About eleven years ago, I gave a speech on Christian environmentalism. My central these was that Scripture's picture for us of the natural ideal was the Garden (Eden). Neither wasteland nor wilderness, a garden is a managed environment – managed and improved by will, effort and creativity. Man is presented in Scripture as neither the overlord nor enemy of nature, but as a part of Creation appointed to be its Steward on God's behalf. Thus a Christian environmentalism should not aspire to leave Nature inact or pristine – we know from the parable of the Talents how God regards stewards who try to preserve intact what is entrusted to them by burying it in the ground. Of course, it might be even worse to create a wasteland – and would certainly be worse if the wasteland were the result of self-indulgence or malicious neglect. But the Christian should seek to work and manage Nature so as to adapt and improve it. Preserving the wilderness inact, protecting it from Man's impact, is no part of Christianity.
I was reminded of this speech the other day when I watched one of the most fascinating documentaries I have seen for some time: the BBC4 television programme Unnatural Histories – Amazon. This show noted that the Amazon is widely regarded as a paradigm example of pristine nature, almost untouched by Man. Indeed, more than that, it is widely believed that the Amazon could not, without artificial modern techniques, sustain large human populations, because the soil is of poor quality, requiring heavy fertilization, and the chemical fertilizers are rapidly leached from the soil by heavy rainfall.
Yet the show claimed that discoveries of the past fifteen to twenty years have overthrown this picture. Widespread felling has exposed extensive ancient earthworks – probably geoglyphs. It appears that larger Amerindian habitations improve the soil in their environs, through their organic waste, creating a very fertile soil called "terra preta". Extensive areas of terra preta have been discovered at multiple sites along the Amazon river, along with evidence of sophisticated pottery, cities and an urban road network. The show claims it is now believed that around 5.5 million people lived along the Amazon as of the early 16th century (by way of comparison, that is nearly twice the population of England-and-Wales at the time). Indeed, the scale and sophistication of the population now believed to have lived there is so great that experts have come to regard Gaspar de Carvajal's famous account of Francisco de Orellana's original 1541/2 expedition along the Amazon as largely factual, when for centuries it had been regarded as part-exaggeration and part-fiction, with its accounts of large cities, grand roads, well-dressed people and skilled artisans competitive (it claimed) with those in Spain at the time.
The picture now appears to be as follows. Where people lived, they did not exhaust the soil – they improved it by their presence. The Amazon is not a pristine wilderness, where populations densities have always been tiny compared with more temperate regions and technology almost non-existent. Rather, when Europeans arrived there were large populations with (for the time) standard technologies. Diseases introduced accidentally by the earliest explorers devastated the native populations, eliminating 90-99% of them. Their cultures collapsed. Their technologies were lost. Their cities were abandoned. And the forest came in to claim them. The Amazon is not a pristine wilderness. It is a recovering wasteland.
A number of things strike me about this. One is the notion of the people as part of nature and an improving part – like the Scriptural Gardener. Not by eschewing civilisation, but precisely by being civilised – the cities and their organic wastes improved the soil, encouraged growth, raised yields. They did this. So can we.
The second is how appalling is the havoc it is possible to wreak without any malicious intent, and the pathos of a truly lost civilisation. Those Spanish discoverers might have had in mind to conquer the cities they visited. But they would be mortified at the idea that their visits would bring about the entire destruction of those cities and 99% of their population – that was manifestly never their intention. Yet they did. Those people are gone. We shall never know the songs they sang or the gods they worshipped. We shall never hear the stories they told of heroes from past ages – no Alfred or Arthur. We shall never read the tall tales of how their cities were founded – no Romulus and Remus. We shall only ever be able to guess how they overcame the technical obstacles they faced and the ingenuity of their solutions – no Imhotep or Bacon. All is quiet now.
That should be humbling. For one day, sooner or later but inescapably in the end, that will be the fate of our civilisation also.