people are able to eexchange information, to co-ordinate their activities, and to take into consideration the intentions and interests of others. Less obvious perhaps, but equally important is the part played by 'civilization': the social process in the course of which individuals learn to handle their own drives and emotions. Simple though this definition may sound, it refers to an area of human life that is still relatively unexplored, especially if we consider the historical dimension to the way human personalities are shaped in social processes (see Elias 2000: 363-447). The controversies that continue to rage about such issues as 'nature and nurture' reveal the wide margin of uncertainty and the lack of clarity in this area (see Rose and Rose 2000; Segerstraele 2000). Still, the theme is highly relevant to this book, too, since it touches on the problem of how individuals learn to cope with the outside world in both its social and its natural aspects and to what extent they are prepared to take into consideration the effects that their own actions may have on other people and on the natural environment. Both technology and social organization require civilization; neither can function without it.
Technology, social organization, and civilization are closely interwoven. They correspond to what the sociologist Norbert Elias (1978: 156-7) calls the 'triad of controls' over, respectively, extra-human, inter-human, and intra-human processes. Each of the three forms of control can only exist and evolve in connection with the other two. It is possible, of course, to describe the history of technology as a mere succession of new tools and appliances; yet, while this might look like a very 'concrete' description, it would actually represent a great abstraction from reality. Even the seemingly simplest objects from the Paleolithic could only be manufactured by virtue of socially transmitted knowledge and motivation.
With the expansion of the anthroposphere, increasingly more natural forces that were originally beyond human control came to be incorporated in the human domain. Thus new ecological regimes were formed, in which humans participated, along with the forces they tried to control. This is clearly illustrated by the domestication of fire. We shall discuss its early history at some length, because as the first manifestation of human mastery over a strong and potentially destructive force of nature, the control over fire was a basic condition for the subsequent emergence of agriculture and industry which are highlighted in the chapters that follow.
2.3. The original domestication of fire. The domestication of fire was the first great act of human interference with natural processes. It had numerous far-reaching implications, stretching from the first hesitant beginnings to our contemporary fuel-driven economy. It therefore demands our attention, even though it took place long before the period in human history with which this book is mainly concerned.
In several ways, the original fire regime may be seen as a paradigm for the socio-ecological regimes that were developed later. It presents a paradigm in a double sense: first of all, in actual practice, the regime by which humans learned to extend their care for and control over fire could serve as a model for subsequent forms of care for and control over other forces in non-human nature such as plants and animals. Secondly, we may regard the domestication of fire as a model case in a more theoretical fashion, since it brings out the strong link between such apparently contradictory tendencies as increases in control and dependency, in robustness and vulnerability, in potential for production and for destruction.
Fire, like all natural forces, has a history. Chemically fire is a process of highly accelerated oxidation of matter (fuel) induced by heat (ignition). Three conditions are therefore necessary for it to occur: oxygen, fuel, and heat. During the first aeons in the history of the earth, at least two of these - oxygen and fuel - were absent. Oxygen did not become available until, after at least a billion years, life emerged. And it was only less than half a billion years ago, during the Devonian geological age, that life assumed the form of plants, providing matter suitable for burning. From then on, most places on earth with seasonally dry vegetation were regularly visited by fire, ignited on rare occasions by falling rocks, volcanic discharges or extraterrestial impacts, but mostly by lightning (cf. Pyne 2001: 3-23).
Its domestication by humans opened an entirely new episode in the history of fire. Humans thoroughly altered the frequency and intensity of fires. They brought fire to regions of the planet where it seldom or never burned spontaneously. And they tried to banish it from places where without human interference it would have burned repeatedly. Thus, increasingy, 'natural' fire receded, and made way to 'human' or, more precisely, anthropogenic fire.
Wherever humans migrated, they
took their fire along. The presence of humans-with-fire deeply altered the
landscape, including flora and fauna. The human impact is amply documented
(though still controversial) for a continent that was colonized by humans
Humans are the only species which has learned to manipulate fire. Control over fire has become a species monopoly, with an enormous impact on other species, both animals and plants. It provides us with an excellent example of how new forms of behaviour could chang power balances - in this case, between humans and all other animals, ranging from primates to insects - and how shifts in power balances could engender changes in habitus, both among the humans who gained greater self-confidence from the presence of fire in their groups, and among animals which might be bigger and stronger than humans but learned to respect and fear their agility with fire.
Control over fire, in addition to having become exclusivy human, has also become universally human. We know of no human society of the past 100,000 years that lacked the skills needed to control fire.
The original domestication of fire was a dramatic transition. Palaeoanthropologists are still debating when exactly it took place. The estimates range from as many as 1.5 million to a mere 150,000 years ago. It is still an open and fascinating question whether the first steps to control over fire coincided with other changes in early human development.
In retrospect, the initial domestication of fire was an event of momentous import. A wild force of nature - blind, capricious, and hazardous - was now tended, cared for, kept dry and supplied with fuel. Our early ancestors went to all this trouble, not 'altruistically', but because it served them well. They put the potentially destructive and essentially purposeless force of fire to work for their own productive purposes. They managed to make fire regularly available. They no longer had to 'hunt' for it, hoping to find somewhere the smouldering remains of a natural blaze; they made it a part (and even the centre) of their own group and they revered it as as a symbol of eternal life.
The domestication of fire made humans less directly dependent on natural forces which continued to be beyond their control such as the alternation of day and night or the cycle of the seasons. It made the contrast between dark and light, between warm and cold, or between wet and dry more amenable to manipulation, and thus gave humans a greater margin of freedom from the grip of nature. It increased their power - defined as the capacity to influence the outcome of an interaction. Armed with fire humans were able to open up impenetrable tracts of bush, and to drive away animals much fiercer and stronger than they themselves were. The gain in power made their lives more comfortable and secure. The possibilities of heating, lighting, and cooking all contributed to what we would now call a higher standard of living.
2.4. Long-term consequences. 'Wherever primitive man had the opportunity to turn fire loose on a land, he seems to have done so from time memorial.' This statement by the American geographer Carl Sauer (1981: 340) may sound like an exaggeration; but it still fails to convey the full impact which the domestication of fire has had, both on the larger biosphere and, within the biosphere, on human society itself.
The most immediate effect of the
domestication of fire on the biosphere in general was an increase in the
frequency with which fires occurred. Prior to its human mastery, fire had
been ignited mostly by lightning. From now on another source was added: even
before they learned to make fire themselves humans were able to preserve it
in their hearths and to apply it wherever they saw fit. Consequently, as the
number of anthropogenic fires increased, the proportion of natural fires
diminished. It has been suggested, in an admittedly speculative manner, that
the earliest human fire use may have affected the planetary atmosphere and
caused some of the major climate changes in the Pleistocene
(Westbroek et al. 1993). More substantive evidence indicating
modification of the landscape by human foragers equipped with fire has been
brought forward for
BOX. The human impact on the environment raises problems similar to those in a thriller. When a murder has been committed, the coroner establishes the effects of the interaction, and the detective examines the causes: the motives and the means of the perpetrator. What made him do it, how was he able to do it?
When we are considering the issue of anthropogenetic fire (and most fire on our planet today is anthropogenetic), the natural sciences deal with the consequences, the effects; the social sciences deal with the conditions, the causes, the motives and the means of the perpretators.
This is, of course, only an analogy. Instead of a single suspect, an individualized, masculine 'he', we have to look at 'us', humans, in the plural: including men, women, and children, and including our earliest ancestors as well as ourselves who are living today. (We are links in a chain of generations. Our current interactions with fire are to be seen in that context.)
In dealing with the distant human past, it may be more appropriate not to speak of 'we' but 'they'. Our early ancestors who were the first to domesticate fire were akin to us, but they must also in many ways have been very different. In fact, in learning to control fire, they became more like us, and less like our closest relatives among the mammals.
If indeed the basic long-term trend in human history (underlying most other developments and events) has been the very process of increasing differentiation in behaviour, power, and habitus between humans and all related species,
the domestication of fire was an important step in this long-term trend - not the single cause, but an integral part of it. Since the control over fire became a species monopoly, exclusively human and shared equally by all human societies, it made humans everywhere more alike among themselves, and more different from all other creatures.
From the very beginning humans used fire in two basic forms: the hearth and the torch. The hearth was the original site at which a fire was kept, usually at a cave entrance where it could be protected against the rain and still receive some air circulation. Since it had to be tended and since fuel had to be brought to it, it served almost naturally as a centre for group life, providing heat, light, and a common focus. From the hearth developed in the course of time a variety of fire containers such as crucibles, stoves, kilns and furnaces, and, in our day, the mobile engines of motor cars and aeroplanes.
The hearth-like uses of fire have always had two kinds of environmental side-effects. First of all, fuel had to be supplied. As long as human communities were small and living in areas with abundant wood, this did not cause much of a problem. When greater numbers of people started living in large urban concentrations, however, the need for fuel became a strong contributing factor to deforestation over big areas and, in our own age, to depletion of fossil resources. The second side-effect of hearth-like fire consists of its waste products: ashes and smoke. Although smoke might be useful in driving away insects and other insidious creatures, it has always been considered mostly as a nuisance to be got rid of. As long as people lived in isolated caves or huts, this was relatively easy. Urbanization and industrialization have seriously aggravated the problem.
While the functions of the hearth were originally primarily turned inward ('centripetal'), the torch was a more outward directed ('centrifugal') implement. It was used not only to provide light at night, but also by day to set fire to shrubs and grasses -an effective way to destroy obstacles for foraging and to rout animals, both predators and prey, and thus to extend the human domain. Torch undoubtedly contributed to deforestation: wood was burned wholesale, regardless of its possible value as timber or fuel. In the age of agriculture, the torch was used for slash and burn and other techniques for clearing land, and it served as the model for a whole array of fire weapons culminating in our own time in rocket-propelled missiles.
Surveying the entire trajectory of the human use of fire from its earliest beginnings, we can distinguish three stages. During the first stage, there were no groups possessing fire; there were only groups without fire. Then, there must have been a second stage, when there were both groups with fire and groups without fire. We do not know how long that stage lasted - nor how often it may have recurred. All we know is that it has come to an end. It was a transitional stage, leading up to the stage in which humankind has now been living for thousands of generations: the stage when there are no longer any groups without fire. All human groups are groups with fire.
Although we lack empirical evidence for the first two stages, that very lack leaves us no choice but to accept an unavoidable conclusion: societies with fire were in the long run obviously more 'fit to survive' than societies without fire. If we then ask why it was that societies without fire disappeared, there seems to be only one plausible answer: because they had to co-exist with societies with fire - and apparently in the long run such co-existence proved impossible.
This may sound like a dismal conclusion suggesting fierce contests ending in the elimination of the loosers. If such contests did indeed take place, they have left no trace of empirical evidence; we only have the highly imaginative evocations of what might have happened in books and films like The Quest for Fire, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud. However, we can also view the fact that possession of fire has become a universal attribute of all human societies as an important example of the general rule that changes in one human group lead to changes in related other groups. If group A had fire, and the neighbouring group B did not, group B 'had a problem'. It could either try to minimize contact with group A and perhaps move away, or do as group A had done and adopt a fire regime - which should not pose insurmountable difficulties as long as the capacity to learn from the others was sufficient. In the latter case, instead of a 'zero-sum' elimination struggle there would have been what the American freelance author and scientist Robert Wright (2000) calls a 'nonzero' situation, with an outcome in which neither party was a loser.
The rule that changes in one human group lead to changes in other related groups may sound like a rather tautological explanation for social change, but it is not. It is a highly generalized empirical observation, similar to an observation we can make about fire: fire generates fire - and in a similar fashion, more generally, change generates change, and social change generates social change.
Such is the nature of the dynamics of human society and culture. After the original domestication of fire, it was never humans alone who interacted with other human groups, and with non-human nature. It was always humans-with-fire, equipped with fire and with the products of pyrotechniques: cooked food, pointed spears and arrows, earthenware, metal objects. Their presence put an end to humans-without-fire.
Another general conclusion to be drawn from these observations is the following. Changes in climate and precipitation have never ceased to be important causes for humans to change their way of life. Humans are no different from other species in that they will always have to accommodate the basic conditions of earthly nature, such as the alteration of day and night or of monsoons and seasons. In the course of human history, however, in addition to these overridingly powerful extra-human conditions, conditions brought about by humans themselves have become increasingly more important - to the extent that, in our contemporary world, humanity has become a major agent of ecological change.
2.5. Regimes. The domestication of fire meant that people tamed a strong and potentially destructive natural force, and made it into a regularly available source of energy. In so doing they initiated changes in the natural environment, in their social arrangements, and in their personal lives. These three aspects (ecological, sociological, psychological) are all part of the changing human relationships with fire.
In its ecological aspects, the domestication of fire affected the relations between humans and the non-human world so deeply that we may call it the first great ecological transformation brought about by humans, which was followed much later by the second and third such transformations - generally known as the agricultural and industrial revolutions, and better characterized in terms of the long term processes of agrarianization and industrialization.
Each of the three transformations spelled the formation of a new socio-ecological regime: the fire regime, the agrarian regime, and the industrial regime, marked by, respectively, the utilization of fire and elementary tools, the rise and spread of agriculture and animal husbandry, and the rise and spread of large-scale modern industry. The later regimes have not made the earlier regimes obsolete; rather, they have absorbed them and, in so doing, transformed them. Each new regime brought an expansion of the anthroposphere within the biosphere.
Defining the three regimes jointly in similar terms is helpful in order to better understand each of them separately as well as in their interrelations. A common conceptual model invites and facilitates comparison. The comparison allows us to explain the sequence in the emergence of the regimes, and to perceive not only their similarities and differences but also their interlocking.
3. Intensified human impact: agrarianization
The history of the past ten thousands years may be read as a series of events accompanying the process of agrarianization of humankind - a process in the course of which humanity extended the domain of agriculture and animal husbandry all over the world, and in so doing made itself increasingly more dependent upon this very mode of production.
In terms of geology, the era of agrarianization coincides with the Holocene - the relatively brief and climatologically relatively stable era following the much longer and, in its overall effects, much more turbulent era of the Pleistocene. The Pleistocene lasted approximately 0.8 million years, and saw at least nine oscillations between extremely cold and somewhat milder global climates known as the glacial and interglacial periods. The last of these ice ages, from between 130,000 and 109,000 BP, reached a peak between 22,000 and 16,000 BP, and was succeeded by the Holocene, our contemporary epoch, which may well turn out to be one more interglacial.
The transition from Pleistocene to
Holocene was marked by great environmental changes. As the ice melted and the
glaciers receded, the sea level rose worldwide by a hundred meters and more,
terminating the land bridge between Siberia and
During the Holocene, climate
continued to change, but in a less drastic fashion. The most extreme
fluctuation was a prolonged increase in precipitation in northern Africa,
which allowed savanna vegetation to flourish in the
Emergence. As the reference to the
Thus, at least for the time being,
we have to accept the fact that some of the most intriguing problems
regarding the emergence of agriculture and animal husbandry remain unsolved.
According to current insights, there appear to have been multiple origins:
the transition to agrarian production was probably made independently in
different periods in different parts of the world, including Mesopotamia, the
Fortunately some important points regarding the transition and its consequences are beyond dispute. Until recently, established scholarly opinion held that the 'agricultural revolution' meant the first big human impact on the biosphere. As shown in the preceding section, humans already initiated far-reaching changes in the biosphere at a much earlier stage, with the domestication of fire.
Contrary to common usage, we have decided to drop the term 'agricultural revolution' altogether, and to speak consistently of 'agrarianization'. An obvious advantage of the latter concept is that it draws attention to the close parallel with the subsequent process of industrialization. It also conveys clearly that, like industrialization, agrarianization is not to be seen as a one-time event but as an ongoing process. Having started on a relatively small scale, the agrarian mode of production and way of life have never ceased expanding. Nor did agrarianization even stop at the advent of industrialization; on the contrary, the rise of modern industry has given it strong new impetus toward further development. So far the era of agrarianization has been marked by a steadily increasing rate of change. Between the original domestication of fire and the first appearance of agriculture lay a period of 100,000 years at the very least. By contrast, only 10,000 years passed between the rise of agriculture and the rise of modern industry. And while industrialization began to gain momentum no more than 250 years ago, we may now well be witnessing the onset of another great socio-ecological transformation.
The most plausible explanation for
this acceleration is probably implied in the principle expounded above to the
effect that, once social and cultural development get started, they have a
tendency to become self-propelling and self-accelerating. For a very long
period in early human history (the period comprising the era known as
'prehistory'), changes in the non-human environment posed the greatest
challenge to human adaptability. As discussed in Chapter 4, it was perhaps
still this kind of 'external' change, and especially the great rise in
temperature at the end of the last Ice Age, which triggered the first
emergence of agriculture in
The argument is indeed persuasive. As the sea flooded fertile coastal land, and the advancing forest encroached upon more and more savanna, there were many areas where both humans and the large herbivores upon which they hunted found their natural habitats under severe stress. It seems hardly a coincidence that precisely during this period at the end of the Pleistocene many large mammals became extinct, including herbivores such as the woolly mammoth as well as their predators such as the sabre-tooth tiger. As living conditions for the freely roaming herbivores deteriorated, and the competition for the resources of food and fresh water grew more intense, humans may have used their technical and organizational superiority to destroy a number of their rivals forever - thus also depriving themselves of the chance of any future use of those species. The areas that were most vulnerable to the rising water levels were coastal zones where humans had been able to prosper on plentiful supplies of both land and sea food. It stands to reason that especially in those regions which were hardest hit, with relatively great numbers of people being confronted with gravely deteriorating environmental conditions, the more active cultivation of edible plants was adopted as a substitute for the diminishing chance of obtaining food by fishing, gathering and hunting. Again, Chapter 4 reports some impressive recent evidence on these issues.
3.2. Continuities. The initial transition from gathering and hunting to agriculture and animal husbandry was not necessarily abrupt. A group that started to cultivate a few crops would not have to give up its older ways altogether. There would have been only very few, if any, agrarian societies from which gathering and hunting disappeared completely at once. However, the proportion of products acquired in the older way inevitably diminished as agriculture and animal husbandry advanced.
From the very beginning, the process of agrarianization was linked closely to the domestication of fire. It is hard to imagine how people could have begun to cultivate plants and to domesticate animals had the art of handling fire not already been thoroughly familiar to them. For one thing, they needed a hearth fire to cook on. The first crops cultivated on any large scale were cereal grains such as wheat, rice and maize which, owing to their high nutritional value and their capacity to withstand storage for long periods, formed a very appropriate staple food for a human community; to serve this purpose, however, they had to be made more easily digestible with the help of fire.
A second and very different reason why the control of fire formed a precondition for agrarianization was the human predominance over all other mammals, which was grounded partly in the use of fire. The human species' monopoly over fire was so solidly established by the time agriculture began, and is today so easily taken for granted, that it is seldom given separate attention in this context. Yet it deserves mention. Their hegemony in the animal kingdom enabled people not only to bring certain species, such as goats and sheep, under direct control, but also - at least as important - to keep most of the remaining 'wild' animals at a distance from their crops and herds.
Thirdly, experience in controlling fire may have furthered plant and animal domestication in another, even more intangible way, which our distance in time makes it difficult to assess precisely but which we are also, for that very reason, likely to underestimate. The time-honoured practice of handling fire could not have failed to prepare humans for the many chores involved in agriculture and animal husbandry. It taught them that extending care upon something non-human could be well worth the trouble and thus made it more acceptable to them to accommodate the strains of an agrarian life, full of self-imposed renunciation for the sake of a possible future yield.
The most immediately visible link between early agriculture and ancient use of fire lay in the custom of burning off land with an eye to food production. Of old, foraging peoples were wont to apply their torches in order to keep the land open for gathering and hunting. Even in recent times those firing practices were continued in some parts of the world, as in Australia where the Aborigines' judicious use of fire in keeping their land open for kangaroos and humans has become known as 'firestick farming' (cf. Flannery 1995; Pyne 2001) - a term suggesting a form of 'proto-agrarianization'.
3.3. Sequences. The rise of agriculture was in many respects remarkably similar to the domestication of fire. Again, humans added new sources of energy to their own, this time by adopting certain plants and animals and integrating them into their societies. Plants that were formerly 'wild' now began to be cultivated, 'wild' animals were tamed and used for food or other purposes such as traction, and all these species were made part of the human domain - of the anthroposphere, which thus increased in size and complexity.
The transition from foraging to
agriculture did not automatically make people happier and healthier. Agrarian
life brought new hardships. Diets became more monotonous. Sedentary life in
villages increased the susceptibility to disease. It allowed for a rise in
fertility, but it also caused higher mortality. The result was large numbers
of children, many of whom never reached adulthood. Not surprisingly, research
on skeletons reveals that, after agrarianization, human lives tended to
become briefer, and bodies shorter. It is equally understandable that the
texts of the great religions of
The very nature of agrarian life foreclosed a return to foraging, however. There are a few known cases of such a return, but those are exceptions (see Diamond 1997: XXX-XXX). Almost everywhere, with so many people, and so little land, the only option for the survival of an agrarian population was cultivation. 'Work' was writ large over the agrarian world.
If, at a very early stage, the domestication of fire had made human groups more productive but also more vulnerable (because from now on they had to rely on their fire), the rise of agriculture had the same twofold effect. Being able to grow more food, human groups grew more populous, and became more dependent on their crops, and thus more vulnerable to failure or loss of their harvests. As the expansion of agriculture and pastoralism left increasingly less land available for foraging, the opportunites to escape from this vicious circle dwindled.
The very first stage in the process of agrarianization necessarily involved clearing the land, removing any existing vegetation that would compete with the planted crops. In many cases, the most efficient procedure to accomplish this was by means of fire. As long as land remained plentiful, continued recourse was often taken to fire in a system practiced throughout the world, and known under various regional names which are usually subsumed in the standard literature under the label 'shifting cultivation'. Shifting cultivation implies that a piece of primary forest is first cleared by the method of slash and burn, and is then used for one or more harvests of crops. When, after a while, crop nutrients in the soil become exhausted and undesired plants ('weeds') begin to dominate, the farmers temporarily abandon the land, and turn to an adjacent lot, burn the vegetation down, and bring it under cultivation, again until they find harvesting unrewarding. Eventually they return to their first plot, which by then has become 'secondary forest' or 'secondary bush', and resume their activities of burning, planting, and harvesting there. The duration of the entire cycle may vary as to time and place, but the principle remains the same.
In many parts of the world, in the course of time, burning the land and letting it lie fallow for a number of years or seasons ceased to be a regular practice and was replaced by more intensive methods of working the soil, requiring greater investments of labour but yielding a larger output per acre and thus making it possible to feed more mouths. The most common means of accomplishing higher yields by harder work were irrigation and ploughing.
The actual practices of agriculture varied greatly, of course, according to differences in climate and soil. Yet, wherever cultivation was intensified this led to structurally similar results. There was a recurrent sequence which almost reads like a series of simple equations: more food meant more people, living in increasingly large concentrations in permanent settlements, with the possibility for some of the people to specialize in other pursuits than tilling the land. The process of specialization, in turn, was accompanied by increasing organization of people in larger economic, religious and political units (such as markets, churches, and states), and by increasing social stratification, or a division of people into upper and lower tiers with greater or lesser access to power, property and prestige. This complex of interrelated processes unfolded in different epochs in different parts of the world. Because of the distances in place and time, those trends led to the development of apparently highly divergent cultures, marked by very specific traditions in such aspects of life as preparing food, religious worship, and the building of houses and palaces. The brilliant results of cultural divergence in those fields may easily blind us to the convergence of some underlying social trends - notably the process of social stratification.
Hypertrophy and atrophy. Social stratification as a long-term process
led to the formation of agrarian societies in which some groups managed to
attain a 'high' position with great power and privilege, while others (the
'lower' majority, consisting mostly of peasants) were deprived of such power
and privilege. This process occurred in every part of the world, from the
British Isles to
Religious-agrarian regimes have played an important part in shaping the relations between humans and the biosphere in agrarian societies. Human beings are not equipped by birth with a natural aptitude for agrarian life. They have no innate calendar telling them when the time has come for preparing the soil, for planting the seeds, for removing weeds, for harvesting. The only calendar available to them is a sociocultural one, roughly geared to the alteration of the seasons but regulated with greater precision by human convention, as a part of an agrarian regime.
Agrarian regimes provide people with the competence and the motivation needed to carry on life in an agrarian community so that they are capable and willing to work hard in order to produce crops of food, prepared to store stocks of those crops as food and seed for future use, and respectful of owner rights on the land and its produce.
A typical set of such instructions
can be found in the teachings of the Old Testament. An important function of
the priests who propagated those teachings consisted in upholding the
agrarian regime. Recognizing that function may give us a clue to a better
understanding of the prominent position of priests, not only in ancient
Wherever religious-agrarian regimes were established, however, they found themselves in the course of time in competition with, and having to make room for, military-agrarian regimes, led by warriors. Originally, in tribal agrarian societies, the warriors would include virtually all adult men, who would assemble for war on special occasions. They might go on a raid after an unsuccessful harvest, or defend their own community against invaders. In the wake of extensive and intensive growth, warring activities became more specialized - a process with an inextricable momentum that is well characterized with the term 'arms race' (cf. Wright 2000: 270). The result was that eventually most agrarian societies found themselves ruled by warriors whose primary function it was to fight - against other warriors.
While this may sound like a tautology, it actually refers to a predicament into which many agrarian societies were trapped. The majority of the people lived a farming life that was productive but also deeply vulnerable. The warriors formed a robust minority specializing in destructive violence. This simple formulation captures the basic mechanism of military-agrarian society. The peasants' productivity and vulnerability and the warriors' powers of destructive violence were drawn together like the opposite poles of a magnet. Once a warrior class was formed, the warriors needed the peasants to supply food, and the peasants needed the warriors for protection. This unplanned - and, in a profound sense, fatal - combination formed the backdrop for a great variety of mixtures of military protection and economic exploitation that generally mark the history of advanced agrarian societies.
New inventions added to the force of warriors and helped to widen the gap between them and the rest of the population. Thus, the development of metallurgy did not only create, during the Bronze and the Iron Ages, 'a whole range of valuable objects worth hoarding in quantity' (Renfrew 1972: 339) but it also supplied the weapons with which these objects might be appropriated. It reinforced the trend, present in most settled agrarian societies, toward accumulation of property, and it also turned this trend in the direction of a highly uneven distribution of the accumulated property. The possession of weapons, which had tended for a long time already to be the monopoly of adult and fully initiated men, to the exclusion of women and children, now came to be monopolized by the warriors as a specific class of 'noblemen' or 'aristocrats'. Increasingly, as the American sociologist Gerhard Lenski notes, 'the energies of this powerful and influential class were ... turned from the conquest of nature to the conquest of people' (Lenski 1987: 174).
The trend indicated by Lenski had antecedents stretching a long way back. As human dominance over many other species increased, the relations among and within human groups became increasingly important in the dynamics between humans and the biosphere. Challenges posed by other people often took precedence over challenges posed by nature.
With the intensification of
agriculture, more and more land was transformed into fields, terraces, and
meadows, yielding an increasing amount of food and other products upon which
society at large grew increasingly more dependent. Those who owned the land,
however, were inclined to regard it mainly as an economic and political asset
- a source of revenue and prestige. Since they managed to appropriate a
sizeable portion of the total wealth produced and accumulated in their
societies, increases in wealth did not result in either clearcut extensive or
intensive growth, but in a lopsided increment of luxury possessions that may
be typified as hypertrophy. The material remains from episodes of such
hypertrophy in the past are numerous; they range from the Egyptian pyramids
to the Taj Mahal, from the triumphal arches of
Hypertrophy had a reverse side: increasing poverty on the part of the peasants and the landless poor, resulting in briefer lives and shorter bodies (cf. Harris and Ross 1987: 76; Tilly 1998: 1-4). Using the same metaphor we may call this a tendency toward atrophy.
The combined trends toward hypertrophy and atrophy led to a social degradation of ecological regimes. Members of the ruling elites tended to take a greater interest in the vicissitudes of military and political affairs than in the day to day management of their rural estates. The peasants and slaves, on their part, were living in destitute circumstances which were only likely to add to their masters' contempt for those matters.
Altogether the process of stratification in advanced agrarian societies amounted to a form of differentiation, resembling the primal differentiation in behaviour, power, and habitus between humans and related species in the animal world. The crucial difference was that differentiation now took place among and within human groups themselves.
One result of social stratification was the relative decline in the esteem of ecological regimes. As elites became further divorced from the work of tilling the land, the aspects of social life directly related to the control of the natural environment were relegated to peasants and slaves and their overseeers - in other words, to the lower orders. Working the land tended to be regarded as dirty and degrading to a person of rank.
The degree to which the leading
elites became divorced from direct ecological pressures was highly important
for the way the relationships between humans and the biosphere developed in
various societies. In general, Lenski's rule, that control over people
prevailed over control over nature, applied - if only because the latter was
exercised by means of the former. As the American sociologist Randall Collins
(1986: 107) observes, the most ancient monuments of advanced agrarian
societies, the megaliths, testify to the ability of those societies to employ
'massed human energy'. Constructions such as the Egyptian pyramids embodied a
combination of technology and social organization, as did the irrigation
works in 'hydraulic societies' in river deltas from
In many cases, hypertrophy ended in catastrophe, in the collapse of established hierarchies and their cultural trappings. Still, the longterm trend toward extensive growth persisted, leading in time to continuing pressures toward ever more intensive use of the available land. More and more people came to live in villages and towns, and in the cities that emerged as the centres of accumulated power and wealth. Those who flocked the towns and cities needed large supplies of food and fuel, while at the same time creating great problems of waste disposal and pollution. Among them were specialists such as tanners and dyers whose work produced noxious side-effects. Altogether a number of environmental impacts were so obtrusive that the urban elites considered them hardly bearable and had statutes drawn up to eliminate the worst excesses of pollution of water and air.
Outside the urban centres,
however, elites do not seem to have shared such great concern for
environmental issues. In advanced agrarian societies such as medieval Europe
or late imperial
4. Industrialization: the rise of the third regime.
Historians nowadays tend to avoid the once popular term 'Industrial Revolution'. Most of them do so, not because they wish to diminish the importance of industrialization, but in order to stress that industrialization is a longterm process that was not confined to a relatively brief 'revolutionary' period in one particular country but is still continuing, and making its impact felt all over the world.
In our perspective, industrialization means the rise and spread of a third socio-ecological regime - the industrial regime, following upon the fire regime and the agrarian regime. It did not put an end to the older regimes. On the contrary, at the very core of industrialization lay new applications of fire: using fossil fuel to generate steam power and to smelt and refine iron. The smokestacks of the coal and iron industries became the icons of early industrialization.
There were also close connections with agriculture. Agrarian production had to provide a subsistence base for all workers employed in the mines and factories. Moreover, as soon as industrialization came to comprise the production of textiles and food stuffs, the raw materials had to be supplied by agriculture. And before long, factories started producing means of production for agriculture: first simple iron tools, then more complex new mechanized implements, and then, in the twentieth century, all sorts of combustion-driven machines, fertilizers, pesticides. By the end of that century, agriculture and industry in many parts of the world had become inseparable and often even barely distinguishable.
Since the beginnings of
industrialization are so much closer to us in time than the beginnings of
agrarianization, they are much better documented. There is a fairly general
consensus about the question where and when the transition first occurred: in
In the last resort, industrialization constitutes a unique historical process, which is part of the even more encompassing and equally unique process of the expansion of the anthroposphere. It will never be possible to repeat the beginnings of industrialization under experimental conditions. Attempts at 'modelling' the incipient stages under artificial circumstances can be no more than approximations, helping at best to sharpen our imagination. As in biological evolution, it is far more difficult to explain why a successful mutation or innovation arose at all than why, once it existed, it survived and became successful.
This pertains equally to the staying power of the control of fire, of agriculture, and of fossil fuel industry. The words that the sociologist David Riesman (1961: xxix) used for modernization apply to industrialization as well: it 'appears to proceed with an almost irreversible impact, and no tribe or nation has found a place to hide'. Like the earlier socio-economic regimes, the industrial regime has kept expanding; the explanation for this fact must be sought in some of its effects - its functions.
This is not to say that all effects of industrialization were beneficial in every respect. Far from it; but the point is that industrialization maintained its momentum because it apparently had certain effects or 'functions' which were valued positively by sufficient numbers of people with sufficient means to keep the process going. It is up to the human sciences (anthropology, sociology, psychology, economics, history) to trace those functions and understand the valuations.
The primary effect of industrialization was that immense supplies of fossil fuel energy were made available which had lain virtually unused by any living species. In the eighteenth century, a series of inventions made it possible for humans to start tapping those supplies and to use them for generating heat and mechanical motion. No longer were people completely dependent on the flows of energy which reach the earth from the sun and which are partly converted into vegetation by means of photosynthesis. Just as at one time humans had been able to strengthen their position in the biosphere by learning to control fire, they now learned the art of using fire to exploit the energy contained in coal, oil and gas. With the extra energy they also developed means of technology and organization enabling them to make much more extensive and intensive use of materials such as tin and copper and, subsequently, to develop a range of new 'synthetic' chemical substances.
Seen from a wide perspective, all
these developments concerned humanity at large. At closer quarters, however,
it was only a tiny section of humanity that took the lead and was the first
to profit. A small entrepeneurial class in
Still, while industrialization
began on a modestly local scale, it was from the very start enveloped in a
context of much wider range. Industrialization was preceded by European
expansion, and that gave strong impetus to it from the very start. British
society in the eighteenth century was connected in many ways to a larger
world: not just to the European continent but to other continents as well. It
had a strong navy and a big commercial fleet; trade with other continents
(including the slave trade) brought in substantial wealth; emigration across
The combined thrust of industrialization and globalization has produced an enormously accelerating rate of intensive and extensive growth all over the world. Growth did not continue evenly. There were 'peak' periods of economic development such as 1870-1913 and 1950-73 which were later dubbed 'golden ages', whereas in other periods such as 1913-50 the world economy grew much more slowly (Maddison 2001: 22). Nor did growth affect the entire world in the same way. On the contrary, up to now it has proceeded in a very uneven fashion, leading to such extremes that per capita income in the United States of America today exceeds that in Ethiopia by a factor 70 (Maddison 2001: 224, 276).
Still, while economic growth has
hardly raised the living standards of billions of people, it has affected the
economy and the forms of land use in practically every country on earth. It
has also resulted in an enormous increase in population. In the eighteenth
and nineteenth centuries, most nations in
The reduction of the death rates in the industrializing world was clearly connected with advances in public hygiene which, in turn, were predicated on a general rise in societal affluence allowing the construction of public waterworks and sewers, as well as on concomitant developments in technology and science and in standards of individual behaviour. The next phase in the demographic transition, the decrease in fertility, was conditioned by the same pair of factors: new techniques of birth control, based on scientific research, and new attitudes toward family size.
The demographic structure of contemporary societies has thus become clearly influenced by a steadily developing corpus of information by which individuals let themselves be directed in their behaviour. The information as such is a form of cultural capital: the collective result of the efforts of a great many researchers. How it is applied at the level of personal conduct depends on the way the individuals perceive their own situation and prospects - which is yet another kind of information.
The entire state of affairs is in many ways paradigmatic for contemporary society. Flows of highly complex information are widely available, in a standardized and easily understandable form. Many of them are hardly recognized as information because they come to people in the shape of material objects, delivered with a manual. Owners are apt to forget that the instructions are an integral part of the appliance. If a machine is abandoned in the absence of anyone prepared to carry out the instructions, the dead and rusting object is testimony to the vital importance of information in an age of advanced technology.
Information is the decisive principle in the organization of matter and energy. It holds global society together: the networks of long-distance transportation and communication, the worldwide division of labour and land use. Its exponential growth in the era of industrialization has enabled people to mobilize energy and matter in unprecedented quantities and over distances spanning the entire globe - often with consequences that turned out to be detrimental to the biosphere.
Assessing the physical consequences, and establishing human responsibilities is also a matter of information. In this context people sometimes speak of a paradox because one and the same factor appears as both cause and remedy (see Grübler 1998: 341). As so often, underlying the apparent paradox is a real tension, inherent in all evolutionary processes: every successful strategy of growth is bound to reach limits where further growth becomes too costly. Here the primeval 'oxygen crisis' mentioned at the beginning of this chapter can serve as a parable.
The parable fails, obviously, in one respect: although there must have been some exchange of information, there is no trace of consciousness among the bacteria of two billion years ago. This is in stark contrast to the anthroposphere today in which continuous efforts are being made to collect information and to use it intelligently. Science and technology have not only been instrumental in designing machinery that has inadvertently contributed to the depletion of natural resources and the pollution of air, water and soil - they also provide the means for monitoring and, possibly, solving environmental problems caused by human action.
Public alarm over those problems reached a first climax around 1970. The report to the Club of Rome and similar publications aroused the concern of large audiences and prompted politicians and businessmen to action. An awareness dawned that humanity might be squandering natural energy and matter in an ill-informed and irresponsible manner, creating unmanagable quantities of waste, and thus jeopardizing its own future.
The same concern is directly reflected in one of the central issues addressed in this book - in what sense are today's environmental problems really new, and to what extent? Is it mainly a matter of quantity or scale? Or do recent developments also have distinct qualitative features that make them fundamentally different from anything that happened before?
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This section is largely based on Roberts 1998.
This and the following paragraphs are based on Goudsblom 1996: 31-62.
The term functions is used here along the lines of Elias 1978 and Goudsblom 1977.