Because environmentalism is so focused on the future, it can sometimes forget its past.
An ancient Sumerian goddess stele
We assume that we are the first to deal with such severe environmental issues, when that’s just not the case. This series attempts to bring to light some of the environmental problems and solutions throughout our history, from the first civilizations to our own.
So far we’ve covered environmental issues in ancient Rome, a wildlife loving Indian emperor in 250 BC, coal burning bans in medieval England, a deadly smog in Victorian London, deforestation in the Japanese Edo period, the slaughter of a tribe of environmentalists in 1778, and even Ben Franklin’s environmental policies in the 1700s.
Today we’re going to go way back, all the way to the first civilization in history.
The Sumerians were the first group that everyone can agree is worthy of being called a “civilization”. They arose in what is today Iraq some time around the 6th millennium BC, and were conquered by about 2400 BC.
The Sumerians arose in the area known as the “Fertile Crescent”. This area of land, also called Mesopotamia, was an oasis of fertile land sandwiched between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
You may be thinking that modern Iraq is hardly an oasis of fertile soil. You’d be right. About 90% of the ancient marshlands that comprised the fertile area are gone, mostly the result of drainage and damming. It’s an important environmental issue today, one that may affect the stability of the middle east. It’s also an issue that’s thousands of years old.
There is a wealth of evidence pointing to severe environmental issues in the Sumerian civilization. One of the most important pieces of information from that time is the Epic of Gilgamesh, an ancient poem about the mythological hero-king Gilgamesh and his search for immortality. Even in this work there are mentions of environmental problems. Gilgamesh cuts down the vast cedar forests of Sumer in defiance of the gods, who then curse Sumer with either fire or drought depending on which translation you believe.
The Sumerians didn’t burn, but their crops died. Much of this can be attributed to the agricultural methods of the Sumerian farmers and the policies enacted by the leaders.
While the “fertile crescent” is indeed fertile, it takes some work to accomplish crop growth. Most farms had to be irrigated with ditches fed by the rivers. This was wildly successful. For the first time in history, there was a food surplus. This in turn led to a population surplus, with people in cities abandoning agricultural labor and eating the surplus produced by farmers.
Like all good things, it couldn’t last. There was an inherent flaw in the system. The hot sun evaporated most of water, leaving behind salt. Where the water didn’t quickly evaporate, the water table rose, also bringing salt to the surface.
After years and years of salt slowly accumulating, a tipping point was reached. The land had become too salty for the wheat production. The only way to reclaim the land was to let it lie fallow for several years.
Enter the government. The rulers of the Sumerians knew that their power lay in using the food surplus to grow their civilization. Leaving land fallow would have ended any food surplus, and likely reduced their power. So they did what people in power normally do and chose the solution that would keep them powerful.
They ordered the farmers to continue planting their fields. Since the soil was too salty for the wheat that formed much of the Sumerian staple diet, they had to switch to the more salt tolerant barley.
Even that, however, was not enough. Before too long, even the barley crops began to decline. The earth became so salty that according to one ancient tablet “the earth turned white”. Without enough food to feed everyone, the Sumerian civilization began to collapse.
The soil’s saltiness also gave us the first ever “environmental refugees”. As farms collapsed from over salinity, the farmers tried to move to new and unspoiled places. Even with population movement, it couldn’t last forever.
After thousands of years of existence, a lack of food brought on by the unproductive soil crippled the Sumerians. The rulers could no longer pay their armies, the peasants began to revolt and finally the Akkadian empire moved in from the north, crushing a weakened Sumerian civilization. By 1800 BC, several hundred years after the fall of the Sumerians, agriculture was essentially finished in southern Mesopotamia.
The world’s first civilization was destroyed in large part by unsustainable agricultural practices and the short-sightedness of those in power. Let’s hope that latter day humans don’t attribute the decline of our own civilizations to the same things.