Civilisation and the Environment

In recent years, decades if you have paid attention many environmental issues have been addressed. The environment here is nature in its broadest sense minus the human population. Since the 2000s the intensity on environmentally issues apparently increased as politician Al Gore had to give many issues a Hollywood twist. As much as it is important to take the environment and the human influence serious, I am increasingly annoyed by all the “save-the-planet” hype without regard for history.

I understand the importance of propaganda for organisations and activists. You have a message, that message has to be heard to spread awareness and using the right approach, presentation and words helps in achieving that awareness. Increasingly I get the impression that sound bites in social media instead of education are becoming more important. Instead of sound bites I would like to see that people look into the history of humanity and civilisation.

For those among you who say “history repeats itself” and “history is not important” or even dare to remark “is it not that history is dead and in the past?” I have only two words, fuck you. People who make no effort to understand their history do not realise where they come from, the roots of their culture and their family from older generations. People who only live in the now are the perfect test subject for modern marketers by their sheer stupidity.

In the current environment issues stupidity only makes things worse. The earth is a planet with limited resources. Limited resources are finite and gone at one point and when that happens human life can deteriorate. To understand how access to natural resources sustains human life and civilisations you have to look at history. There are many examples spread through millennia of human history. Whenever the environment was no longer able to provide the required resources, the civilisation either died  or moved.

There has always been a direct relationship between what a civilisation needs to survive and the present and accessible natural resources. Now one thing needs to be clear. In the context of this essay a civilisation is essentially a human community that has settled on one location where it mostly survives on agricultural harvests to sustain a complex society of people in higher and lower ranks with specialised tasks. In general the earliest and often cited example is Mesopotamia in the fertile crescent now known as the Middle-East.

How humans have exactly mastered the first agricultural processes to extract food from nature is not entirely clear. According to some historians and researchers around 6.000 before Christ though the sedentary civilisation of Mesopotamia did learn how to master the agricultural processes that allowed it to harvest enough food to create food surpluses. The ability to create food surpluses is of vital importance for growth here.

What was of vital importance thousands of years ago is still valid. In the world of today the human population can only be sustained and  grow if first of all food surpluses continue to exist to take care of everyone and then some. This is the cost of civilisation for the environment. The human civilisation requires enough food and water to keep its population alive. Then additional natural resources are required for additional processes, specialised tasks and applied technology in a given civilisation.

A good example of the cost of civilisation for the environment is the Easter Island case. A small group of colonists inhabited the island, probably Polynesian and that small group had a good enough life there to grow in size. As the population grew, the need for natural resources increased. As the population was limited to a small island the natural resources where definitely limited. Despite having limited natural resources the now disappeared civilisation there was able to carve out and transport massive stone statues that are still impressive. This civilisation also exhausted its natural resources and disappeared, its history remained only present in massive statues and old traces of civilisation.

The most important lesson from Easter Island is that its civilisation did not pay attention to its ever decreasing supply of natural resources. The people kept doing their thing and the population kept growing. Fast forward to the 21st century and look around you. People do their thing and the world population continues to grow. At one point there comes a point that there are too many people on the planet and then what? It is also known and proven that in the U.S. and Europe enormous quantities of food are wasted because consumers keep doing their thing. Right, how is that even possible?

When you like me dig deeper and research the issues related to the environmental costs of civilisation you will find many things that are simply depressing and confront you with yourself as a consumer. I cannot write this essay without thinking “I am a hypocrite to preach but at least I reflect on my consumer existence”. As a kid my father, an old Catholic told us about how the older civilisations around the fertile crescent did not just exploit natural resources until they were gone. The had learned how to keep the earth fertile and healthy. The Old Testament even refers to measures to keep agricultural grounds healthy to prevent exhaustion.

The concern for the environment is deeply rooted in old traditions and beliefs related to life. Look at the ancient Egyptian culture, the Persians, the Babylonians and especially the Mediterranean Sea regions with its favourable climate. Concern for how the human civilisation affects its environment is at least thousands of years old and there is much to discover. If anything is going to change the how we, people are going to treat our environment it will be education. A like is one thing. Not wasting good food and the durable consumption of goods have more effect.

I am tired of hearing or reading another sound bite without substance. As someone who is aware of his consumer existence I attempt to waste as little as possible and to consume as durable as possible. I purchase the groceries I really need or appreciate in just enough quantities, too much is unnecessary. My efforts are not enough on the long-term though. As much as I know now I have to continue to educate myself to lead a more sustainable life. In the end that is what I think everyone should do, educate yourself and think about your choices. As I am privileged to live where I live I have to make the best of it.


For this essay I drew inspiration from my father, my dear friends, Clive Ponting’s “A Green History of the World”, Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel” and other books I have read in the past years. I know that not everyone agrees with Jared Diamond’s opinions. Even so his writings are still worthwhile if you are interested in his perspective on certain matters.