Ancient and modern

The Green party isn’t nearly tough enough on Ancient Greece

Environmentalists such as Theophrastus and Plato were well ahead of them

14 March 2015

9:00 AM

14 March 2015

9:00 AM

The Green party’s manifesto appears to make saving the planet only a small element in its otherwise painfully unoriginal agenda. This is a pity. People have been wreaking environmental havoc for thousands of years, Greeks and Romans included.

Deforestation and subsequent soil erosion were the most serious example of such havoc in the ancient world. Wood was the equivalent of today’s coal and plastic. It provided fuel for houses, baths and industry, especially pottery-firing. We hear of one Phaenippus who made a useful income from his six donkeys bringing firewood into Athens every day. It was the basic building material for everything from chairs to houses and ships (even the pitch with which to caulk them). Ancients knew about coppicing, of course, but where need was great, so was the devastation. Plato commented that Attica had been stripped by timber-cutting and grazing, drying up the water supply in the process; in Roman times Strabo reported that ship-building and the demand for fine housing had cleared Pisa of its forests. Theophrastus (4th century bc, Aristotle’s successor and inventor of the discipline of botany) noted that deforestation and drainage could even affect the local weather.

Clearing of woodland for agriculture was common. Combined with overgrazing, the result was loss of fertile topsoil, flooding and so on. War, endemic in the ancient world, was also highly destructive. Armies took a high toll on woodland, trampled over fields (stunting them for some time), stripped the land for food and deliberately devastated crops or fired woods when they left.

One must not exaggerate this: such effects were local, not universal. But the ancients were still aware of the problems and knew the answer was in their own hands. Xenophon argued that the better earth was served, the more she returned, Columella that the stripping of the land was down to bad husbandry, Seneca that men’s depraved misuse of nature turned a beneficial resource into an active cause of harm.

All very Green. About time the Greens lived up to it.

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  • Callipygian

    Peter, please don’t be so naive (I like your book on the Greeks, by the way: a few cross-references don’t work and you need a more detailed index, but otherwise very good). The Greens aren’t about greenery, darling, they’re about socialism.

    • Molly NooNar

      The Green’s were all about environmentalism, except they never got any coverage.

      As for the Green party’s manifesto, it isn’t out yet

      • Varoufake

        Can’t wait to read the manifesto of the Beyonce Tax Free Condoms No Monarchy Party. When will it be published?