It was once common to describe the people who inhabited North America before the coming of the Europeans as “Noble Savages”, who lived in harmony with the wilderness which surrounded them and left the land virtually untouched. This view was on the one hand a critique of European excesses as they transformed beyond recognition much of the land they inhabited, and simultaneously a rejection of Native Americans as pre-modern peoples who had to fade away as progressive civilisations tilled the land with a more aggressive hand.
We now know, thanks to the work of historians such as Bill Cronon (Changes in the Land), that this picture is inaccurate, and that Native Americans did change their land. Europeans who arrived in New England assumed that the land they found there was “natural”, and that the people who lived there were savages, incapable of or uninterested in transforming nature. But the landscapes that Europeans saw were at least in some part the product of human intervention, and were as much “managed” as they were “wild”.
Arthur McEvoy tells a similar story about fisheries in pre-contact California. McEvoy contends that “Indian hunting and gathering economies apparently could strain their resources enough to damage them”, and cites the extirpation of the sea otter in the Aleutians (and the concomitant re-working of the island chain’s ecology) as an example of the capacity for such transformation (one which would be replicated up and down the California coast with the arrival of Russian and American hunters). “Similar evidence”, he writes, “exists that some California Indian communities died out because they overharvested their supplies of shellfish”.
How then, do we reconcile the undoubted ability of Native Americans in California at the time of contact with Europeans to live densely and yet in some balance with physical surroundings that they utilised without overexploiting, with the knowledge that at various points in the more distant past, societies in California crumbled because they abused their environment?
McEvoy argues that we can do so by seeing the social and environmental balance of the societies encountered by Europeans in California as the products of long histories in which people learned to anticipate overuse and critically evaluate and manage their interactions with their ecological surroundings to avoid destructive over-exploitation.
As McEvoy puts it, “Being an Indian gave no one a special advantage in confronting the problem...In this, Indian fishers differed little from those who followed them”. But what the communities confronting Europeans did illustrate was that over time any people in any place could arrive at a modus vivendi with an environment which allowed them to satisfy their needs while conserving the integrity of the ecology of which they were part.
It was not a lesson imbibed by European settlers or one taken seriously by our current society. We live wildly out of balance with our physical surroundings. We build cities in deserts and drain plains of their water. We extract various forms of fuel from the earth in shatteringly violent processes, the consequences of which we don’t fully understand. We put terrible things into our air and water. We adopt a mentality which suggests that we can have it all without suffering any consequences and live in a kind of permanent arms race against our world instead of working out how to live with it, even if that means tempering our consumption or modifying our lifestyles.
While the people who lived on this land before us—whether from necessity or inclination—responded to the signals their earth sent them, we spurn all such messages and adopt an attitude of antagonism hubris towards our surroundings. As an infinitely more populous and more consumptive society than those which came before, we don’t have the luxury of failing again and again before we finally find a workable balance. We have reached a scale where the consequences of our failure will be far more catastrophic and likely insurmountable.
Therefore, we need to work with greater urgency and with a greater sense of moral as well as scientific purpose and clarity as we seek to harness technology to better develop a means of sustainable existence, whether that lies in something land Aldo Leopold’s land ethic, a culture of accommodation, a revised sense of our needs, or a way of linking social equity to environmental stewardship. Likely it will require some complicated combination of all of these things.
We need to begin by being more willing to learn from both the past and from the changes in our land, and to listen to what that past and those changes suggest about how to live in the future.
Arthur McEvoy, “Aboriginal Fisheries” in Carolyn Merchant (ed.), Green Versus Gold: Sources in California’s Environmental History (Covelo, California: Island Press, 1998): 50-55.