This commentary examines how agricultural and forestry practices of the ancient Greeks and Romans caused an environmental disaster in the Mediterranean region that undermined both civilizations.
By Anne and Paul Ehrlich
The Mediterranean Basin, once a rich end self-sustaining region, has steadily deteriorated since the time of the Greeks and Romans. Overgrazing by domesticated goats was one of the reasons.
PHOTO: PAUL B. EHRLICH
We recently had an opportunity to visit the Mediterranean region and to see for ourselves the present state of this former “Eden” which was the cradle of Western civilization. Our overall impression was that the once rich area is now a badly deteriorated land inhabited by relatively impoverished peoples who, today, are partly dependent for their survival on the influx of tourists coming to see the physical monuments of past civilizations.
The region’s decline from ancient glory has been a complex process, but a major element in the “fall” has been the failure—on the part of the area’s residents—to maintain the ecological systems that supported their rich cultures.
The process began with the marvelous Mesopotamian civilization, which produced the world’s first cities in the area watered by the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The society depended utterly on a complex irrigation system that—along with the invention of the plow—allowed its farmers to extract more food from the rich soil than was required for their own families. The resultant surplus made the development of urban centers possible.