Cultural Practices and Environmental Destruction

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Cultural Practices and Environmental Destruction


All humans rely on the environment and natural resources to fulfill needs and sustain health. People have the greatest impact on the environment in the ways that they exploit natural resources and dispose of waste. If these activities are not managed carefully, environmental damage can affect people, animals, plants, waterways, and other parts of the natural world.

Different human cultures have had varying effects on their environments. Some cultures, particularly hunter-gatherer and small-scale agricultural societies, have little environmental impact. Urban and industrial societies have the greatest effect on the environment, using great amounts of resources to fuel their activity. In some places, the local culture and laws have emphasized environmental protection, and in others this has not been a concern. The results of these policies are often obvious: Some areas have low pollution despite industrial activity, while other areas with similar activity are highly polluted.

Historical Background and Scientific Foundations

All humans affect their environments, but people with different lifestyles create different kinds of changes. The earliest humans were hunter-gatherers, collecting many kinds of plants and hunting animals for food. Because most ecosystems can only support a very small number of hunter-gatherers, the population of early humans remained small. This reduced their effect on the environment, but early humans still caused remarkable changes in animal populations through hunting. According to some anthropologists, hunting by humans caused the extinction of many giant prehistoric animals such as mammoths, giant kangaroos, and wooly rhinoceroses.

When increasing numbers of humans began to stress the environment, early societies developed agriculture to increase the number of calories available from a given area of land. As more calories became available, the human population was able to grow, increasing its impact on the environment. A greater number of humans requires more resources and creates more waste, which pollutes the environment. The practice of agriculture itself changes ecosystems. In most cases, land must be cleared, removing habitat for animals and decreasing natural plant diversity. Plowing destroys native soils and the use of water for irrigation decreases the amount available to the ecosystem. The domestication of animals creates wastes that can be harmful and can stress native plants with their intensive grazing.

Intensive agriculture and industrial activity further increase the human impact on the environment. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, people were either unaware of the damage that their activity was doing to the environment, considered it insignificant, or assumed that it was their right to exploit environmental resources. A combination of significant drought and poor farming practices contributed to the Dust Bowl of the Great Plains region in the United States in the 1930s. Even today, large farms and livestock operations produce runoff that pollutes water sources. As the Industrial Revolution prevailed, most people in America and Great Britain had little understanding of the way industry and its waste affected the environment.

Issues and Impacts

Today, the types and severity of pollution vary greatly around the world. Some of this can be attributed to the kinds of activities and resources available in an area, and some to cultural attitudes and practices regarding the environment. A vivid example is the extensive deforestation of


DEFORESTATION: A reduction in the area of a forest resulting from human activity.

ECOSYSTEM: The community of individuals and the physical components of the environment in a certain area.

HUNTER-GATHERERS: Human groups that subsist on game and gathered vegetation.

RUNOFF: Water that falls as precipitation and then runs over the surface of the land rather than sinking into the ground.

Haiti compared with the relatively untouched forests of the Dominican Republic, located on the other half of the same small island. In Haiti, poor economic conditions, political turmoil, reliance on charcoal as fuel, and lack of enforcement of environmental laws has meant that only 2 to 4% of the country’s native forests now survive.

The extensive pollution produced by industrial activities in modern China highlights some cultural differences between developing countries and the west. In China and other developing nations, many residents do not consider pollution as a problem, or consider it to be less serious than outside observers do. Others argue that today’s developed countries attained their status by creating pollution, therefore developing countries deserve that same right.

Countries such as the United States have learned from experience that unregulated pollution eventually causes serious problems that are expensive to remedy. Citizens and regulators demanded that industry produce less pollution and that contamination be cleaned up. After many years of living under anti-pollution legislation, Americans and citizens of many other countries have come to expect low levels of pollution and lower-impact methods of logging, mining, and manufacturing. Developing nations like China are already seeing the effects of environmental destruction in rising rates of disease. Already, many residents of these countries are demanding that their governments protect them from dangerous pollution and slow the environmental destruction that is consuming vital resources.

See Also Deforestation; Human Impacts; Hunting Practices; Sustainable Development



Kahn, Joseph, and Jim Yardley. “As China Roars, Pollution Reaches Deadly Extremes.” New York Times (August 26, 2007).

Katz, Jonathan M. “Haiti Deforestation a Means for Survival.” Contra Costa Times (February 17, 2008).

Web Sites

The Economist. “Nobel or Savage?” December 19, 2007. (accessed March 27, 2008).

Iowa State University. “A Brief History of Environmentalism.” (accessed March 27, 2008).

University of South Dakota. “The Dust Bowl.” (accessed March 27, 2008).

Kenneth Travis LaPensee

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Cultural Practices and Environmental Destruction

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