William 0. Pruitt, Jr.

Department of Zoology,
The University of Manitoba,
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
R3T 2N2




Pruitt 1991. The Northern Environmental Imperative. pp. 163-174 in: Morrison, W.R. (Editor) The Role of Circumpolar Universities in Northern Development. Proc. First Annual Conf. Assoc. Circumpolar Universities. Thunder Bay, Ontario. Lakehead Centre for Northern Studies, Occ. Paper. No.4:328 pp.



It is becoming abundantly clear that we must have a re-evaluation of our place in nature, and a complete reversal of how we conduct our affairs on this small planet. For the first time in the 3 billion years of life on this earth, one species, Homo sapiens, has become abundant enough, and with sufficient ability to divert enough energy and materials to its own use, that the very systems that support its own existence are endangered.

It is a common misconception that present humans are unique in history in being ecologically unstable with a collapse looming in the foreseeable future. This is not so; history is but the story of a long series of cultures that outgrew the carrying capacity of the region, and collapsed or were succeeded by another culture that employed a different set of resources. I urge you all to read Paul Colinvaux's 1980 book The fates of nations. It is subtitled A biological theory of history, an interpretation of history entirely different from the usual generals, kings and statesmen sort of thing.

One also frequently encounters the myth of the 'noble savage' who walked lightly upon the land and who inhabited North America for eons but caused no environmental damage. In actual fact, however, pre-contact native North Americans lived in a world they and their ancestors had changed dramatically. Aboriginal North American corn fields, unused for nearly 1,000 years, are still identifiable as such by the reduced tilth and fewer nutrients in the soil. There is fairly clear evidence that early humans in North America were at least partially responsible for the extinction of at least 20, possibly as many as 40 species of medium to large mammals -- 2 or 3 species of deer, moose-deer, saiga antelope, ground sloths, giant peccaries, several species of "shrub oxen," the list goes on and on. For most of them we no longer have even common names. When the Europeans invaded North America they encountered, not an untouched continent teeming with life to its maximum, but one with a depauperate and already-ravaged fauna. Having come from another continent that had been ravaged by their own ancestors even more, they considered North America absurdly prolific with wildlife. They were, however, just one of the waves of human invaders to hit North America who, in their turn, also obeyed the basic rule of all human societies of "Cut and get out." Because of more efficient weapons and a social/religious ethic of "Dominion over the beasts of the field" the Europeans have been able to accomplish in 400 years even more destruction than that which had taken the earlier human invasions some 10,000 years to achieve.



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