Ecoforming and 1493

I enjoy creating useful neologisms. I’ve floated several on this blog: kafkatrapping, collabortage, politicism, chomskyism, and prospiracy. One could argue that my take on the term “error cascade” is neologistic.

Today, another one: “ecoforming”. By analogy with “terraforming”, this is what humans do when they deliberately modify an ecology to suit their purposes. The term is intended to include the introduction of non-native species, the deliberate use of fire as a technique for ground-clearing, and the sculpting of landscapes by selective planting and suppression of local wild flora, but to exclude cultivation of domesticated plants.

I’ve been thinking about this sort of thing because I’ve been reading a fascinating book titled 1493 by Charles C. Mann. This is a history of what he calls the “Columbian exchange” (borrowing the term from pioneering biohistorian Alfred W. Crosby), the transplantation of New World species to the Old World and vice-versa after Columbus’s voyage in 1492. Mann makes a persuasive case that the shock of that contact has been reverberating through the Earth’s biosphere ever since, reshaping human societies and much else in its wake. He tells well-known stories such as the way that the introduction of the potato to Europe enabled the rise in population that led to the Industrial Revolution. Also, many more (previously) obscure ones, such as the way that the introduction of American food plants produced ecological catastrophe in China, leading to the fall of the Ming Dynasty.

But more interesting still is Mann’s discussion of ecoforming, though he doesn’t use the word. He argues that one of the ways European settlement displaced American Indians and destroyed their societies was by introducing not just non-native plants but species such as the European honeybee and the earthworm that actually altered the ecology of settled areas by Europeanizing it. This created a landscape that Europeans could exploit, but which no longer supported the animals and food plants that were mainstays for the natives.

One of the most interesting points Mann makes is that every human culture does this – even those operating at a Neolithic level. He explains that the Jamestown colonists who thought they were living in an untamed wilderness were wrong; the landscape around them had been ecoformed by the natives for thousands of years. In an extremely eye-opening section near the end of the book, he explains how large sections of the Amazon jungle that appear completely wild to Europeans have actually been ecoformed extensively by the natives and a far larger population of their mixed-race descendents in the covert communities called quilombos. An example he didn’t cite, but could have, is the use of fire-clearing by Australian aborigines to ecoform swathes of the Australian outback.

But it gets better. Mann proposes that native ecoforming in the Americas was so consequential that a prompt second-order effect of the introduction of European diseases was a radical change in the ecological mosaic of the New World. Here’s how the causation works: Europeans arrive, accidentally transmit smallpox and half a dozen other plagues to the natives, 95% of the Amerinds die off, and regular fire-clearing of inhabited areas ceases. The consequence is that the open, park-like forests reported by the earliest Europeans change character in an eyeblink, becoming near choked with secondary growth. The mix of tree species shifts rapidly, because fire tolerance is no longer an adaptive edge. The mix of fauna changes, too, notably from large game to smaller animals.

And it gets better still. Mann reports reason to suspect that the drop-off in carbon emissions when New World fire-clearing ended may have caused the Little Ice Age! (Despite my contempt for today’s AGW junk science, I think this is somewhat plausible, though it would be out of scope for this essay to explain why. Mann’s proposal would obviously be less problematic for AGW true believers.) This leads directly to what I think is the most bracing and welcome thing about 1493. To explain it, I first need to set up in opposition to it the romantic view of nature.

According to the romantic view of “unspoiled nature”, there is a natural equilibrium state of any given ecology (or the biosphere as a whole) which changes only on timescales of a kiloyear or longer. This pristine state is what the ecology tends to return to after major shocks such as volcanic eruptions. Humans are not part of this pristine state. Fortunately, pre-industrial humans have neither the power nor the desire to greatly alter it, and walk lightly on the land. Nevertheless, human presence degrades the pristine state into something that is inevitably less complex, valuable, and natural.

This romantic view has dominated Western popular culture since the early 1800s and underpins a great deal of the silliness and anti-human hostility evident in the modern environmental movement. It motivates, as one very current example, hostility to “unnatural” GM crops and intensive agriculture in general.

Without ever announcing the intention to do so, Mann takes a poleaxe to the romantic view of “unspoiled nature” and dispatches it without mercy. First, he shows how pervasive ecoforming is as a cultural practice. Then, he shows how ecoforming or its sudden cessation can lead to rapid, profound transformation of ecosystems on a continental scale. Then he proposes a not-too-implausible coupling between large-scale ecoforming by neolithic-level savages and the entire planetary climate!

In reality, there is no almost “pristine” nature anywhere on Earth humans can survive with pre-industrial technology. When we look at almost any “wilderness”, part of what we are seeing is the results of millenia of ecoforming by the humans that came before us. And, while attempts at ecoforming sometimes have destructive consequences (salinized soils in the Middle East; rabbits in Australia), as often or more often they lead to a net increase in ecological complexity and resource richness. Mann is not afraid to show us that the world is a better place because, for example, capsaicin peppers native to the New World are now naturalized all over Eurasia and have become important to dozens of Old World cuisines.

The book has much else in it that is worthwhile. There’s a long digression on the craziness of Imperial Chinese monetary policy and how this led directly both to the silk trade, the opium wars, and an eco-catastrophe with which modern China still struggles. Mann’s observations on the economic history of Spain and the bootstrapping of the first truly global trade networks would fill entire books from less capable historians.

Good books on really large-scale history are rare, and this is the best I’ve seen since Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. I rather suspected when I read it that Mann had an eye on that book as a model, and he has confirmed this in an email exchange. 1493 stands comparison with Diamond’s book quite well.

Categorized as Science

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