Ecological Lessons From History: Greece Has Crumbled Before

The good old days?

How in tune were our ancestors with being good stewards of the planet? Things were better in the old days. People were more in tune with the natural world, the air was cleaner, the land less harassed by our demands upon it. The world was, in short, greener. We’ve all heard it before – but is it true? Of course it is – except when you start looking at the details. Don’t go putting our ancestors up on a pedestal of eco-friendly excellence before you know a little more history.

Greece is a land burdened by expectations. Not only do its current inhabitants have to deal with an economy so tattered it may even spark power cuts, it simultaneous has to carry the mantle of being the cradle of civilization for the Western World (further hammered home by the upcoming London Olympics). The ideas of the Greek philosophers guided the development of medieval scientific thought – particularly Aristotle – through the European Renaissance, before the physical sciences gathered momentum under the ideas of luminaries like Galileo and Newton. The Romantic period further reinforced Greece’s golden status – the term Arcadia, taken from the name of an administrative area in Greece, came to represent a perfect balanced relationship between humans and the rest of the natural world. Ancient Greece, it is implied, was where people got it right for a change.

You know what’s coming, don’t you? Classical Greece had an enormous problem, and it was this: it was a dreadful place to grow things. Greece is largely a land of barren, rocky hillsides thinly covered by nutritionally depleted soils. This agriculturally fragile state of affairs meant the land couldn’t support large, evenly spaced populations, and that led to the development of the famous polis city states of Greece – Athens, Sparta, Corinth, Mycenae and others. When these cities reached the land’s carrying capacity, its people had to expand, fueling colonial conquests and arguably all sorts of innovations to make the most of scarce resources.

It’s a stretch, but you could argue that democracy came about because Greece is a crummy place to be a farmer.

So the Greeks were simply unlucky to live on soil that couldn’t support them? Not so. As happened elsewhere in Europe, the prehistoric peoples of Greece chopped down a lot of trees – in such quantities that the soil simply couldn’t recover. Pollen evidence recovered from the bottom of a lake in the Argive plain told a story: the existence of deciduous oak trees until the 4th Century BC, at which point they were replaced with hornbeam, pine, scrub oak and heather – vegetation associated with cleared or disturbed land. If some colossal climatic catastrophe was at fault, all of Greece would have been similarly affected. But it wasn’t. These changes were localized.

Furthermore, archaeological evidence from settlement patterns across Greece show broken occupation, periods of settlement and abandonment – and these can be tied with environmental indicators of local soil erosion patterns. In other words, ancient Greek farmers appear to have cleared the land for crops or animals, and when the soil eroded away as a result, they abandoned it – and that was the environmental legacy facing Classical Greece, a largely barren land that had never recovered from early efforts to farm it.

So much for Arcadia.

Images: dominiqs, byrdiegyrl and Serendigity.

Mike Sowden

Mike Sowden is a freelance writer based in the north of England, obsessed with travel, storytelling and terrifyingly strong coffee. He has written for online & offline publications including Mashable, Matador Network and the San Francisco Chronicle, and his work has been linked to by Lonely Planet, World Hum and Lifehacker. If all the world is a stage, he keeps tripping over scenery & getting tangled in the curtain - but he's just fine with that.