Our remote ancestors were so close to their environment that they would have found it hard to think of it as separate from themselves. When you live as hunters or fisherfolk, snatching your living directly from the wild … your dependence on the environment is absolute.
Human history has been one of progressive take-over on the flows of energy within natural systems, permitting ever-increasing human abundance and ubiquity. The impacts on the natural world have been immense. Early hunters altered ecosystems by fire, and their extermination of the largest and slowest-breeding animals. But agriculture – the taking of selected plants and animals into human ownership – had a more profound influence because it established the dichotomy between ‘domesticated’ and ‘wild’ and began the familiar struggle between the two. Pastoralists slaughtered the wolves or lions that preyed on their flocks and herds, and killed the deer and antelopes that competed with the beasts for pasture. Agriculturalists attacked the ‘weeds’ they could not eat and guarded their crops against wild herbivores as best they could. These conflicts remain important today.
So writes Martin Holdgate in The Green Web, and he adds: “We call this process of transforming nature ‘development.’”
Throughout history, humans have aspired to development, and the definition of the limits of development has been a controversial and conflicting process. Which development? for whom? and how? These are questions that are by no means new.