Egypt seldom is held up as a poster child for environmental stewardship. But I’m thinking of ancient Egypt — a civilization that managed to sustain itself as a global power for more than 3,000 years.
As often is the case with successful stewardship, Egypt’s longevity was based on what, for many years, that country didn’t do rather than on what it did do. Its story is a sobering parable for what may lie ahead for America.
In his 1991 book "A Green History of the World" (which was updated in 2007 as "A New Green History of the World"), British historian Clive Ponting offers plenty of samples of nations that rose and fell more quickly than Egypt did. Lower Mesopotamia, the Indus River valley, Rome, the Mayans, Teotihuacan in Mexico — the fall of each was related at least in part to environmental shortsightedness.
Most often in the ancient world, calamity came in the form of ruined soil. The Sumerians of Mesopotamia over-irrigated their soil, causing the water table to rise and salt to come to the surface; eventually crop yields dropped too low to support the urban elite, bureaucrats, armies and even the peasants. The Roman countryside suffered from deforestation, which caused the topsoil to run off; again food fell short and made the empire more vulnerable.
In ancient times, Greece went from a rich and forested land to rocky and sparse. Not coincidentally, around the same time it morphed from a Golden Era to eventually 2,000 years of subjugation at the feet of foreign powers.
“What now remains compared with what then existed is like the skeleton of a sick man, all the fat and the soft earth having wasted away, and only the bar framework of the land being left,” Plato wrote in Critias.
Compare Plato's words to those of Kentucky writer and naturalist Wendell Berry:
"In a little more than two centuries — a little more than three lifetimes such as mine — we have sold cheaply or squandered or given away or merely lost much of the original wealth and health of our land. It is a history too largely told in the statistics of soil erosion, increasing pollution, waste and degradation of forests, desecration of streams, urban sprawl, impoverishment and miseducation of people, misuse of money, and, finally, the entire and permanent destruction of whole landscapes. Fall came quickly."
In the Indus valley, mainly in what is now Pakistan, Ponting argues that both over-irrigation and deforestation were culprits, creating a dual force that helped the Indus culture, often referred to as the cradle of civilization, crumble in fewer than 500 years.
Let’s say you’re a man — a merchant living in a brick house on one of the broad avenues of Harappa, a city of about 50,000 people.
Life is comfortable. While Harappa is inland — closer to the Himalayas than the Arabian Sea — you’re involved in trading that brings in hard currency from as far away as Sumeria. Your family dresses in soft cotton. Your wife is adorned in exquisite jewelry. Your children don’t go hungry; they eat a wide variety of meat, grains and vegetables. There’s a well with cool water in your courtyard.
You’re at the top of world, by Jove (or by whatever deity you Indus people were worshipping 4,000 years ago). You probably aren’t worried about the declining productivity of the farmland around you, because stored grain and riches built up for generations have insulated Harappa from the immediate impact of poor harvests.
But your children or your children’s children might begin to feel the impact. Perhaps, it will come in the form of a drought, which the city no longer has the wherewithal to weather, or an invasion, at a time that grain stocks got too low to feed an army.
There are half a dozen theories on the Indus civilization’s decline. But Ponting’s point is that soil degraded by years of practices that had no apparent impact for generations set the culture on its road toward decline.
Ponting’s hypotheses should be taken as just that: hypotheses. Whatever the specifics, however, it’s difficult to imagine that he isn’t identifying an historical lesson that’s too often overlooked. Evidence in history and indeed in the modern world for the repercussions of environmental degradation is so pervasive that we don’t even notice it. The rocky hills of Israel once were known as the “Land of Milk and Honey.”
Today, the ancient issue of soil degradation is only one of the unseen calamities we seem to be preparing for ourselves, or our children, or our children’s children.
Most of the threats are tied in one way or another to our culture’s gross dependence on oil, coal and natural gas. Oil – in the form of an unsustainable reliance on petroleum-based fertilizer — is the mechanism by which we dig our soil problem ever deeper and, in doing so, we make the inevitable reckoning of poorer and poorer farmland even harsher.
However loudly those of us who worry about such things bray, the posture of our society is much like the mindset that you’ve got to think existed in Harappa: We are mighty and our comfort is eternal. We act as if our science and technology — our system, or perhaps our religion — has somehow unlocked a secret that will allow us to escape the nature of nature. We are immortal!
That would be nice. But that evidence — an oil spill that technology cannot cap before it causes great damage, climate change that seems beyond our political capacity to manage, the ever-multiplying number of crises that seem to come along with every “solution” — indicates otherwise.
One of those “solutions” straddles the Nile River in Egypt about 600 miles upstream from Cairo. For millennia, Egypt had suffered when the Nile flooded too much or too little — a phenomenon recorded even in the Bible, when Joseph advised the Pharaoh that his kingdom would face seven lean years and seven rich years.
In the 1950s and '60s, the nationalist dictator of the Middle East’s most populous country listened to technologists who promised that a great dam would solve the age-old problem of irregular flooding along the fertile river valley.
So Gamal Addel Nasser built the impressive Aswan High Dam. He would be greater than the pharaohs. A snail that thrives in the stagnant water of the Lake Nasser behind it carries a disease that has devastated nearby villages. Fisheries in the southeastern corner of the Mediterranean have declined because nutrients from the river no longer enrich its delta. More significantly, the Nile’s spring waters no longer carry nutrient-rich silt from upstream onto the floodplain; Egypt now is a net exporter of food.
It turns out that Egypt’s lesson in sustainability came before the modern era. Before the Aswan High Dam was built, the Egyptians relied on the river. They routed its waters through irrigation channels. They carried it to higher land. They planted with the boundaries of its floods in mind. They did not attempt to — they could not — dominate it.
Occasionally, nature’s unpredictability created devastating floods or terrible famine. But the larger lesson is that for 3,000 years, the Nile sustained a civilization.