You are on page 1of 6

Feretich 1

Nicole Feretich
Professor Djelal
March 6, 2014
The Interaction Between the Degradation of Environments and Decline of Civilizations
There is an inevitable correlation between civilizations and the environment.
Plagues and natural disasters have vast impacts on populations while the way inhabitants
of environments live can have negative consequences on that environment. What causes
changes in the composition of environments is typically anthropogenic. When a
civilization begins declining, it is made outwardly evident through the environment
whether by environmental cycles or by the complete-irreversible degradation of it (the
environment). Through shortsighted human actions, environments are either changed or
wiped out completely.
The Ruined Landscape Theory or the Lost Eden Theory claims human
actions led to the degradation of the landscapes of the Mediterranean. Curtis Runnels, in
his journal Environmental Degradation in Ancient Greece, noted that this theory is
relatively new and contrasts the previous thoughts of 19
-century Romantics, who
viewed the ancient Greeks as careful stewards of the land that they held to be filled with
gods. Hesiod touches upon this idea of stewardship in The Works and Days. Each
generation following the Olympians began to slowly disrespect the land more and more
and abandoned their duties as stewards of the earth. They began to stop paying honors to
the gods, which typically involved sacrifices or maintaining what the gods have given to
them, which is what led to degradation according to ancient thinking.
Feretich 2
Jacques Blondel, in his journal The Design of Mediterranean Landscapes: A
Millennial Story of Humans and Ecological Systems during the Historic Period, says that
the two extremes of the Ruined Landscape theory and the previous Romantic ideas
challenge each other but you need to understand both before coming to a conclusion for
yourself. The coevolution of the environment and its inhabitants shapes interactions that
take place. Human action, in the views of some, resulted in cumulative degradation and
desertification of Mediterranean landscapes while another school of thought claims that
human actions contributed to the upkeep of these landscapes.
Runnels was a part of a project that investigated the usage of ancient lands (along
with Berit Wells and Eberhard A.W. Zangger) where he found evidence of many ruins
being anthropogenic. They found Neolithic items scattered in areas uninhabited and
virtually uninhabitable due to being devoid of soil and vegetation. In another project
(with Michael H. Jameson and Tjeerd H. Andel) he observed various sites of soil erosion
in Greece. Climate was ruled not to be the (main) cause of the soil erosion because if that
were so, the erosion would not be so scattered or timed so differently. The variations in
placement and timing make it easy to point the finger at humans; after having cultivated
all they could and grazing, they would leave for a better, less eroded environment now
that they had destroyed their own via extensive and permanent erosion.
There are more specific and detrimental examples of humans effects on the
environment, one being Mesopotamia during the Bronze Age (3000-1000 BC). To us
now, Mesopotamia is desolate mounds in a desert environment. Again, this is not due to
either climate change or even warfare but due to an ecological disaster caused by human
actions. In Pans Travail by J. Donald Hughes, the cultural decline in Mesopotamia and
Feretich 3
how it indefinitely led to the environmental degradation is discussed. There was the
continual danger of flooding which destroyed settlements and fields. Salinization
(accumulation of salts in the soil) occurred due to this unpredictable and frequent
flooding. There was poor drainage and ground water become very saline. Farmers could
not adapt, so they would move to another land until that one had suffered the same fate
due to the people irrigating and cultivating. Hughes claims that Mesopotamia shows the
clearest relationship between environmental degradation caused by human and cultural
A civilization to note would be that of the ancient Egyptians. They, too, had
flooding but it was predictable. This predictability is mentioned in Timaeus by Plato; A
priest says that the predictability in the Egyptian environment allowed them to have
tradition, while the Greeks are constantly getting wiped out by disasters so they make
up for a lack of tradition with myths that attempt to explain their ecological situations.
Although the Egyptians had the advantage of predictability in flooding, they were not
free from the destruction caused by their own hands. As Hughes said, Even the most
dependable system will fail with overpopulation (Hughes, 40). Because there was an
influx of population, what was previously considered a good harvest became one that
would create famine in the land. The watered lands of Egypt held forests but cultivation
led to the deforestation of these parts of the land. The Egyptians also hunted many
animals to the point where there was habitat destruction. Egypt, at the end of ancient
times, was vastly different environmentally. This did not affect their culture much,
however, being that they are rooted in tradition (as mentioned in Timeaus) and self-
sufficient as a people.
Feretich 4
More specifically about Greek & Roman civilizations: the ancients could not find
a balance between economies and environment, thereby demanding too much of natural
resources which led to depletion of these resources. The environmental factors of climate
change and epidemics combined with the human factors of deforestation and erosion led
to the decline of the environment. Generally, men failed to support nature.
There were shortages of wood and the prices were inflated. Taxes were collected
via the agriculture, so some men would own a lot of land while others had little to none.
The land ruled much of society, but as mentioned previously with Egypt, the land the
Greeks and Romans inhabited could not support overpopulation. The factors of food
shortages, rising prices and overpopulation threatened the Roman Empire as a whole, at
one point.
Sewage led to the infestation of bugs and vermin, which led to illnesses within the
cities. Athens used raw sewage as fertilizer for fields, which was not good for human
health, as discussed by Hughes. The cities were filled with too much sewage and too little
space; it was a breeding ground for epidemics. Hughes states, Ancient cities devoured
their own populations (Hughes, 193).
So, what can be gathered from the previous information is that shortsighted
human activity led to environmental issues, which cycled back to the populations and
caused decline in civilizations. The draining of natural resources has a correlation with
the lives of the people who depended on those resources.
Greeks and Romans did have many positive and forward thinking plans and laws
in place to benefit the environment but they also had negative ones which through time
became more and more destructive. Western civilizations lost their living and nonliving
Feretich 5
heritages because of this. As mentioned previously, there was a coevolution of the
environment and populations. When a balance could not be found, both the environment
and humans suffered together. Environmental changes (as a result of human activities)
are regarded as one of the more prevalent causes of decline in ancient Greek and Roman
civilizations. The depletion of natural resources and the abuse of the land weakened the
populations during these times. When balance could not be found, sustainability was not
attained thus resulting in environmental and civilization declines and destruction.

Feretich 6
Works Cited:
Blondel, Jacques. "The Design of Mediterranean Landscapes: A Millennial Story of
Humans and Ecological Systems during the Historic Period." Human Ecology34.5
(2006): 713-29. Print.
Hesiod,"The Works and Days." The Works and Days Theogony The Shield of Herakles.
Trans. Richmond Lattimore. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1959. N.
pag. Print.
Hughes, J. Donald. "Ecological Crises in Earlier Societies Environmental Problems and
the Decline of Civilizations." Pan's Travail: Environmental Problems of the
Ancient Greeks and Romans. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1994. N. pag. Print.
Plato. "Timaeus." Timaeus and Critias. Trans. Desmond Lee. N.p.: Penguin, 2008. N.
pag. Print.
Runnels, Curtis N. "Environmental Degradation in Ancient Greece." Scientific
American 272.3 (1995): 96-99. Print.