Understanding how humans shaped landscapes can guide us into the future
What are we really talking about when we say “wilderness”? And to what extent do our notions of wilderness reflect the ecological realities of our landscapes?
An idea persists among scientists, environmentalists and policymakers that human transformations in nature have been recent and inherently destructive. But studies of human-ecology interactions throughout history show that we have been shaping landscapes for over 12,000 years.
The precise moment when humans began to have a significant planetary effect is subject to debate. The Industrial Revolution, the Cold War nuclear testing, and the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution have all been offered as benchmarks.
In Ireland, the end of the last ice age some 13,000 years ago serves as a potential starting point for the ecological and cultural assemblages we see today. The plants and animals that repopulated the earth were followed closely by humans.
“We were here as soon as the oaks, wolves and bears arrived,” says activist and author Pádraic Fogarty of the Irish Wildlife Trust. “[The] the idea that humans are part of the ecosystem surely resonates more in Ireland than it does in other places.
Archaeological research around the world has revealed many landscapes of ecological value developed as a result of past human activities.
The Co Clare Burren is an example of a natural system that evolved under the influence of mankind. The ground exposed by the retreat of the last glaciers was dominated by hazel trees. But humans began to shape the landscape from the Stone Age and cleared much of it for agriculture during the Bronze Age.
Grazing and climate change have resulted in the loss of plant cover and soil, creating the often bare limestone scene we have today. But the inhospitable hinterland has become host to a rich community of alpine and Mediterranean plants that characterize a cultural landscape that is now world famous.
In a sense, the loss of native forests could be seen as a blow to Irish nature. But the Burren is also a thriving and unique natural system that balances human activity and ecological process.
The idea that humans have shaped landscapes for millennia is an idea that clashes with notions of wilderness as an idealized view of pristine nature.
“These notions place humanity here and nature there,” says Paddy Woodworth, author and journalist whose recent book explores the possibilities of restoring nature in the face of climate change.
The past provides a glimpse into how we emerged as a species capable of transforming the planet, holding information we could draw on to shape a sustainable future.
“It seems much healthier to me that we are engaged in a relationship – hopefully responsible and respectful – with the environment. But a relationship that inevitably has an impact.
Debates around the concept of wilderness are polarized. Conservationists use the wilderness setting to protect critical bastions of biodiversity and ecological refuges, but wilderness conservation programs can result in the displacement and alienation of local communities, restricting livelihoods, l ‘access to resources and cultural heritage linked to the landscape.
“The wild does not exist outside of the human realm, so we have to accept the fact that humans are entangled in the material and non-human environment,” says Dr Katja Bruisch, assistant professor of environmental history at the Trinity College Dublin.
“Once we recognize this and integrate it more consciously into our thinking and action, then it becomes more of an act of deciding what types of landscapes and natures we want,” she says.
The concept of nature protection was born at the beginning of colonization by Europeans. The creation of protected areas has excluded local populations, effectively stealing land and ignoring their knowledge. She was leaning on a frozen image of nature, ignoring its dynamism.
This has been the case in the creation of many famous national parks in the United States and African nations, adds Fogarty. He argues that the European Habitats Directive, implemented in Ireland since 1992, has some contemporary similarities:
“What really happened in Ireland was that the scientists drew the lines on the map and then the politicians gave those lines legal definitions and meanings. And for the people who lived in those areas , all it meant to them was a list of things they weren’t allowed to do.
“So the farmers ended up with land that was surrounded – they didn’t know why, they certainly didn’t gain any benefit from it, so it created a ditch. “
Rather than excluding people from conservation discussions, Bruisch suggests that we recognize how human interactions have shaped landscapes over time. Such historical understanding could form the basis for moving forward in a sustainable way that balances human needs with ecological protection.
But merging human judgment with the ecological process has its complications, she believes. “One question is who decides on the appearance of a protected landscape, and another question is what does protection really mean? Does this mean that we are driving out all human activity or is it about finding a balance that involves local communities? “
Protecting cultural heritage and social needs alongside ecological systems should be possible, according to a growing body of research. Humanity has a vast and expanding eco-cultural knowledge accumulated over millennia.
The past provides a glimpse of how we emerged as a species capable of transforming the planet, holding information we could draw on to shape a sustainable future. We can look at agriculture and urbanization, which currently cover 37% and 2.8% of the world’s land, respectively.
Many past societies have engaged in agricultural intensification. Some, like the Mayans, Anasazis and northern settlers of Greenland, collapsed. Others have prospered, and both contingencies provide insight into the sustainability and vulnerability of farming systems. The aforementioned Nordic settlers arguably met their demise due to a failure to adapt to their new conditions, superimposing the practices of their homeland on an incompatible landscape.
More than half of the current global population of over 7 billion people live in cities. While many current models of urbanization are inherently unsustainable, there are examples from the past that provide perspectives on resilience and environmental sustainability.
Byzantine Constantinople, for example, incorporated urban agriculture which contributed to food security even during sieges of several years. Peri-urban agriculture was incorporated into Beijing’s expansion in the 1950s, with 70 percent of non-essential foods produced in the city itself. This has led to the local production of high quality perishable foods such as vegetables and milk.
The millennia-old qanat water management systems found in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia offer a practical solution to water supply problems in arid environments. Providing reliable water flow, these systems are resistant to environmental changes while having low costs and technological requirements.
By challenging classical ideas of nature and conservation, we could use the past as a guide to a vibrant future
Taking into consideration the lessons of the past could mean a major shift in the way we think about our relationship with the natural world, or more than human.
“I think if we can take that kind of ethical leap to recognize that we are part of nature, that nature’s fate is our fate, and that the non-human world has a right to exist, I think you are looking for to a radically different ethic and to a whole system in which to live, ”says Fogarty.
Woodworth emphasizes moving beyond classical ideas about what nature looks like and accepting our part in its evolution. “I think we always have to ask ourselves what we think we see when we look at a landscape… when we talk about conservation and restoration, we will do it better if we understand the deep history of a landscape much better.
In scrutinizing the idea of pristine wilderness, he does not underestimate the value of preserving natural habitats for themselves and as custodians of biodiversity. Maintaining ecologically significant areas in a balanced way can help restore other degraded areas.
We could therefore visualize a mosaic of land use practices that allow human societies to thrive while supporting the ecological systems that underpin them. By challenging classical ideas of nature and conservation, we could use the past as a guide to a vibrant future, rather than aiming for a lost snapshot of an idealized landscape.
The Burren draws on human influence to thrive the way it was shaped. The visions behind it provide a model that could be replicated across Ireland. Perhaps when we recognize the landscape’s entanglement with human history in a constructive light, we could see a renewed optimism in how we view our ecological impact.
Fogarty adds: “We need to be more flexible and adaptive and more tolerant of change than we have been – and I think that’s pretty exciting.