No future in the past

Jack Conrad questions the romantic image of prehistory presented by green thinkers

Almost without exception, greens of virtually every stripe, variety and hue display a half-dreamy, half-atavistic tenderness for the pre-capitalist past. They did things better then.

Feudal greens such as Edward Goldsmith imagine England returned to the social stability and ecology of contented serfs, loyal vassals, chaste damsels, gallant knights, christian alms-giving and strong monarchs. Essentially, a dull-witted repetition of Young England in the 19th century: “The greatest owned connexion with the least; from rank to rank the generous feeling ran, and linked society as man to man” (Lord Manners England’s trust 1841). Everyone has their place and everyone is in their place.

Capitalism is criticised by feudal greens just as much because of mass migration, strikes and the countervailing ideas of working class socialism as for the horrendous ecological degradation left in its wake. Ecofascism has a not dissimilar agenda. The British National Party wants the United Kingdom purged of immigrants and reds, along with an end to the destruction of so-called traditional industry and farming by cosmopolitan capitalism. Humanity must obey nature’s iron laws … which seem to have been fixed some time in the 14th century. The official Green Party in England and Wales likewise aspires to slay the transnational dragon. National is beautiful. In the name of ecological sustainability their ideal is small business, small farmers and small-scale production.

Then there are the nature-worshipping deep greens and green primitives. Industry, rationality, science and civilisation itself are depicted as vengeful monsters, akin to the bible’s four horsemen of the apocalypse. Single-issue campaigns provide the fleeting points of resistance: nuclear power, climate change, waste incinerators, new roads, animal experiments, foxhunting, etc. Eschewing deep working class organisation, the communist programme and democratic partyist discipline, any momentary successes gained are merely the prelude to fractious disagreement and therefore quick dispersal and powerless atomisation.

Protest, dropping out and squatting are lauded as the ideal life-style. Hardly practical for the vast majority. Yet, after a fashion, an aristocratic minority, an Übermensch, mimic the cults and belief-systems of imagined Druids, nomadic Africans or native North Americans. Earth Firsters organise themselves into mock tribes. Frankly, the results are comic. A tumbling, madcap, entirely unconvincing retreat into the past. Animals, plants, the rocks themselves, are once again ascribed human qualities and feelings.

New paganism. But nowadays also a thoroughgoing nonsense. And some green primitives look even further back. Much further. Genocidal plans are laid for an escape from “10,000 years of darkness and captivity” ( The goal is the Palaeolithic.

Understandably, most greens decline to reject industry and civilisation outright. Despite that, the past is still held up as a paradigm. The supposed harmony of tribal peoples with their environment is enthusiastically contrasted with capitalism’s inherent short-termism. Whereas capitalism affords nature no value, animistic societies are said to venerate nature and tread with the lightest of ecological footprints.

A couple of examples will suffice to underline the point. David Orton - a deep green member of the Canadian Green Party - says tribal societies can be used as “possible models from which much can be learnt” ( In particular, he has the North American native populations in mind. Likewise, according to ecofeminist Charlene Spretnak, “The roots of green in American culture reach back to our earliest origins. For more than 20,000 years native Americans have maintained a deeply ecological sense of the subtle forces that link humans and nature, always emphasising the need for balance and for reverence toward mother earth” (

Essentially, the claim is that native American religion and its shaman quickly recognised problems encountered with the environment, such as a shortage of game, and resolved them positively by respecting/venerating nature. Greens admiringly call this ‘deep stewardship’.

Besides native North Americans, praise is lavished on native Hawaiians, Amazonian Amerindians, Australian aborigines and the indigenous peoples of just about every region and continent.

Noble savage

There is no need to further quote their numerous academic and green champions. The claim that the ‘noble savage’ lived in near perfect balance with nature and should therefore be considered some kind of model is well known. It needs no further repeating.

Philosophically, this idea of the ‘noble savage’ has a long history, but surely the most celebrated is contained in the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78). For him tribal peoples and their society was the “only natural one” (J-J Rousseau The social contract Ware 1998, p6). There were others, of course, before him, who attempted to describe human beings in their ‘natural state’; Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and John Locke (1632-1704) being particularly notable, not least because they appear at first glance to represent polar opposites.

Methodologically, the accounts of both Hobbes and Locke rely on discovering - or more accurately, logically making a case for - humanity in its primeval or pristine state. The claim being that this would reveal the human essence - what is fundamental, what is universal and what is unchanging about our species. Suitably informed, the great thinkers could then loftily recommend, announce, which form of governance best suited human society. However, though their methods are similar, as noted above, each man came out with conclusions that seem at least on first examination to be diametrically opposed.

In Leviathan Hobbes proposes that humans are naturally selfish. Everyday experience told him that. People lie, people cheat, people even kill each other for seemingly trivial reasons. Without the order brought about by the intervention of the state and its laws there is a war of each against each and each against all. Life under natural conditions is therefore nasty, brutish and short. An idea given ‘scientific’ credentials nowadays by evolutionary psychologists such as Harvard professor Steven Pinker in The blank slate (2002), etc. Bluntly, for Pinker, the state serves to rein in innate male aggression.

Hobbes advocated an absolute monarchy … albeit with sneaky caveats that conceivably left the door ajar for corrective revolutionary action. No wonder he is lauded as the pre-eminent philosopher of the Project for a New American Century. Hobbes did not claim that his state of nature ever existed. It was the human condition without a sovereign. Thankfully, there has been throughout history a series of outwardly imposed checks and balances counteracting the savage impulses that beat within the human breast. Adam was monarch of all he surveyed. So too was Noah. So too is the USA post-1989-91. At least that is what Donald Rumsfeld and co thought before the Iraqi quagmire showed the limitations of American power.

For Locke, people in their natural state exist in “a state of perfect freedom” ( Fundamentally they are interdependent and possess a natural right to life, liberty and possessions. In his Second treatise on government Locke argues that the state was necessary to curb human passion and partiality. However, this arrangement has to rest on consent. The state should certainly not behave in an arbitrary manner. If it does, the social contract between subject and state can be legitimately revoked - unlike the monarchical constitution advocated by Hobbes. Only to the degree that the state stands guard over natural human rights - crucially property - does it find justification for Locke.

A sophisticated and open-ended legitimisation of the class compromise cemented between the monarchy, upper bourgeoisie and the aristocracy with the 1688 glorious revolution. But Locke’s ideas have a significance beyond their particular time and the immediate circumstances that produced them. His stress on natural rights proved of particular inspirational value for the next generation of bourgeois radicals. Their impact on the American revolution of 1776 and the French revolution of 1789 is hard to underestimate.

Three things were crucial for the rising bourgeoisie. First, ending the privileging of aristocratic blood over the talent to use money to make money. Secondly, a legal (ie, rule-based, backed by force of arms) defence of accumulated wealth against arbitrary extractions or confiscations by government. Thirdly, defence of that wealth against the men of no property - the levelling people, the mob, the demos. That is what the bourgeoisie means by liberty.

Seen in that light, the ground separating Hobbes and Locke diminishes. It is by no means as wide as it might initially appear. When all is said and done, they defend property from two different angles, advocate two different means to achieve more or less the same end. Whereas Hobbes calculated that the best guarantee for property was the order and continuity provided by the absolutist state, Locke put his trust in the law. Anyway, what concerns us here is not how to defend private property, but human nature. Hence over to Rousseau.


He provides his fullest account of the natural human being in the Discourse on the origin and foundations of inequality among men (1754). Along with Hobbes, Rousseau disagrees with the classical assumption that human beings were from the beginning social. Eg, Aristotle claims that society and the state “were natural” (Aristotle The politics London 1992, p59). Rousseau knows that society is an artificial construct.

Like Hobbes and Locke, he too tries to discover the true nature of human beings by stripping away all the attributes commonly associated with society and the state. Human nature is equated with what humans are in a pure state of nature.

Rousseau provides an account that within itself contains two distinct arguments. On the one hand, he treats his claims for natural human beings as a metaphor. Opening his Discourse, Rousseau says that it is unlikely that humanity ever existed in the “pure state of nature” … though they might have fallen “back into it from some very extraordinary circumstance” ( As ‘proof’ he cites biblical revelation and the Genesis story, where god bestows understanding upon Adam. This genuflection before orthodox christianity is surely a safety device. Blasphemy charges were a real and ever-present danger. Despite Adam, Rousseau says he will treat humanity in the “pure state of nature” … as a hypothesis, merely as a means of presenting his case and furthering the argument.

On the other hand, Rousseau claims that his account is genuinely historical. He cites reports of so-called savage peoples, particularly in the Americas, relayed by explorers, colonists and travellers. Amongst them, their original state, along with the first stirrings which progress humanity from nature to civil society, are, he says, empirically observable.

Rousseau then disagrees with Hobbes. After he had mentally stripped humanity of the attributes of civilisation - laws, state, tools and machines - all that was left in Hobbes’s mind was brutality and constant war. Not Rousseau. Brutality would mean classifying human beings beneath other animals. Mothers, be they human, horse or hound, exhibit the most tender feelings towards their offspring. Animals also show, claims Rousseau, empathy for the sufferings of other members of their own species.

War, he further reasoned, necessitates language, pre-planning, jealousy and notions of property. Citing “the wise” Locke, Rousseau says: “There can be no injury, where there is no property” (quoted in Natural humanity did not possess any of these above-mentioned features, reckons Rousseau. Language, jealousy and property come not directly from nature. They develop historically. Once again in contradistinction to Hobbes, Rousseau describes natural humanity as gentle, compassionate and yet without the foresight needed to worry about what the future will bring. As for language, all they had by way of communication was grunts and gestures.

Not that Rousseau fails to differentiate natural human beings from other animals. Humans have free will and the capacity to progress. So in their natural condition they are animal-like but show inklings that eventually lead towards civilised society. First, there is the patriarchal family and married love, then the hunting band and cooperation, then villages and commerce … finally, after many thousands of years, there comes enlightened freedom. Once the circumstances arise that trigger reason, humanity begins to slowly grope towards its destiny. In this process Rousseau gives pride of place to the smelting of iron and the cultivation of grain.

There is a sting in the tail, however. Together iron and grain “civilised men, and ruined humanity” ( With civilisation (industry and agriculture) there arises inequality and egotism, the division of labour and property, social classes and war.

Rousseau’s ‘noble savage’ is one of those widely misunderstood phrases. It surely rates alongside Marx’s humorous put-down of Paul Lafargue, his son-in-law, that if what he was saying was Marxism then he was no Marxist: “Ce qu’il y a de certain c’est que moi je ne suis pas Marxiste” (see F Engels, letter to C Schmidt in CW Vol 49, New York 2001, p7). Lafargue and other socialists in France had in the name of ‘Marxism’ been peddling a particularly vulgar form of materialism which also posited various opportunist short cuts to socialism.

Out of such scraps, various Marxologists have created a whole system, whereby the use of the term ‘Marxist’ becomes unMarxist. Needless to say, Engels had no trouble describing himself as a Marxist. Eg, in Ludwig Feuerbach and the end of classical German philosophy he makes the obvious point: “Without him [Marx] the theory would not be by far what it is today. It therefore rightly bears his name” (K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 26, London 1990, p382n).

Rousseau conceived humanity as being naturally good; the ‘noble savage’ is free from the vices that plague civil society. However, and this needs emphasising, Rousseau is not advocating a return to nature. That is a viewpoint attributed to him by others, including contemporaries such as Voltaire. Human beings in the state of nature are amoral. They are childlike. Neither virtuous nor vicious. Humans develop civilisation stage by stage ... and, once there, can proceed from alienation to moral goodness (non-alienation). A theme elaborated in the Social contract.

Unfortunately, according to Rousseau, during the first stages of civilisation those who had most, and most to lose, supposedly offered a deal for the protection of everyone. A social con trick. It proved to be nothing more than a way for the powerful to keep their riches by fooling the rest into accepting unfreedom. Rousseau imaginatively pictures the scene: “All ran headlong to their chains, in hopes of securing their liberty; for they had just wit enough to perceive the advantages of political institutions, without experience enough to enable them to foresee the dangers. The most capable of foreseeing the dangers were the very persons who expected to benefit by them; and even the most prudent judged it not inexpedient to sacrifice one part of their freedom to ensure the rest; as a wounded man has his arm cut off to save the rest of his body” (

Rousseau outlined a new, just, social contract. An abstract one. His benign state reflects the general will and plays a vital role in securing liberty, fraternity and equality. However, capitalist exchange continues unaffected, as does the master-servant relationship. He also - conveniently, self-interestedly, arrogantly - elevates the educator above society. Rousseau’s social contract is therefore in the final analysis revolutionary-conservative. Certainly lacking is a viable social agent for change. Rousseau’s approach reflects the frustrations, contradictions and limitations of his own social position. Well-connected with those above who considered him their social inferior; isolated from those below whom he considered his social inferiors.


Many rightwing ideologues take an almost puerile delight in making the claim that there exists some unbroken thread joining Rousseau and his ‘noble savage’ with the team of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. The Anglo-Austrian guru of so-called free market capitalism, Frederick von Hayek (1899-1992), being not the least of them (see FA Hayek Fatal conceit: the errors of socialism London 1989). True, both Rousseau and Marxism disparage the ‘natural’ claims of property; true, both Rousseau and Marxism maintain that society is the main cause of our social ills. Logically that posits social solutions. But neither Marx nor Engels believed in Rousseau’s ‘noble savage’, nor the idea that humanity begins as a tableau rasa. They mocked all such ‘just-so stories’. Marx dismissively called them “Robinsonades” (K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 28, Moscow 1986, p17).

Marx and Engels did write about “human nature” and “species-being.” Such phrases, or their exact or near equivalent, pepper their works, from the German ideology to Capital (they produced no systematic account). But for Marx and Engels these concepts are not spun out of thin air. Nor are they inherited unchanged from the speculations of their philosophical predecessors. Marx and Engels do not rely on an account of the first humans as either selfish or altruistic. Rather what is being referred to when they write of human nature is qualities, needs, capabilities and abilities.

Like animals, humans are flesh, blood and bone, must regularly drink and consume food; they too have a sex drive and reproduce. In that sense alone human nature lies outside history. However, the species qualities, needs, capabilities and abilities of humanity distinguish it from other animals. As conscious beings, humans make themselves through practice and they do so within the whole matrix of historically determined social relations. Each epoch, each social formation has its own particular effect. So there is nothing fixed about human nature. Needs, capabilities and abilities are malleable, can be extended and become something else.

History is therefore the continued transformation of human nature. Something which by definition concerns both human beings themselves and the objects they use. Eg, all human beings have vital requirement for food and drink. But there is a world of difference between the alpha male hominid satisfying thirst and hunger by gulping down muddy river water and tearing at raw meat scavenged on the African savannah and the connoisseur who savours the finest French wines and cuisine.

Human nature is fluid and is realised through society and transformed nature. Between humanity (itself part of nature, of course) and the objects it fashions there is an internal relationship. This is what Marxism understands by human nature and why human nature involves the relationship of the individual with nature and the individual with society.

Each individual member of the human species is conscious of themselves as a member of the human species and relies upon others for their humanity - therefore humanity is fundamentally social. An innate, though still inchoate, or only partially realised, quality. However, private property slants individual and collective human development. It makes human beings one-sided. Possession becomes the main goal of life. Once money becomes capital, the human personality is further impoverished. What is innate is subordinated, put into the service of the outward world of accumulation and narrow self-interest.

The supersession of capital is therefore the “complete emancipation of all human senses and qualities, but it is this emancipation precisely because these senses and attributes have become, subjectively and objectively, human” (K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 3, London 1975, p300). Marx evocatively remarks that human senses under communism become in their practice theoreticians. Correspondingly, the objects of nature are appreciated because of themselves, not eyed with a view to taking possession of them. Egotism gives way to the full richness of the human personality. To become fully individual is therefore to become fully social, and vice versa. Marx says that communism, as the positive transcendence of alienation, is the “complete return of man to himself as a social (ie, human) being.” A return which genuinely resolves the “conflict between man and nature and between man and man” - and between the individual and society (ibid p296).

This return is not a going backwards. It is a dialectical return: ie, on a higher level. A crucial distinction. In other words, what is envisaged is a spiral movement. Class bias, intellectual prostitution or sheer stupidity (sometimes they amount to the same thing) sees a widespread failure to grasp this elementary proposition of Marxism. Hence the doubly ignorant rightwing accusations of Rousseauism. Doubly ignorant because Rousseau is himself charged with wanting to go backwards.

Breezily, the same critics of Marxism tell us with the utmost self-assurance that there can only be further progress on capitalist terms. Egotism is accepted as natural (a baseless ideological assumption). More than that, egotism is celebrated as the main motor of wealth generation. By the same measure empty promises are made that poverty will soon be made history by trickling down the benefits of imperialist exploitation to the masses in the so-called third world; with the same baseless assurance, market and technological solutions are offered for other structural problems, such as crime, pandemics and ecological degradation. The entire package is treated as common sense in the media and lazily repeated in polite society. Either capitalism, we are told, or an insane violation of the laws of nature. The dialectical view of history completely passes them by, dismissed as a logical paradox or attacked as a scandalous threat to civilisation.

Past imperfect

Marx-Engels expressed a definite, even a glowing, admiration for many features of primitive communism: ie, pre-class society or what has been called gentile society. But they had no wish to relive humanity’s childhood. That prospect is entirely illusory: “An adult cannot become a child again or he becomes childish,” said Marx. “But does not the naivety of the child give him pleasure? … Why should not the historical childhood of humanity, where it attained its most beautiful form, exert an eternal charm as a stage that will never recur?” (K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 28. pp47-48).

In that spirit, Engels, following the anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan (1818-81), writes in The origin of the family, private property and the state (1884), that the “shabbiest police servant in the civilised state has more ‘authority’ than all the organs of gentile society put together; but the most powerful prince and the greatest statesman or commander of civilisation might envy the humblest gentile chief for the unforced and undisputed respect paid to him. The one stands in the midst of society; the other is forced to attempt to represent something outside and above it” (K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 26, London 1990, p270).

Primitive communist society knows no laws or bailiffs, magistrates or constables, judges or courts, jails or jailers - the basic apparatus of the modern state. Nevertheless, though lacking these ubiquitous Hobbesian checks and balances, there was not permanent disorder and an unending war of each against all. Society functioned, and functioned well, and did so for many tens of thousands of years. For the vast bulk of humanity’s time on this planet we lived under conditions of peace and plenty, moving on when resources ran out and performing relatively little necessary labour. It was communist society which developed language, learnt to produce pottery, domesticated the wolf, invented art and culture, and fanned out from the African Eden into Asia, Australia, Europe and finally the Americas.

The human revolution occurred some 120,000 years ago, a defining social act led by women and their male supporters - a communist revolution which involved the overthrow of alpha male domination by the forces of collective interest and collective solidarity (see C Knight Blood relations London 1995). Unsurprisingly, therefore, the individual under primitive communism did not act without restraint. There were definite boundaries in terms of individual behaviour, often established through customs and taboos, along with a deeply ingrained sense of what is right and what is wrong.

Nor did primitive communism enjoy ‘natural’ Lockean private property. Land was held in common and viewed as no different to the air and sky. Hunting was done in groups and the kill was handed over to the women of the tribe for cooking and then divided amongst all members. To eat your own kill was taboo. Housing was often shared too, common halls for adult men, with women and children having their own separate quarters. Married couples cohabited only for a week or two in life’s moon-governed monthly cycle. Women were certainly respected: indeed they were central and often played the leading role in ceremonies, marriage arrangements and tribal decision-making. Similarly, children were, according to the communist ethos, not thought of as possessions or taught to be possessive.

Is this not an example of worshipping the ‘noble savage’ and wanting to return to the past? Obviously not. Marxists are well aware of the material limitations of primitive communism. Conditions permitted only the partial development of the individual personality. In fact in terms of potential they were stunted, and that necessarily meant relations between human beings and nature achieved some kind of sustainable balance only through a process, often highly destructive, of trial and error.

Australia’s wise aboriginal ecologists, the Amerindian nature-lovers and all the other native peoples who lived in perfect harmony with their environment are in many ways, if not simply, the creations of the green imagination. Upon examination they turn out to rather more problematic.

Nothing in history remotely compares with capitalism’s plunder of nature. Yet pre-capitalist societies, including communistic tribal peoples, were quite capable of inflicting horrendous damage upon their environment. There was overhunting, deforestation, slash and burn, the ruination of the soil … and mass extinctions. Tribal people often managed to develop sophisticated religious myths, customs and social structures which helped establish a sustainable balance between themselves and the rest of nature. Yet this was often, because of their own previous actions, a much reduced and impoverished nature. It is therefore totally one-sided to present tribal peoples as model custodians.

Moving out of Africa - the planet’s most humanised continent, which still boasts in comparative terms a rich and relatively robust environment - about 80,000 years ago, humans wrought havoc wherever they went. Whereas in Africa humans and nature co-evolved over a considerable, drawn out period of time, once they crossed over into Asia and from there pushed into the other continents, our ancestors constituted a highly destructive, alien species.

Animals, unused to and unafraid of us, were slaughtered on a huge and dreadfully wasteful scale. Easy meat. Human beings also set fire to wide tracks of the land, as they had learnt to do in Africa, in order to encourage fresh vegetation growth and thereby attract more game. Often with disastrous results. Habitats were destroyed, soil quickly eroded and numerous species pushed into extinction.

The classic example is Australia. The first humans reached the northern coast, arriving from Timor, between 60,000 and 45,000 years ago. By the time the whole continent had been colonised from shore to shore it had been thoroughly transformed - for the worse. Before human habitation Australia had been home to an astonishing variety of megafauna. Eg, the marsupial lion, thylacoleo carnifex, which weighed about 160kg and was Australia’s equivalent of the sabre-toothed tiger. Thylacoleo seems to have specialised in hunting marsupial herbivores, such as the diprotodon, which was as big as the modern rhinoceros and is the largest marsupial ever to have lived. Another species was the enormous wombat, phascolonus gigas. There was also a giant kangeroo, procoptdon goliah, which weighed in at 200 kg, stood some three meters high, that is around twice as big as the red kangeroo; a giant reptile called the megalania, related to the famous komodo dragon of the Flores Islands in Indonesia; a large, fast-moving land-living crocodile, the quinkana; a huge flightless bird, the genyornis, powerful and standing at 2 meters tall was in all likelihood a fearsome carnivore. In total, 60 taxa suddenly became extinct around 50-45,000 years ago (see

Why? Some have blamed climate change as the culprit. But Australia’s climate was relatively mild and wet during this period. So aridity was not the cause. Most authorities pinpoint humans. We were responsible for wiping out the megafauna. Of course, there have always been extinctions. But human beings in Australia had an effect similar to an asteroid strike. The extinction rate was speeded up a thousandfold compared with what had gone before.

What applied to the megafauna also applied to the flora. Australia’s aborigines regularly burnt whole swathes of the country. While that encouraged new, verdant growth of certain plants, it resulted in a general collapse. A whole range of trees and shrubs disappeared entirely. Even more importantly, given Australia’s thin soils and precarious ecosystem, there was rapid erosion and a resulting desertification throughout the whole of the western continental interior.

In this continent of ghosts the aborigines cleverly learnt to survive by keeping what remained as it was. Hence their extreme conservatism. Aborigines religiously copied the ways of their ancestors. Consequently there was little by way of technological innovation. In fact the aborigines discarded and forgot about the bow and arrow and replaced it with the boomerang and the spear. But to all intents and purposes that was about it. Life was circular and repetitive, not innovative and linear. An impoverished but stable situation encountered by 19th century British migrants.

Into the empty ecological spaces created by the aboriginal entry millennia before, they consciously, or accidentally, introduced rats, foxes, rabbits into the wild (and farmed huge masses of domestic sheep). All this further degraded the environment. With plenty of vacant niches, the ecosystem was extremely vulnerable to newcomers.

To get an idea of why rats, foxes and rabbits have so strongly impacted on Australia, take the Serengeti in Africa today. Probably central Australia looked something like that before we humans arrived. Imagine what would happen if rabbits were introduced into the Serengeti today. They would surely quickly perish. Long before they could flourish, the chances are that they would be snapped up as a free meal. Everything tells us that they would be comprehensively outcompeted, such are the array of deeply imbedded native species packed into the environment - without exception better adapted.

But remove the elephants, giraffes, hippopotamus and everything bigger than the wildebeest, get rid of the jackals, lions, leopards and cheetahs, and all of a sudden there would be the niches needed for an explosion in rabbit numbers. That is what happened in Australia, and a similar story can be told for the rest of the world, not least the Americas. There, the arrival of migrating humans from Asia was accompanied by mass extinction of the Pleistocene megafauna (horses, camels, ground sloths and mammoths, among many others). Scientific studies also show that the mass extinctions and near-extinctions did not finish with the disappearance of the megafauna. Local and regional extinctions, linked in many cases to human activity, continued, albeit at a slower rate.

Eg, when American explorers, adventurers and trappers arrived in California during the late 18th and early 19th century, they were amazed by the superabundance of birds, elk, deer, marine mammals and other wildlife. Reading their books, journals and letters, greens assume that such richness represented California’s natural condition - a product of the ‘noble savage’ and their respectful/reverential attitude towards nature and empathy for its flora and fauna.

A cosy assumption, undermined by recent archaeological studies, which show that, far from the native Americans presiding over an ecologically self-sustaining system in which humanity and nature existed in perfect harmony, there is another explanation. From 2,600 to around 500 years ago, it appears that some species were hunted to local extinction. Wildlife only returned in superabundance to places like California after European diseases such as smallpox, malaria and influenza decimated the Amerindian populations, starting in the 16th century. Around 90% of them died. Hunting pressures had thereby been greatly diminished. Hence geese and duck became so numerous that they could be killed simply by firing a random shot into the air. Or so the story goes.

All told, it is clear that there is no future in the past.

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Worker


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