Sunday, November 15, 2009


Ecology and Pseudo-Ecology

Excerpts from Oliver Rackham, "Ecology and Pseudo-Ecology: The Example of Ancient Greece," in Graham Shipley and John Salmon, edd., Human Landscapes in Classical Antiquity: Environment and Culture (London: Routledge, 1996), pp. 16-43:

P. 16:
A factoid is a statement that looks like a fact, makes sense like a fact, commands the respect due to a fact, and has all the properties of a fact except that it is not true. An example is the belief that trees die when cut down and disappear for ever.
P. 17:
The first step on the road to pseudo-ecology is to confuse ecology with environment: to treat living creatures as part of the scenery of the theatre, rather than as actors in the play. Plants and animals are not a generalized nature, not the passive recipients of whatever mankind chooses to inflict on them: they are thousands of individual species, each with its own behaviour which has to be understood. An ash tree differs from a pine to much the same degree that a cat differs from a codfish. Cutting down the pine kills it, but the ash sprouts and recovers.
Pp. 17-18:
There are four opportunities for creating a pseudo-ecology of the ancient world.

(1) Not understanding the nature of evidence. Scholars easily suppose that written sources provide the only, or best, information about their periods. This cuts them off from ever knowing what was happening at times when people were not writing. Ecologists tend to be credulous and uncritical when dealing with ancient texts, and fail to understand their limitations.

(2) Projecting modern ecological fallacies on to the ancients. It is all too easy to seek in ancient philosophers confirmation of the fashionable misperceptions of the present.

(3) Being preoccupied (as many scholars are) with ancient attitudes to nature, regardless of what nature consisted of at the time or what it was the ancients were attitudinizing about....The history of nature is not the same as the history of the things that people have said about nature.

(4) Geographical over-generalization. Scholars assemble fragments of information—a scrap from Italy, a phrase in Homer, a snippet from Cyprus, a verse or two from the Bible—as if these added up to a history of Mediterranean ecology. This would not pass muster in any other branch of archaeology.
P. 20:
In Mediterranean countries, trees do not necessarily occur in the form of forests: they can constitute maquis (trees reduced to the form of shrubs) or savanna (grassland or undershrubs with scattered trees).
P. 22:
Ancient Greek authors tell us comparatively little about what Greece looked like: they assume their readers will know. Written evidence needs to be handled critically. We need to verify each piece of information: to consider whether an author was interested in describing accurately what a place looked like, and whether he was in a position to know (Rackham 1992a). Plato (Laws, 1.625 b) throws out a few remarks about roadside cypresses in Crete in the context of three aged philosophers strolling one afternoon from Knossos to the Idaean cave. In reality this is one of the most arduous journeys in all this arduous island. All we can infer is that Plato liked to give a pleasant setting to a dry philosophical discourse, but knew nothing about the topography or vegetation of Crete.
P. 28 (footnote omitted):
Scholars too often assume that ancient accounts of trees imply tall trees and forests; they forget about maquis and savanna. In reality, ancient authors may not have made the same distinction between 'forest' and 'scrub' that modern English, and especially American, writers make.
P. 28:
Deforestation is tree-felling not balanced by regrowth.
P. 29:
Nonsense multiplies. Once it has become the accepted wisdom that trees were becoming scarce in antiquity, every change in human activity is attributed to this cause, no matter how farfetched. If the guess fits your theory, you print it. Sir Arthur Evans solemnly stated that the men of Knossos took to using gypsum for door- and window-frames because they had run out of timber (Evans 1921–35, ii. 565).
P. 33:
There is an almost irresistible temptation to read modern theories into the words of ancient authors.
P. 35 (on Theophrastus):
It is from such beginnings of discernment that an interest in ecology must grow, but I find no evidence that the Greeks got very far. Too often they were bogged down in the ancient Greek vices of philosophizing from not enough data, and of not verifying such data as they did have.
P. 36:
One cannot do real ecology without knowing the plants.
P. 40:
Isaiah (11. 1–2) expresses the most cherished hopes of his nation under the allegory of the regrowth of a coppiced tree, a subject mentioned only two or three times in the vastly more extensive Greek and Roman literature: 'And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots: and the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him.'
P. 42:
In antiquity it was not easy, in most of Greece, to do permanent damage to the landscape. The critical step in the degradation of the Greek environment was the invention of the bulldozer.

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