Ecosystem changes in Jamestown

In the May 2007 issue of National Geographic Magazine, one finds an interesting article by Charles C. Mann, “America Found & Lost”, a study of the ecosystem changes triggered around Jamestown (Chesapeake Bay) by the arrival of the English colonists in the beginning of the seventeenth century. On the magazine’s website, there is an interesting interactive presentation in which the (dramatic) changes triggered by the new settlers in the ecosystem inhabited and settled originally by the Powhatan, are presented. Not only did the colonists introduce large domestic animals (horses, pigs, honeybees, …) and bring with them other animals such as worms and rats, they also introduced new ways of cultivating the land while at the same time focussing on new crops, such as lucrative tobacco. Moreover, with the European settlers came also the illnesses they were suffering, amongst which malaria.

On p. 44 of the article, we find a nice summary of what happened: “In Virginia, despite previous contacts with Europeans, the Powhatan had somehow avoided any epidemics and were going strong when the Jamestown colonists arrived. Yet by the late 17th century, the Powhatan has lost control of their land. What happened? — One answer emerging points to what historian Alfred Crosby calls ‘ecological imperialism.’ The tassasntassas [refers to the colonists] replaced or degrade so much of the native ecosystem that they made it harder and harder for the Indians to survive in the native lands. As the colonists bitterly came to realize that Virginia had no gold and that the Indians weren’t going to selflessly provide them with all the food they needed, they began to mold the land to their needs. Unable to adapt to this forreign landscape, they transformed it into a place they could understand. In doing so, they unleashed what would become a multilevel ecological assault on North America. Their unlikely weapons in this initial phase of the campaign: tobacco, honeybees, and domestic animals.

It is interesting to see an historical account of profound ecosystem changes – with all their social consequences – brought about by colonisation: human beings have the power to change (part consciously, part unconsciously) their natural environment, and in doing so they also trigger societal changes. So, human conditioned ecosystem changes are also connected to power play. This is an important lesson for us today, as we attempt to imagine and trigger a sustainable world for all. In the case of the Jamestown area, the ecosystem changes were dramatic but not fatal, in the sense that the region remained habitable, be it for a different and a new kind of people. Today, we are confronted with ecosystem changes, triggered by human actiivities, that may wel result in even far more dramatic consequences for human life. The question is asked how (and even whether) human beings will be able to adapt to the environmental changes: are we going to be confronted with “breakdown” (that allows for creative re-structuring) or “collapse”, to use the terminology of Thomas Homer-Dixon in his recent The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization (Washington …: Island Press, 2006), a book which can profitably be read in conjunction with Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive (London …: Allen Lane, Penguin, 2005). Both authors point to the importance of becoming aware of and assuming the responsibility for a sustainable future, precisely at a moment when we become more and more conscious of the human impact on environmental changes (with their consequent social changes). Historical studies as the one presented in the National Geographic Magazine article offer us a visualisation and a concrete case of such realities.


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