An Environmental History of the World: Humankind's Changing Role in the Community of Life

By J. Donald Hughes | Go to book overview

6

The transformation of the biosphere

During the early modern period, 1 European explorers, traders, conquerors and settlers spread through most of the rest of the world. They modified ecosystems everywhere by introducing animals and plants; extracting resources, deforesting many areas, establishing plantations, and subjugating or decimating indigenous populations that had formed their own ways of interrelating with local environments.

This epoch is sometimes called “The Age of Discovery,” because European explorers sailed across the oceans, charted the coasts and islands, and led expeditions inland on the continents. Their names are familiar: Vasco da Gama, Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan, and many others. But discovery was not their only activity, and perhaps not even the most important one. From the moment they dropped anchor beside a new land, they began to change it. Ecosystems that had emerged in almost complete isolation for centuries or millennia, and had evolved unique biotas, suddenly began to suffer the invasion of the animals and plants that the Europeans brought with them, whether deliberately or accidentally. Other changes followed soon: fire, hunting, cutting of trees, enslaving and killing of indigenous humans. It was “a time of dramatic and accelerating change.” 2

On many newly discovered islands, European sailors left domestic animals that could become feral and fend for themselves, such as goats and pigs. And everywhere ships moored next to a seacoast, rats made their way to land, climbing along ropes or swimming ashore. If they were lucky, and often they were, the animals found plentiful food plants, native animals that had no experience of avoiding them, and a lack of predators, so their numbers increased rapidly and they overwhelmed the local ecosystems, making many species extinct. Plants as well as animals invaded the new lands; the seeds of aggressive Eurasian weeds arrived hidden in grain and animal hair and dung.

It was a two-way exchange, although not an even one. Not many animals arrived and multiplied in Europe in the early days, although later there would be trouble with muskrats and American squirrels. But it was otherwise with plants. Tobacco, potato, maize, tomato, and sweet potato are among the domestic plants the Europeans willingly took home and soon were raising and eating (or smoking, in the case of tobacco). Meanwhile, European agricultural technology intruded into the rest of the world, particularly the temperate and subtropical areas, bringing machines and crops that cleared and replaced indigenous animal and plant life. Plantations of crops in demand in Europe, such as coffee and tea, replaced the biodiversity of tropical forests with monoculture.

As the early modern age went on Europeans acquired and improved technologies, including some using new sources of energy such as fossil fuels. Important inventions were made outside Europe, but it was Europeans who initially spread them around the globe. And it was in the UK and western Europe that the Industrial Revolution began, with its

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