Friday, 28 May 2010


It started sixty thousand years ago.

A small tribe of humans began to work together to hunt, knapping flint into arrowheads. Over time, their numbers increased. These were your ancestors.

Tribes moved out of Africa and new generations went in search of herds to follow. This is how the slow expansion of humans began. Over the millennia they colonised every continent, becoming the world’s dominant species.

Your genetic code adapted down those generations. Through natural selection, certain traits survived, others did not, creating subtle shifts in the gene pool, making you the person you are today.

But over and over again, your ancestors’ success caused problems. As populations rose, damage to local environments increased. Too many trees were felled, depleting the soils. Nature’s balance was disrupted and creatures seemingly infinite in number were driven to extinction.

Over and over again, cultures collapsed as they exhausted their resources. Each failure was all too predictable, all too preventable, a simple repetition of what went before; yet your ancestors did not learn, did not choose to remember.

Humanity’s growth continues. The world’s population increases by two hundred and thirty five thousand every day. You are one of almost seven billion people alive, a number set to rise to over nine billion by 2050.

Friday, 14 May 2010

The pleistocene extinctions

With flint-headed weapons, your strong hunters could bring down any animal, no matter how big. Your women and elders protected your young, tending fire pits for cooking. You used fire to open up the landscape too, making it easier to track big prey.

Your success made your numbers grow. You followed the herds. Where they rested, your shamans painted mystical scenes deep in caves, idolising their energy and power.

But your hunting prowess made their numbers dwindle. As food grew scarce you set out to find new lands. Your people gradually moved out of Africa, hunting the creatures they found on the way. These animals had not evolved with humans. Some found it impossible to adapt to altered ecosystems, others were already stressed by a changing climate.

When your tribes crossed to Australia fifty thousand years ago, fifteen of the sixteen large mammal species on the island were wiped out.

Just over ten thousand years ago, your descendents arrived in North America, driving fifteen large mammal species to extinction within one and a half thousand years.

As humanity expanded to fill every continent on the planet, the impact of your tribes’ combined with a warming climate to wipe out the majority of creatures heavier than forty kilograms.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

The Florida Everglades

They began to drain the Everglades in 1882 when you were seven and Miami was a town of five thousand, with streets of dust.

Your father’s passionate opposition did no good. Over two thousand kilometres of canals were created. Advertisers sold a dream of a tropical paradise to New Yorkers, stimulating a land boom. More and more people arrived. Sugar cane was planted, and animals hunted in the marshes; in one trip, a hunter killed two hundred and fifty alligators and one hundred and seventy otters. Wading birds were prized for their feathers, with five million killed in 1886 alone.

The disruption of the watershed caused sea water to fill the marshes. Lake Okeechobee lost oxygen, killing most of its wildlife, including ninety percent of its wading birds. And as the land dried out, it subsided by a third of a metre a year, causing problems to housing; it was not the paradise people were promised.

Your book “Everglades: River of Grass” finally made people see Florida’s marshland for what it was; a fragile ecosystem to be protected. You were seventy nine, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, and tiny and frail, but you instigated the most expensive environmental repair attempt in history on a stretch of land now home to five million people.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010


Today, 4 July 1970, they call you as a witness. You wonder if this new generation will ever understand the struggle it was creating the prosperous Japan that is theirs; the sacrifice it took.

But what happened at Minimata sits heavily on your soul. From your hospital bed, you speak the truth after all these years. You are dying of cancer, the Chisso Company can do nothing to you now.

You tell the court how Japan needed to industrialise. With such little farmable land and a growing population, it had to increase productivity. The Chisso Factory opened in 1908 making fertilisers, bringing prosperity to Minimata. When acetaldehyde production began no one knew the toxic waste would slowly build up in the bay. After you became director of the factory hospital, fish began to die, cats went mad. You analysed them and found mercury poisoning, but the factory forced your silence.

Soon people became ill, you witnessed terrible suffering; thousands died. The community shunned victims, fearing for their jobs. The Chisso Company opened a purification plant, though they knew it would not work against mercury.

For twelve years, Hajime Hosokawa, you watched the agony unfold, until today. Your testimony will swing the case, triggering the largest settlements in Japanese history.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

The Aral Sea

Your experts reassured you. “The Aral Sea is nature’s error,” they said. “It should have evaporated long ago. Using its water will be far more advantageous than preserving it.”

You studied its immense expanse between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the fourth largest inland sea in the world, and imagined new desert plantations, and a drained, fertile lakebed. It would easily counterbalance the loss of forty thousand jobs in the fisheries. Planting and exporting the ‘white gold’ of cotton would bring such wealth it would secure the USSR’s transition to socialism and feed the growing nation.

You spent thirty million roubles diverting the two feeder-rivers, and even though the poorly-built canals wasted over fifty percent of their water, you were satisfied.

But as the Aral shrank, a polluted seabed was revealed. Toxic dust storms blew residues from weapons testing, pesticides and fertilisers across the land. Within a decade, human mortality rose fifteen times, and rates of cancer and lung disease rose thirty times. All the Aral’s fish, half its mammals and three-quarters of its birds became extinct. At the same time, the heavily-irrigated plantations raised the water table and turned the desert to salt.

Today the fishing boats lie beached in salt, out of sight of water, testament to the greatest irrigation disaster in history.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

The Harappan Culture

Your culture flourished four thousand six hundred years ago. Yours was India’s first great civilisation, the world’s third after Mesopotamia and pharaonic Egypt. Your lands stretched from Baluchistan in the west to New Delhi in the east.

You created over a thousand cities with impressive platforms, public baths and communal granaries, all built to a precise grid using uniformly-sized bricks. With access to fresh water, each house was connected to a sewerage system; the world’s first, and more advanced than many local neighbourhoods have today. Yours was an egalitarian culture with no monumental structures, yet what you believed remains a mystery because the code of your language has never been unlocked.

After just five hundred years, the impact of your people on the environment made itself felt. Your method of baking mud into bricks had consumed so much timber that your forests were gone and you had over-irrigated the land in an effort to feed your overcrowded cities. The salinity of the soil increased and yields fell.

Your culture went into decline. Your cities were no longer maintained and within a few generations you abandoned them. All that was left of your sophisticated culture were mud-brick ruins in an arid, empty landscape.

Wednesday, 31 March 2010

The Sahel

From the days of the earliest Muslim travellers, the land south of the Sahara has been called the ‘Sahel’, or ‘shore’ of the desert. It is where your family has always lived, in this arid belt stretching right across the African continent.

You are used to hardship. In the seventies, when the rains failed, you witnessed one hundred thousand people starve to death and seven hundred and fifty thousand become dependent on aid. Scientists argued about who was at fault. Some said the drought had been magnified by overgrazing and poor land management; that it was all caused by the Sahel’s rising population. Others said air pollution from other countries had stopped the rain and you were the victims of global warming.

You would not leave your land. You thought back to the traditional farming practices of your schooldays, and began to experiment by laying stones across your fields to slow down rainwater and catch silt and seeds. You dug pits filled with manure to attract termites so the soil would become absorbent again.

In twenty years you had a forest. Other farmers were learning from you, joining the fight against the creeping tide of the desert, expanding south by up to forty eight kilometres a year. Seeing your success, local officials annexed your now-valuable land.


Ignoring the heat, you lift the stone to count the ants, bracing yourself for what you might find. You will publish your research and it will be discussed by eminent ecologists and scientists. Surely someone will know what to do.

You look out across Hawaii’s scattered islands. This paradise you call home is the planet’s most isolated archipelago. In the seventy million years since its creation, a new species arrived only every hundred thousand years.

But then your Polynesian ancestors came and settled the islands, hunting the bright-plumed birds to furnish their king with feathers until there were none left. The pigs they brought colonised forests, damaging trees and rooting up the forest floor.

In 1778, Captain James Cook took news of your islands to Europe. Traders came, bringing diseases which reduced your people’s numbers by a fifth. New settlers cut down forests and brought animals and plants from their native lands.

Today half of the islands’ one hundred and forty bird species are extinct. Nearly a third of the twenty thousand species of animals and plants are alien. Like the forest grasses, tree snakes and carnivorous snails, the Argentine ants you study pose yet another risk to Hawaii’s diminishing ecosystem.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Rabbits in Australia

Arriving from England, you became a pioneer settler in Winchelsea, building a mansion in Barwon Park. You joined the Acclimatisation Society, dedicated to studying local plants and animals, introducing any felt to be lacking.

In 1859 you wrote to your nephew in England asking him to send twenty four grey rabbits, five hares, seventy two partridges and some sparrows. You explained, “The introduction of just a few could do little harm and might provide a touch of home, in addition a little spot of hunting.”

Your nephew couldn’t find enough grey rabbits so he added some domesticated creatures into the shipment. The two types created a new breed which was exceptionally hardy and virile.

Your contemporaries praised you for the sport you provided. No-one could have foreseen that within a decade there would be so many rabbits that two million could be culled without noticeable effect; that by the 1950s there would be six hundred million, causing untold damage to crops as well as to the local ecology. That their destruction of native plants would leave the topsoil exposed, creating deep gullies across the landscape. In spite of attempts to control their numbers through trapping, poisoning and the introduction of specially-created diseases, your rabbits continue to multiply.

Monday, 29 March 2010

Juana Maria, the last Nicoleňo

Your island was isolated enough to be missed by ships sailing along the Californian coast. In 1602, a passing Spanish captain named it San Nicolas, but finding no harbour, he sailed away. Your people lived on happily in sixty eight villages with ample food from the sea and seeds and roots from the island’s lush plants to grind into flour.

Little is known of you for the next two hundred years, except that your numbers declined as the last trees were cut down and San Nicolas grew barren.

In 1811, Russian traders brought Aleut huntsmen to kill sea otters. You resisted, and in the battle that followed, many died. In 1835 only seven of your mysteriously tall race remained. The Santa Barbara Mission sent a rescue ship, but in the rough seas, they left with only six.

For eighteen years you lived alone on the island. When another boat finally came, your joy knew no bounds.

They called you Juana Maria. You danced and sang for your new friends. But no one could understand your language, and your body couldn’t cope with mainland food and germs. In just seven weeks, like the rest of your people, you were dead; the last of the Nicoleňo.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

The Aleuts

The scattered archipelago of three hundred rocky islands far out in the Pacific Ocean was your home for eight thousand years. You called yourself Unangan, and your community of twenty five thousand people lived by hunting sea otter and fishing.

In 1741, Russian explorers ‘discovered’ you. They called you Aleuts, and sent back news of rich hunting grounds. Russian fur traders descended on your islands, forcing you to hunt for them. When they ‘discovered’ sea cows, they ate them in such numbers that within twenty seven years they were extinct.

You tried to resist, mounted a revolt, but their brutality and mainland diseases diminished your population to less than a tenth of its original number. You were slaves. You killed more and more otters until they were ‘commercially extinct’ and otter hunting was banned in 1911.

For a while, conservationists were overjoyed to see otter numbers increasing. But today over-fishing has depleted herring and pollock stocks so badly that it has caused sea lion numbers to drop, and killer whales, deprived of their usual prey, are hunting sea otters into a second wave of extinction.

Eleven thousand Aleutian islanders claim Aleut ancestry, but no full-blooded Aleuts survived the Russian occupation.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Kaskaskia, Illinois

Looking out over the bustling river, you think back to how things used to be when the Mississippi’s only traffic was flat-boats piled with hemp and cotton. There were no engines then, river traffic simply floated downstream. You picture yourself in 1823, amazed to see a boat travel against the current, envying the Virginia’s ten lucky passengers.

Now you wish they’d never come. The crews have cut too many trees from the riverbanks to power the steamboat engines. It’s not as if anyone owns those trees; but you think of how much land is barren now, of the bluffs eroding. When you complained in town, no one would listen. Thanks to the riverboats carrying wheat and corn to New Orleans, Kaskaskia had grown to a rich town of seven thousand. Why would anyone question that?

When the riverbanks start to collapse, you say nothing. Everyone puts it down to the rains, and the crews carry on felling trees.

It is only in 1881 that people realise, but it’s too late by then. The Mississippi shifts eastwards into a new channel, destroying most of Kaskaskia. People try to rebuild, but when the town floods again, it is abandoned. Today only nine people remain.


You settled the fertile floodplain of the Mississippi valley one-and-a-half thousand years ago.

After five hundred years of stable occupation, your numbers suddenly exploded. You created a magnificent city with over a hundred mounds linked by community plazas. Your workers took decades to realise this vision. With no pack animals or wheel, they hauled the earth by hand; the largest pyramid, Monks Mound, took more than fourteen million baskets of soil.

By 1250, your culture was one of the most advanced in ancient America and your population was larger than London’s. But it was not a peaceful time; you built a stockade around the city centre, and archaeologists found the largest mass grave in the Americas; with the bodies of those who had been brutally killed, others buried alive.

As your rising population put more and more pressure on the land, you deforested river edges, causing them to erode. The resulting floods made cropland too marshy for corn. Wood ran low. The oak and hickory you burned in the early centuries was replaced by energy-poor softwoods.

Your city went into decline and the population dropped away until, six hundred years ago, you abandoned it, leaving no record of your language or your culture’s real name.

Friday, 12 March 2010

The ancient Olmec civilisation

People can only speculate at the scale of your influence. The Mayans and Aztecs worshipped your gods long after they had forgotten your name. Your city layout was the blueprint for later civilisations. You traded vast distances; your elite collected beautifully-crafted artefacts in jade, obsidian and magnetite. Your people invented the ball-game, the long-count calendar and you started the practice of human sacrifice. Experts wonder what else you bequeathed down the generations, what other ideas and inventions were yours.

But for more than two thousand years your existence was forgotten, until, in the 1850s, a farm worker discovered a colossal carved head. Archaeologists went on to unearth the splendour of San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán with its elaborate structures and complex water systems. They tracked how you used more and more land to feed your growing populace, until soil erosion caused the River Coatzacoalcos to silt up, forcing you to abandon your first great city.

Undaunted, you built magnificent La Venta with its great pyramid. For a thousand years you prospered, until your civilisation suddenly collapsed. Archaeologists think deforestation and overgrazing were to blame, they say your local environment was so depleted that when an earthquake hit you had no reserves and your people starved. Archaeologists call you ‘Olmecs’, but even today no one knows your true name.

Monday, 1 March 2010

The collapse of the Nasca civilisation

You confided your fears in your father but he refused to listen.

‘Of course we must cut down trees. My father farmed this land, and his father before him for sixteen generations. Look at the pottery I give you, the fine woven cloth. Do we not prosper? It is progress. It is what we have always done. We need more land.’

You went out past vast fields in the lower Ica Valley where crops of maize and cotton and squash thrived, watered by underground aqueducts. Your father must be right. The Nasca were blessed by the gods. You climbed up to the high plateau and walked the ritual pathways. The giant figures you had created would keep you safe.

But when the El Niňo hit, your land had no protection. The hurarango trees with their deep roots were gone. The fragile soil was swept away, along with your irrigation systems. You tried to start again but the harvests failed. War raged until the very last of your people died.

For one-and-a-half thousand years the Nasca were forgotten, until the day the first passenger flight crossed the desert, and people looked down in wonder at the mysterious figures you had left in the still, empty desert.