It has taken me too long to get round to reading Charles Redman’s great book Human Impact on Ancient Environments – Arizona, 1999.
I came to the book because of the upcoming exhibition at the Cantor Arts Center, Stanford, of the photographs of Edward Burtynsky – they foreground massive environmental impacts. [Link]
We need a long term view to fully understand the growing environmental crisis. This requires an archaeological perspective. And the message the book delivers fully justifies a reliance on long-term large-scale archaeological evidence to get the right message about the shape of recent relationships with the environment.
Here are Redman’s main points:
Rousseau’s noble savage is truly a myth. And the modern world is not a radical break with history. This is a modernist myth of our contemporary uniqueness.
Jared Diamond has covered some of the same arguments in his recent book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed – Viking, 2004.
But I find Diamond’s archaeology is weak and he relies heavily on contemporary ethnographic and historical examples. Chuck Redman is far more convincing. But look at what Jared Diamond said to the Sierra Club (May/June issue 2005 page 45) (Thanks to Jonathan Greenberg for the reference):
Pat Joseph: Sierra Club Magazine – In “Collapse” you write that the world now finds itself in an “exponentially accelerating horse race” between environmental damage and environmental countermeasures. What gives you the hope that the race may turn out well?
Jared Diamond – Well, the main thing that gives me hope is the media. We have radio, TV, magazines, and books, so we have the possibility of learning from societies that are remote from us, like Somalia.
Also, we’ve got archaeologists. The Maya didn’t have archaeologists. We have at least the potential to learn from past societies. No other society in the world’s history has had that opportunity.