Optimism doesn’t come naturally to an environmentalist. Nevertheless, there’s been an unusually positive tone among climate activists in recent weeks. With the news that the United States has rejoined the Paris Agreement, China’s surprise announcement that it plans to become carbon neutral by 2060 and surging investment in renewable energy, there’s a sense that we might just manage to avoid the worst of anthropogenic climate change and environmental destruction.Buoying this fragile optimism is the ever increasing popularity of environmentalism among the general public. A 2018 survey of 26 countries found that, on average, more than two thirds of adults regard climate change as “a major threat to their nation,” and a majority of the respondents in 13 of those countries consider it the single greatest threat facing them. In 2019, an estimated 6 million people around the world took part in a climate strike.
The enthusiasm for environmentalism is heartening. But by itself it doesn’t necessarily translate into effective action. Without scientific rigour and historical awareness, well‐meaning environmentalists can come to accept unsubstantiated beliefs about the natural world and humanity’s relationship with it. These beliefs can inspire unproductive—or even counterproductive—actions.
One of the oldest and most influential of these beliefs is the myth of ancient environmental wisdom. This is the idea that our current ecological woes can all be traced back to the industrial revolution. Before that time, it’s argued, our ancestors lived in harmony with the natural world. This was partly due to the nature of preindustrial life: in a time before planes, pesticides and petrochemicals, there were simply fewer ways for people to damage the environment. More importantly, however, the myth insists that our ancestors were guided by respect and reverence towards our planet, and refused to act in ways that were unsustainable or destructive. It was the loss of this connection with the Earth, during the advent of industrialisation and mass urbanisation, that began our rapid descent into climate chaos.
The moral is simple: to save our planet, we must recover the environmental wisdom of our ancestors.
Activists, charities and NGOs frequently advocate “ancient wisdom” and “ancestor-approved approaches” as solutions to the climate crisis. “Our ancestors lived in harmony with the land,” claims Greenpeace, “staying mindful of the ecological boundaries of the natural world and not taking from the land more than they needed.” Veteran environmentalist Tom Hayden dedicated an entire book, The Lost Gospel of the Earth, to the revival of “the ancient awe of our sacred environment.” On World Environment Day 2020, Ram Nath Kovind, the president of India, declared that “our ancient wisdom taught us to protect biodiversity and conserve the environment.”
Exactly what this ancient wisdom tells us depends on who you ask. For some people, it simply means spending more time in nature. For others, it tells us to resurrect and reimagine old belief systems, as has happened with neo-paganism. For most people, however, ancient environmental wisdom means the rejection of industrialised and globalised practices in favour of local, homespun solutions: organic farming over industrial agriculture; locally grown produce over freighted supermarket goods; natural materials over synthetics; handmade over mass-produced, and so on. Through choices such as these we may be able to reduce our environmental impact and recover something of that lost golden age of ecological enlightenment.
The only problem? No such golden age ever existed.
Curiously, people very rarely offer evidence to support the notion that our ancestors lived environmentally friendly lives. It’s generally simply assumed that, since today’s industrial societies are so out of sync with the natural world, preindustrial societies must have been innately attuned to the Earth.
But the available evidence doesn’t support this assumption. Whenever and wherever we choose to look, humans have demonstrated a capability and willingness to over-exploit and degrade the natural world in ways that argue strongly against any ancient environmental wisdom over and above what we possess today.
In the centuries before industrialisation, for instance, agricultural societies were already driving a number of species towards extinction. Bears and wolves were deliberately pushed out of Western Europe, where they survive today only in remote and disconnected pockets. The Asiatic lion and cheetah, both of which historically roamed throughout much of India and the Middle East, were similarly persecuted and driven into ever smaller territories. Others weren’t so lucky: the auroch, the wild ancestor of cattle, was hunted to extinction in Poland during the seventeenth century. The dodo, Steller’s sea cow and the three metre-tall elephant bird were also wiped out before industrialisation.
Even further back in time, our ancestors were responsible for significant levels of deforestation across much of the world. For example, there’s evidence to suggest that many pre-Columbian civilisations, such as the Maya of Central America, practiced slash-and-burn agriculture, leading to drops in biodiversity, carbon sequestration and soil health. A 2016 study likewise found that prehistoric hunter-gatherers in Europe may have been deliberately burning back forests since the Ice Age, some 20,000 years ago.
Our ancestors damaged the natural world in a variety of other ways, too. In ancient Mesopotamia, the intensification of irrigated farming 4,000 years ago led to catastrophic increases in soil salinity, transforming fertile grasslands into barren, salt-choked deserts. In the islands of the Pacific, the inadvertent introduction of rats and other invasive species by Polynesian explorers in the first millennium CE put pressure on the islands’ unique ecosystems, possibly pushing vulnerable species, such as ground-nesting birds, to extinction.
None of this is to demonise preindustrial societies as especially destructive or ignorant, nor is it to dismiss the enormous environmental destruction wrought by our own industrial societies today. What it does suggest, however, is that there was no widespread environmentalist ethic among our preindustrial ancestors—or, if such wisdom did exist, that it was unable to prevent environmentally destructive acts.
What, then, are we to make of contemporary efforts to recapture this non-existent wisdom? Some of these are innocent enough. It’s hard to see what harm could come from choosing to spend more time in nature or learning about ancient belief systems. Where the myth can become counter-productive, however, is in its distrust of industrialised society. Not only is this distrust hopelessly quixotic in the twenty-first century, it overlooks the many positive developments in modern environmentalism—the continued development of carbon-neutral technology and the growing global cooperation on meeting climate goals, for example—that are dependent on our globalised, industrialised world. Industrialisation may have got us into this mess, but that doesn’t mean it can’t get us out of it.
What won’t get us out if this mess are the low-tech solutions offered by believers in the myth of ancient environmental wisdom. We can’t rely on organic farming, for example, to solve the problem of sustainable agriculture—not because organic farms are particularly bad for the environment, but because they are less efficient at growing food than modern, industrial farms, and so require more land. This wasn’t a problem before industrialisation, when the global population never topped 1 billion. But in a world home to almost 8 billion people, there’s simply not enough land to feed everyone using organic methods. We can’t afford to abandon the efficiencies of modern, industrial farming, regardless of how we may personally feel about its reliance on artificial pesticides and fertilisers, genetically modified crops and monocultures.
Other attempts to revive a lost environmental golden age also run into problems. Consider the preference for natural over artificial materials. Shouldn’t we opt for biodegradable materials, like the ones our ancestors used, if we want to help the planet? Not necessarily. You might think it makes sense to choose paper bags over plastic, for instance, but the manufacture of a paper bag releases four times as much carbon into the atmosphere as a plastic bag. (A cotton tote bag, meanwhile, releases a whopping 173 times as much carbon as plastic.)
What about locally grown produce? Surely food that’s been grown on your doorstep is better for the Earth than produce that’s been shipped halfway around the world? Again, it depends. Transport isn’t the only factor contributing to an agricultural product’s carbon footprint: there are also the growing methods employed, the amount of fertiliser needed, water use, storage time and processing costs, to name just a few. Add these up, and transport isn’t always the biggest source of emissions—meaning that locally grown food isn’t always the greenest option. A 2006 study discovered that it’s four times more energy efficient for someone in the United Kingdom to buy lamb imported from New Zealand than it would be to buy British lamb. Once again, the efficiencies of modern industry shouldn’t be overlooked just because that’s not how our ancestors did things.
Ultimately, the problem with the myth of ancient environmental wisdom is that it’s an unevidenced—and thus unscientific—belief. And, if environmentalism is to capitalise on the positive momentum that’s been building in recent months, it must continue to pursue solutions informed by science, not belief. We can’t return to an environmental golden age that never existed, and we’re not helping the planet by rejecting industrialisation in the false hope that we can. The myth may hold a certain romantic allure, but it’s time we let it go. For those of us concerned about the natural world, that really would be a reason to feel optimistic.