History of sustainability in Early Civilizations

Sumerian harvester's sickle, 3000 BCE, made from baked clay

Sustainability is the ability to survive in a relatively ongoing way across different domains of life. In the 21st century, it generally refers to Earth’s biosphere and human civilization’s ability to co-exist.

Sustainability’s history tracks human-dominated environmental systems from the oldest civilizations to the present.

In early human history, the use of fire and desire for particular foods may have changed the natural composition of animal and plant communities. Between 7,000 and 9,000 years ago, agricultural societies emerged, which depended mainly on their environment and creating a “structure of permanence”.

Today, we will explore the History of Sustainability in the earliest civilizations.

Although the energy and other resource demands of nomadic hunter-gatherers were small in early human history, plant and animal communities’ natural composition is indeed transformed due to human’s presence in a particular area. Between 7,000 and 9,000 years ago, agriculture appeared in different regions of the world. Agrarian communities depended mainly on their environment and the totality of a “structure of permanence.” Societies discarding their local food supply or wasting critical resources faced collapse or either moved on. There are instances where societies had entirely collapsed due to food wastage even 7,000 years ago.

Archeological data confirms that the first civilizations arose in Sumer, in southern Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq), Ancient India (Punjab-Sindh-Parts of Gujarat), and Egypt dating from around 3000 BCE. By 1000 BCE, civilizations were also established in Australia, Mexico, China, Peru, and the upper parts of Europe.

Sumer from Mesopotamia illuminates issues fundamental to the sustainability of human civilization. Sumerian towns practiced year-round, intensive agriculture from 5300 BCE. The remainder of the storable food created by this economy enabled the population to live in one place instead of moving in search of grazing land and wild foods. It also allowed for a much more elevated population density. The growth of agriculture in Mesopotamia required many laborers to maintain and build its irrigation system. This, in turn, led to bureaucracy, political hierarchy, and religious sanction, along with standing armies to defend the emergent civilization. Intensified agriculture allowed for population rise and led to deforestation in upstream areas with following flooding and over-irrigation, which raised soil salinity. While there was a shift from wheat cultivation to the more salt-tolerant barley, yields still died. Eventually, reducing agricultural production and other circumstances led to the decline of the civilization. From 2100 BCE to 1700 BCE, it is calculated that the population was reduced by nearly seventy percent.

In Ancient India, the Indus Valley Civilization is one of the most outstanding examples of sustainability in abundance. The Indus Valley had public baths and numerous other construction to preserve water to be used in irrigation. People in the valley stored water, and they even had fantastic godowns to save food. However, with the increasing population and exploitation of nature, the collapse was inevitable. Indus Valley Civilization’s fall was caused by climate change.

Civilizations, likewise thought to have ultimately fallen because of poor administration of resources includes Anasazi, the Mayans, and Easter Islanders, among numerous others. In contrast, well-built neighborhoods of horticulturists and shifting cultivators existed in South America and New Guinea, and large rural communities in other parts of India, China, and elsewhere have farmed in the same regions for centuries. Some Polynesian cultures have sustained stable communities for between 2,000 and 3,000 years on small reefs with minimal resources using kaitiakitanga and rahui to check human pressure on the ecosystem. In South India, numerous Hindu temples were built, keeping sustainability as an important ingredient. Hindus worshipped trees and checked deforestation.

In Sri Lanka, nature reserves built during the reign of King Devanampiyatissa and recording back to 307 BCE were devoted to harmonious living with nature and sustainability.

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