Humans have been changing nature for thousands of years – to shape a sustainable future, it’s important to understand that deep history

In July 2024, all eyes will turn to Paris for the Summer Olympics. Spectators from all over the world will flock to the City of Light to watch athletes compete and immerse themselves in the culture, romance and history of one of the world’s most recognizable cities.

But an iconic landmark in Paris, Notre Dame cathedral, will still be under renovation after a devastating fire broke out in the cathedral and burned for 12 hours on 14 April 2019. When the last embers were extinguished, most of ‘wood and metal Notre Dame. The roof was destroyed, and its majestic spire was gone, consumed by flames.

Notre Dame is almost 1,000 years old and has been damaged and repaired many times. It underwent its last major renovation in the mid-1800s. The massive beams that framed the structure were made from European oak trees harvested 300 to 400 years ago.

Today, these trees are common throughout north-central Europe, but few are tall enough to replace the latticework and spire of Notre Dame’s roof, thanks to centuries of deforestation. Planners had to search across the country for large enough oaks suitable for restoration.

As an archaeologist, I study long-term human interactions with nature. In my new book, “Understanding the Imperiled World: How Archeology and Human History Create a Sustainable Future,” I describe how tackling modern environmental crises requires an understanding of deep history— not only written human records, but also ancient connections between humans and nature. world.

Many people assume that the industrial age, which began in the mid-1700s, brought about the devastating effects that humans have suffered on our planet. But people have been changing conditions on earth for thousands of years. Looking back can inform our journey forward.

From deforestation to reforestation

To see how this works, let’s consider the shortage of tall trees for Notre Dame from a broader perspective. Deforestation in Europe dates back at least 10,000 years to when early farmers swept across the continent, clearing forests and creating agricultural and pastoral lands to create today’s landscapes.

Based on archaeological evidence, pollen-based modeling and written records, scientists have determined that forest cover across northern, central and western Europe reached its highest density around 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, after which it declined each other thousands of years ago. By AD 1700, humans were farming 250 million acres (100 million hectares) of agricultural fields, most of which were created by clearing native European forests.

Millions of acres of wood were turned into fuel for home fires, and then for furnaces and boilers during the Industrial Revolution. This process was so transformative that the famous British geographer HC Darby, writing in 1954, called it “probably the single most important factor that changed the landscape of Europe”.

Most of these forests were lost long before scientists could study them, but historical detective work can fill in the missing information. By identifying charred plant remains from ancient fire pits and analyzing pollen from lake cores and soil, archaeologists can map where ancient forests once flourished, determine which species were represented them and recreate the appearance of the forests.

Today, European nations are working to restore forests across the continent to slow climate change and species loss. With historical knowledge about past forests, modern scientists can make better choices about which tree species to plant, choose the best sites and predict how the trees will respond to ‘climate change in the future.

Understand what is possible

Over the past 50 years, the rate and scale of human impacts on Earth has increased. In what scholars have called “the Great Acceleration”, human activities such as clearing forests, converting lands for farming and development, overharvesting wildlife and fisheries, and warming the atmosphere changed extensive use of fossil fuels, after changing living conditions.

For people born during this era of rapid change, it can be difficult to picture life on Earth before humans remake it. Scientists have pointed out the danger of so-called “shifted baselines” – the widespread tendency to assume that the current state of nature’s depletion is the way things have always been. Knowing how ecosystems looked and functioned, and how human actions have changed them, makes the scale of conservation tasks clearer.

History provides an insight into what the world once looked like, long before globalization and industrial activities reshaped the planet. Discarded animal bones, charcoal fragments, broken stone tools and other flotsam and jets from the past provide clues to the sizes and abundance of animal species, the location and composition of native forests and landscapes, and changing atmospheric conditions. They also show how people, plants and animals have responded to these changes.

Informing a resilient future

The past can help modern societies address today’s environmental challenges in countless ways. Understand how careful detective work takes historical and scientific creativity. Here are a few examples:

  • Restoration efforts for this endangered species can trace back to when native fishermen have collected black whites for over 10,000 years. Numerous examples of effective indigenous strategies are emerging from recent archaeological and anthropological research, showing innovative practices in land management, sustainable agriculture and community resilience promoted over centuries.

  • Understanding the history of deforestation and patterns of land conversion can help health experts predict future pandemics. Many infectious diseases transfer from wildlife to humans, and humans and wildlife have increased contact with human activities such as deforestation and urbanization. This increases the risk of transmission of zoonotic diseases.

  • Museum collections can help scientists document and understand species declines and build effective strategies to combat global biodiversity loss. For example, museum collections of preserved amphibians have allowed scientists to track the spread of the deadly chytrid fungus, helping to develop targeted conservation strategies to protect vulnerable frog species.

Humans can slow down and perhaps reverse the ecological damage they have done, but the Earth will not return to some new state of the past.

However, I believe that history can help people save the remaining wild, natural places on Earth that, along with cultural icons like Notre Dame, tell the stories of who we are. The goal is not to go backwards, but to create a more resilient, sustainable and biodiverse planet.

This article is republished from The Conversation, a non-profit, independent news organization that brings you facts and analysis to help you make sense of our complex world.

Written by: Todd Braje, University of Oregon.

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Todd Braje does not work for, consult with, own shares in, or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article this, and has not disclosed any relevant affiliations beyond his academic appointment.

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