Savage environmentalists

Adrian Tanner (atanner@MORGAN.UCS.MUN.CA)
Wed, 21 Sep 1994 15:47:53 -0230

Personally, I do no find it very productive to resurrect the model of the
'noble savage', nor the 'ignoble savage', to look at the role of different
kinds of human societies in environmental degradation. These are both
straw 'savages', and why debate them with polemicists, who generally have
different agendas on their minds, anyway?

Yes, there are cases of small-scale, non-industrial societies who
activities do seemed to have contributed to cases of degradation.
Unfortunately, sometimes you only get one chance, and then poof, there
goes the neighborhood. (I am living in one of the small Newfoundland
communities, in which my neighbors, 'savages' of European descent, are now
all sitting around waiting for the fish to come back; many are resiged to
the fish not returning in their own lifetimes.) However, to conclude, as
someone on this threat seemed to do, that swiddening is an environmentally
irresponsible kind of adaptation, just because there are cases on record
were swiddening, under very unusual circumstances of rapid population
expansion, resulted in soil depletion and degradation, is not very useful.
In fact it seems to me to be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The
swiddening societies I am familiar with have a non-destrtuctive
adaptation, certainly far preferable to the forms of mechanized
agriculture or forestry which might soon replace them.

What happens when a small-scale society looses a sustainable adaptation?
In some cases it is uncontrollable events: eruptions, disease, climate
change. In other cases the society itself undergoes change or has an
increase in poulation, without having new land to move into.

However, the third kind of circumstance, when resources no longer come
under the control and management of one group, but become treated as
'common property', the subject of competitive pressures from a variety of
groups, is also an increasingly common underlying circumstance behind
environmental degradation. It seems to me that the decimation of common
property resources seems to have been a less frequent occurence (but, of
course, not entirely unknown, as the Anasazi example shows) before the
advent of market industrialism. The ability of low technology, small-scale
societies to manage resouces over which they had unchalleged stewardship,
and to maintain themselves over long periods, is as well-attested
phenomenon as is the phenonenon of environmental degradation where things
went wrong.

Finally, I do not believe that either industrial or non-industraial
societies have the secret of how to assure that environmental degradation
will not occur in circumstances of rapid expansion and rapid social
change. I think the record of environmental disasters is worse for the
industrial societies, but only because the scale of impacts is so much
greater. Our society's claims of 'sustainabiliy' and 'environmental
management' is simply that, ideology. The track record on these matters is
that things are virtually out of control.

Adrian Tanner
Anthropolgy Department
Memorial University
St John's, Newfoundland, Canada