- Specific principles
- Book title
- Principles of environmental sciences
- Pages (from-to)
- Dordrecht: Springer
- Document type
- Faculty of Science (FNWI)
- Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics (IBED)
Among the environmental problems identified as such today are some that already have a very long history. Pleistocene hunter-gatherers in Australia changed Australian ecosystems greatly, may have contributed to the extinction of some plant and animal species and caused significant pollution especially by their use of fire (Goudsblom 1992; Reijnders 2006). The problems of soil erosion and salinisation have plagued agricultural communities for millennia, as pointed out by Ponting in Chapter 5. Furthermore, as again noted by Ponting, agriculture has from its very inception ‘rolled back’ living nature, with a substantial impact on natural ecosystems and biodiversity (also Roberts 1989). From their earliest beginnings mining and metalworking have been associated with toxic impacts (Lucretius 1951; Hughes 1980). Similarly, indoor use of open indoor fires must have had a negative impact on lung function from the very outset. And in cities there is a long tradition of nuisances associated with productive activities, transport and wastes (Hoesel 1990). This does not mean that what we now consider to be environmental problems were viewed as such in the past or indeed even recognized at all. It does seem likely, however, that there has been substantial continuity in how certain environmental problems have been perceived and managed over the ages. A case in point is the nuisance caused by excessive noise and bad smells, a long-standing source of irritation for city-dwellers. References to such forms of nuisance are to be found in contemporary descriptions of Roman and Judaic cities of the classical era and the same holds for the cities of medieval Europe. There is a long tradition of pragmatic efforts to limit such nuisance, again dating back to classical Roman and Judaic times and continuing in Europe throughout the Middle Ages. Abatement measures included imposition of limits on the offending activities (e.g. limited access for carriages), physical planning (e.g. separating odorous production facilities from dwellings) and technological change (e.g. using horse-drawn sleighs instead of wheeled carriages). Legal means were usually invoked to implement such measures, in these cases Roman law, Judaic Halacha and medieval city ordinances.
Interestingly, similar basic approaches to environmental problems are still prevalent in much of environmental policy today. At the same time, though, major discontinuities are also apparent. From a historical perspective, some of the views currently held in the west about the relationship between man and living nature may seem relatively eccentric. Animistic religions often attribute supernatural powers to elements of their natural surroundings. A theocentric religion like Judaism sees nature as being in God's hand. The God of Judaism treats nature as he sees fit (Gerstenfeld 1999). Within such systems of belief there are limits as to how living nature may decently be treated. In all cases, though, these limits are of supernatural origin. Contemporary arguments in favour of nature conservation, for instance that natural species have intrinsic value or legal status in and of themselves, are very different and quite alien to theocentric and animistic systems of belief. Such notions are likewise at variance with the important tradition in classical Mediterranean and Near Eastern beliefs that nature was created for mankind (Cohn 1999). Furthermore, deterioration of natural resources has traditionally often been viewed as supernatural revenge for transgression of divine precepts or as the work of evil supernatural powers, again in contrast to current opinion that such deterioration is in many cases due to human activity (Cohn 1999). In addition, traditional concepts of pollution often stress the element of ritual impurity rather than negative impacts in the physical sense. Thus, in the Judaic tradition adding salt to fresh water is seen as a means of purifying the water (Gerstenfeld 1999), while today it is generally perceived as pollution.
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