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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

Producer Sandy Tolan takes us on a journey through human civilizations and the causes of their environmental decline, as we attempt to understand the deeper causes of how we got to where we are today.


CURWOOD: The language of environmental decline, unheard of a generation ago, is now familiar to us all. Ozone depletion, global warming, soil erosion, endangered species, smog. Words so commonplace now our eyes may glaze over when we encounter them. Today, some assign blame for particular problems to particular culprits. Logging companies, population growth, consumer demand, exhaust pouring out of tailpipes. Yet there may be more fundamental causes of environmental loss. To some the problems stem from an ethic of exploitation imported first to the Americas by Columbus, an ethic now prevailing across the world. Others say we may never emerge from our environmental morass unless we understand that the roots of the problem go much deeper, thousands of years more distant. That they are perhaps as old as humanity itself. Living on Earth producer Sandy Tolan takes us on a journey through time as we attempt to understand how we got to where we are today.


TOLAN: One night a few years ago I was in a tiny Indian village in South America. The village was nestled in the Amazon. It had no lights, no roads, no running water. But it was in the midst of Ecuador's oil country, and so it was a tiny island in a whirl of change. Late one evening, in a wooden shack on stilts, a young man swung slowly in his hammock, telling me how life used to be before the coming of western man only 15 years before. His name was Toribe.

TORIBE: (Speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: The whole structure of our lives has changed. The changes have been so fast. So many things, one on top of the other. Our forefathers, they lived miraculous lives. We hunted in peace wherever we wanted to go. We worked our field. We lived from the natural medicines. With the coming of the petroleum companies came the epidemics. We didn't know anything about the flu, the measles, almost all the region was hit. Many fled from here. Those that stayed were finished.

TOLAN: Toribe's hands cast giant shadows on the warped gray walls of the shack. They told stories of the Texaco helicopters, the seismic explosions, the pipelines and roads, the invasion of settlers, the oil spills, the poisoned river, the shaman who died of drink and a broken heart. Today, still, I hear the echoes of the American expansion west, of the Spanish conquest 4 centuries before that. Down in the Ecuadorian rainforest, history is repeating itself.

TORIBE (through translator): There were 70,000 of us. Now, there are only about 3,000 of us.

TOLAN: It's an old story: the legacy of Columbus, of colonial expansion being played out again and again. But perhaps this is just one part of an even older story, a story perhaps as old as human civilization. For it seems many people, long before Columbus, got into deep trouble themselves.

(A vehicle rolls across terrain)

FERGUSON: We're on the Sioux Indian reservation.

TOLAN: Four thousand mile to the north, in the Badlands, at the edge of Lakota Sioux Indian country, I'm in the back seat of a 4-wheel drive with a grizzly old rancher and an archaeologist heading towards a blackening sky in the snarl of canyons.

HANNUS: My name is Adrian Hannus. I am an archaeologist. I'm on the teaching faculty at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

FERGUSON: My name is Les Ferguson. I've lived in this country all of my life.

TOLAN: We slope down through fields of wild grass and sunflowers, toward the traces of the first civilization in the Americas and maybe the first environmental problems.

FERGUSON: Across right down in that brush.

(Sound of movement through tall grasses)

TOLAN: Twelve thousand years ago, near the end of the last ice age, perhaps the first bands of nomadic hunters crossed the frozen Alaskan land bridge and began to populate a hemisphere. Carrying spears, these Clovis people traveled south into a new land, encountering the mastodon, camels, saber-toothed cats, beavers the size of bears, and the woolly mammoth.

HANNUS: We can probably find some fragments of mammoth bone coming out along this butte over here.

FERGUSON: Now see here, here's some of our bones that we're looking for right now, coming out clear over here, you see.

TOLAN: But it's not just mammoth bones the old man and the professor have discovered in the Badlands. Lying in the rib cages of the ice-age elephants, they found spear points from the Clovis Indians. The people believed to be the first Americans had a taste for mammoth meat and the skill to fell the 16-foot giants with their spears. But for all their knowledge and hunting skill, the Clovis may not have known how to protect their sustenance for future generations. In digs like this lies evidence for a provocative and controversial theory: that the Clovis hunters wiped out the mammoth and dozens of other species. Jared Diamond of UCLA says the Clovis people triggered an extinction Blitzkrieg.

DIAMOND: Within 200 years of the arrival of Clovis hunters, we see the extinction of the mammoths, the ground sloths, Harrison's mountain goat, other animals whose ancestors had been in the New World for millions of years. They're gone within 100 or 200 years of the arrival of the first Indian hunters.

HANNUS: At the time that this hunting was occurring, these were just about the last mammoths.

TOLAN: The Blitzkrieg theory is of course impossible to prove or disprove. Some say it's ecological revisionism designed to assuage the guilt of European descendants and make all society's ethics appear equal. Make the Clovis the Stone Age equivalents of the culture that produced the Exxon Valdez, that ruined Ecuadorian rainforest.

HANNUS: You know, this probably is, Les. It's probably elephant, it's probably mammoth. Juvenile. It's a part of a pelvis.

TOLAN: Adrian Hannus thinks the mammoths may have been done in more by massive climate change at the end of the last ice age. Yet he says perhaps the mammoth, teetering on the brink, got a final push from the Clovis.

HANNUS: When you have a predator that is the ultimate predator, humans, thrown into the equation, it certainly is an important factor.

TOLAN: Even if the Clovis provided just that final push, it was only one early part, says Hannus, of a long human history of self-inflicted wounds.

HANNUS: The cultural system, if it overshoots its environment and there's nowhere for the people to move to, to a different environment that they can further exploit, you can ultimately see the end of a system or a system that breaks apart and, you know, scatters itself. And that is in the archaeological record time after time.

(The sound of wind)

TOLAN: A great cathedral of red rock, a scattering of trees and pale green sage in the sharply-lit highland terrain of what would become northern New Mexico. Another culture is at its peak, the Anasazi. Master astronomers, traders, builders of roads, holders of a vibrant culture that stretched for thousands of square miles. The center was a Chaco canyon. Now, there are ruins there.

(Wind continues)

TOLAN: The descendants of the Anasazi, including the Hopis in Arizona, don't like to talk about what happened. Not to outsiders. But some others will.

SMITH: I will sing you a song, one of those grinding songs. It goes like this. Ya yo we ho, lalawe....

TOLAN: The song is a thousand years old, says Tucson Smith. It's what the Anasazi women used to sing when they were grinding corn.

(Smith continues to sing)

TOLAN: He's a maintenance man at Chaco, one of those invisible people in the national parks who keep the roads clean and the lights burning. He's Navajo, a storyteller.

SMITH: It is a very good song, but it makes me cry.

TOLAN: We stand by the side of the road in the wind and shadows of a steep mesa, in view of where the Anasazi homes once stood.

SMITH: Those people were what you call holy people. They talked to the wind, understand the wind. What is going to happen next.

TOLAN: Among the holy people, says Tucson Smith, there was a gambler. A gambler who didn't know his limits. Who in revenge for being cheated started a great fire and destroyed everything. There's a similar story about the Anasazi from a tribe to the north, near where the mammoth bones lie, where the Lakota people live today. Charlotte Black Elk, a Lakota oral historian, tells their story of the Anasazi, or the Ana Ana.

BLACK ELK: The Ana Ana, over a period of time, became so removed from the land that they took resources, too much resources from the land. And when there was nothing to hold the trees together, they began to die and because there were no trees there to block the water, all of the alive soil ran off. And then the soil that wasn't alive was left there, and it could not support the food and the grasses. That contributed to the creek areas becoming clogged and the creeks drying up.

TOLAN: Because they wouldn't let the land rest, says Charlotte Black Elk, the Anasazi devastated their own home, and so they had to leave.

BLACK ELK: And those that weren't killed by enemies were incorporated into neighboring peoples, and so they just kind of bled out of existence.

TOLAN: Charlotte Black Elk's expertise is to explore the common ground between scientific hypothesis and old Lakota legends. The lesson from both Lakota and Navajo stories is this: the Anasazi created their own problems. And in fact that understanding, as passed through oral history, is now shared by many scientists.

BETANCOURT: We were driving around in an old '49 beat up Chevrolet pickup truck. We got to Chaco Canyon, we pulled out the maps, looked at the elevation, and, you know, at 6,100 to 6,300 feet in elevation that elevational range should support pinyon juniper woodland. And yet it looked like beat-up Mongolian steppe.

TOLAN: At Chaco Canyon, paleobotanist Julio Betancourt has been trying to figure out why there are hardly any trees at Chaco. He's been examining ancient piles of sticks and grasses collected for shelters by a species of local rodents, pack rats. For centuries, these pack rat middens lay undisturbed in dry caves. Then 20 years ago Betancourt came along. He knew that in order to figure out whether the vegetation was different before the Anasazi arrived, all he had to do was study the pack rat middens, the ancient time capsules of local vegetation.

BETANCOURT: Almost every sample that you picked up had pinyon pine and juniper in it, and yet pinyon pine was not anywhere in sight. And at that point I realized that something grave had happened at Chaco Canyon and not, not a long time ago.

TOLAN: Through carbon dating and pollen analysis, Betancourt could tell that the vegetation changed drastically after the Anasazi arrived. As their culture grew, the pinyons and juniper began to disappear, and this he believes happened all over the ancient Southwest.

BETANCOURT: This is not just Chaco Canyon. This is a scenario that probably played itself over and over and over again throughout the Southwest, whether we're talking about the Anasazi or the Hohokum or the Molyon. The prehistoric peoples in the Southwest, prehistoric Indians, had tremendous impact on their environment.

(Sounds of a fire and crickets)

TOLAN: Did the Anasazi lose their way? Were they themselves the engineers of their own demise? It's something to ponder, sitting by the fire under the spectacular Chaco night sky. And what of the others? The Clovis, the Maya, the builders of Rome and Petra and Tehuatihuacan? Is this destructive power inherent in human nature, or as Harvard's E.O. Wilson asks, is humanity suicidal? Wilson is a pioneer of sociobiology. He says the evolution of the human brain prepared us well for immediate dangers threatening the family, but not for seeing much beyond our own tribe, our own generation.

WILSON: It doesn't matter that that evolutionary process may be leading an entire species to the precipice. It doesn't matter because there is nothing in the species to foresee what will be happening 10 generations down the line or 20. Only what is happening right at the moment. Now, with that cardinal principle of evolution, that is, evolution seen at short-sighted, then it is to be expected that human beings will be myopic. That is to say they'll have a hard time reasoning why they should care what might come about 100 or 200 years hence. So we therefore work like some great all-devouring juggernaut and it takes a considerable stretch of the intellect to start thinking in terms of centuries-long future.

BLACK ELK: Our stories say that those who didn't learn no longer are here. That they've been cleansed from the Earth.

TOLAN: Charlotte Black Elk lives with a different philosophy. Her great grandfather was a famous Lakota holy man. Westerners, she says, tend to gloss over differences between people, but it's too simple to lay the blame on human genetics. Societies do have real differences, Charlotte Black Elk says, based on ethics, world views, and rooted in the different values embedded in origin legends.

BLACK ELK: Look at the origin legend of Genesis, and what does Genesis tell you? It tells you that because of a transgression humans were banished. So the place of exile is the face of the Earth. It's an enemy, it produces brambles and thistles and thorns, and that man will live when it dominates this enemy. Whereas for Lakota people we say you live with the choices you make. Every single thing you do in life is a choice. It's a conscious choice. And that the result of every choice has impacts for 4 and 7 generations.

TOLAN: The Lakota oral historian will get no argument here from the Harvard professor. But E.O. Wilson says preservation ethics among Native American tribes are not innate to an Indian human nature. He believes these ethics were learned from terribly hard lessons in the far-away past.

WILSON: A general trait of early people was to eat up everything they could get their hands on, and to become conservationist only when finally they realized that it was necessary for their survival.

TOLAN: And in fact, much native legend is filled with stories of ancient transgressions. Of warnings not to repeat the mistakes of the past. This is Edward Valandra of the Rosebud Sioux reservation.

VALANDRA: Certainly in Lakota oral history, we have narratives saying our conduct seriously threatened the natural world. And we paid a price for that. We were admonished. We paid a price.

TOLAN: The price: a recognition of limits. A lesson learned and incorporated into the beliefs of many native people. A lesson that E.O. Wilson says is just beginning to be transmitted into the Western experience.

WILSON: The reason why we are conspicuously lacking it in Western cultures, including the American culture, is that we have just concluded a, several centuries of worldwide colonization in which we always had another place to go. When the place that we ruined was no longer sustainable. Finally when you come to the other shore, and finally when a few generations have suffered, then you begin to think like a conservationist.

(Fog horns and shushing waves)

TOLAN: Nineteen ninety-five, Gloucester, Massachusetts. This is my home. The British set up the first fishing fleet in the colonies here in 1623. For centuries the town lived and died from the sea. Men came home in boats hip deep in cod and haddock. Now, they're closing it down. The fishermen, with their fish finders and small mesh nets, took too much. The grand banks are fished out. A way of life is disappearing.

(Fishermen speak: "Hooray for me and to hell with the other guy." "Why don't you say it's the government's fault?" "The government's at fault, too. You know why the government's at fault?")

TOLAN: And now I sit and talk to the old Italian men of the sea on wooden benches in front of the St. Peter's Club. The patron saint of the fishermen no longer protects them, or their schools of fish.

MAN: They stop because there are no fish. Before you happy, you go fishing. You'd stay 5 days or 10 days, 11 days. You get a, $40 or $50 a pound of fish. But now you stay at all 13 days or 14 days, you know what you'll get? $10 or $15. Sometimes you get nothing. It's all over. It's dead.

TOLAN: It's all over, he says. It's dead. At least for a long time. If the grand banks ever come back, perhaps then we'll know better. And yet, says UCLA's Jared Diamond, it didn't have to be this way.

DIAMOND: We are persisting when we ought to know better. Whereas past societies persisted without being able to know better. When Mayan society was collapsing, the Mayans had no knowledge that society in the Fertile Crescent had already collapsed because of salinization. They had no knowledge of the fall of the Roman Empire several hundred years before that. So they could not learn the lessons. And similarly when Easter Island society collapsed in the 1600 and 1700s, the Easter Islanders had no knowledge that classic Maya civilization had collapsed 800 years before that. They could not learn those lessons. And yet we can.

(Fog horns and sea swells)

MAN: Before you get a lot of fish, now there's no fish. The fishermen, they get nothing.

TOLAN: For Living on Earth, this is Sandy Tolan in Gloucester, Massachusetts.

MAN: This is all over, all over the world now, isn't it?


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