Environmental history.
August 12, 2010 4:07 AM   Subscribe

Environmental ancient history. I'm after examples in history (the further back the better) where efforts were made to protect, restore or otherwise preserve the environment.

I'm after things like the (failed) efforts to cultivate and preserve sylphium, the attempts by various kings to limit coal burning in London, and the efforts by various charitable societies to limit the effluent dumped into rivers by mills.

Can you give me more? I'll take web pages, books, papers - essentially any kind of reference would be great.
posted by ninazer0 to Science & Nature (15 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
One of the provisions of the Magna Carta is the removal of fish weirs.

In the medieval period there are provisions which are sort of 'environmental protection' which are basically protecting the environment for the use of rich people - so in deer parks, deer could only be hunted by the owners. If you look into medieval hunting in populated places like England you'll find evidence of at least limited management of the environment as a resource.
posted by Coobeastie at 4:15 AM on August 12, 2010

The cedar trees in Lebanon (also Turkey, Cyprus, etc) should be on your list. Quick look at the wiki article says:

"Historically, there were various attempts at conserving the Lebanon Cedars. The first was made by the Roman Emperor Hadrian, who issued a decree protecting parts of the Cedars of Lebanon in CE 118. In the Middle Ages, the Mamluk Caliphs also made an attempt at conserving the Cedars and regulating their use, followed by the Maronite Patriarch Yusuf Hbaych, who placed the under his protection in 1832. In 1876, Britain's Queen Victoria financed a wall to protect the Cedars of God (near Bcharri) from the ravages of goat herding."
posted by alight at 4:27 AM on August 12, 2010

Efforts were being made as early as 1664 to ensure a sustainable supply of trees for ship-building - and similar practices may have started as early as the Han dynasty.

French statesman Jean-Baptiste Colbert established an oak forest at Tron├žais in 1670, for the use of the French navy.
posted by Mike1024 at 4:30 AM on August 12, 2010

If you were to Google "history of environmentalism" and similar terms, you would find sites such as Environmental History Timeline, which has lots of tidbits going quite far back. For example:
2700 BC -- Some of the first laws protecting the remaining forests decreed in Ur. (Grove, 1995).
posted by pracowity at 4:33 AM on August 12, 2010

The Auroch was almost extinct by the 15th Century but conservation efforts (restricting hunting, managing habitat) ensured that some individuals lived until the 1600s. It was the ancestral form of cattle. From the IUCN website:

"The right to hunt large animals on any land was restricted to nobles and gradually to the royal household (The Extinction Website, 2007). As the population of aurochs declined, hunting ceased but the royal court still required gamekeepers to provide open fields for the aurochs to graze in (The Extinction Website, 2007). The gamekeepers were exempted from local taxes in exchange for their service and a decree made poaching an aurochs punishable by death (The Extinction Website, 2007), but this was not enough to save the species. In 1564, the gamekeepers knew of only 38 animals, according to the royal survey (The Extinction Website, 2007). The last recorded live aurochs, a female, died in 1627 in the Jaktor├│w Forest, Poland (The Extinction Website, 2007)."
posted by hydrobatidae at 7:03 AM on August 12, 2010

The Ecological Indian, by anthropologist Shepherd Krech III, has a lot of examples of what you're looking for from Native American histories. Here's a review with a detailed description of the contents.

Krech actually wrote the book to question the idea of the environmentally responsible Indian and to prove that anyone who can manage their natural environment can also mis-manage it, so you'll find a lot of stories of Native Americans hunting species to near-extinction and ruining agriculturally viable lands.

But I still remember being really struck by his scholarship and by some of the sophisticated planning that went into Native American uses of the environment--it certainly pertains to your interest, and because the book itself has been a flashpoint for a lot of controversy, if you do some more research around it you'll quickly find out a lot about the historical environmental practices of these cultures.
posted by besonders at 7:05 AM on August 12, 2010

The Japanese had some sustainable forestry practices as early as the 1500s.
posted by electroboy at 7:58 AM on August 12, 2010

The oldest protected area in the world is probably in Mongolia - Bogd Khan Uul. It was officially protected by government act in 1778 but there was a more traditional form of protection back to the 12th century which limited hunting and the cutting of trees.
The protection and worship of mountaintops is common in Mongolia. Mongolia is in general an arid country and protecting mountaintops (the origin of river water) from deforestation helps to preserve water resources.
posted by scrambles at 8:08 AM on August 12, 2010

The Bishnoi community in India is a split-off sect of Hinduism, founded in the late 1400s - they're called the first environmentalists of India. The group has 29 tenets (Bishnoi is derived from the Hindi word for 29), which include not felling living trees and not eating meat or otherwise harming animals ( including selling animals to be eaten by non-vegetarians or castrating bulls). The wild animals that live near Bishnoi villages are often not afraid of humans, since they haven't been hunted for centuries.

The most famous event in Bishnoi history is when a local ruler of Rajasthan sent men to a forest near a Bishnoi village to harvest wood in the early 18th century. One Bishnoi woman - perhaps the world's first tree-hugger - refused to allow the woodcutters access to the trees, calling out (according to legend) "A chopped head is cheaper than a felled tree!" She and 362 other Bishoni villagers will killed protecting the forest. After the ruler heard about the massacre, he agreed to leave the Bishoni-protected trees alone and not allow any hunters into the area.
posted by Gori Girl at 8:50 AM on August 12, 2010

In ancient Libya there were successful efforts against desertification that involved building small wadi dams (a few inches high, but very long) to improve the retention of rainwater. As a result there were olive groves where now there is infertile dessert.
posted by ldthomps at 9:09 AM on August 12, 2010

On the sustainable agriculture front, I imagine crop rotation goes back pretty far.
posted by madmethods at 9:53 AM on August 12, 2010

The population of Tikopia Island has stayed at a level of around 1,200 people for the last 800 years due to a combination of permaculture and population control. While he obviously focuses on failed societies, Jared Diamond does draw attention to countries that have developed a sustainable lifestyle (perhaps best and most starkly illustrated by the contrast at the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic) in Collapse, which includes more information on many of the excellent examples given above.
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 10:11 AM on August 12, 2010

The Western Zhou dynasty (1100-771 BCE) promulgated logging and hunting bans [PDF in Chinese w/ English abstract] in response to environmental degradation and disasters.
posted by Abiezer at 10:12 AM on August 12, 2010

My two examples aren't perfect answers but may interest you none the less. Terra preta is an unusually fertile soil found in the Amazon Basin that has now become self-producing. Right now the understanding seems to be that the indigenous people intentionally created fertile soil by charcoal that was more fertile than the soil that was there presently, but wasn't as great as terra preta.

There have been recent attempts in re-greening deserts, the most publicized efforts being in Jordan; though even still, no one seems to be aware. These efforts are also self-perpetuating like terra preta.
posted by SollosQ at 1:17 PM on August 12, 2010

The book Collapse by Jared Diamond has some examples of this, including the Japanese sustainable forestry initiatives.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 6:50 PM on August 12, 2010

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