Impact of European Expansion on the Environment

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Impact of European Expansion on the Environment


Technology has facilitated the transportation of a mass of people from one part of the world to another. This massive human travel, either it be the exploration, colonization, or trade of the early European nations or the contemporary infrastructure of trade, tourism, or globalization, has impacted the environment and the humans involved. This paper focuses on the era of European expansion to examine the effect of human travel on the environment and humans. The Europeans were not only responsible for the actual exploitation of natural resources in the places they discovered, but they also took diseases, new technologies, and non-native plant and animal species which had a tremendous impact on the native human population as well as the environment.

The hunger for more natural resources and the need to trade for exotic goods were the main causes for European exploration and colonization. Even though religion was used as a “pretext” for European expeditions, “gold” was the real motive (1). Cippola further explains that, “Through the idea of mission and crusade the conquistadores succeeded where the medieval merchants failed and were able to reconcile the antithesis between business and religion that had plagued the conscience of medieval Europe”(2). Cipolla also discards Malthusian pressure as a possible cause for European expansion. Devastating and recurrent epidemics were constantly keeping the population growth in check and “no population pressure of any relevance was felt in Europe till the second half of the eighteenth century” (3). By eliminating these two powerful driving forces as the motivation for expansion, Cipolla claims that European expansion was basically a commercial venture (4). This expansion, being a very aggressive commercial venture, has some effect on the environment. The Europeans exploited the natural resources of the places they ‘discovered’. Excessive mining for natural resources and deforestation for shipbuilding are examples of environmental damages caused by European expansion (5). As the expansion spread throughout the world and the European Empires grew bigger and stronger, so did the pressure put on the environment to sustain this expansion.

In addition to the actual exploitation of the natural resources of discovered nations and the harm to the environment associated with it, the Europeans brought with them diseases and introduced non-native plant and animal species that had catastrophic effect on to the native human population and the ecosystem, respectively.

Even though the Europeans ventured into all the continents, the Americas were the ones that were greatly affected by the diseases that traveled with the Europeans.

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One possible explanation for this trend is that the “geophysical condition of most part of the Americas were not forbidding” like other continents such as Africa where the few Europeans who tried to settle were “rapidly killed or incapacitated by malaria, tropical fevers, disease and lethal climate” (6). More importantly, the native population in the Americas turned out to have no natural immunity to the wide range of Europeans diseases (7). First, Smallpox, carried by the relief expedition sent to help Cortes, followed by an epidemic of measles, typhus, and influenza killed several million natives (8). The already devastated population of the Americas was also affected by the arrival of more disease from Africa as a result of the trade routes that were established to bring in slaves and commercial goods (9).

The non-native plants and animals the Europeans brought over to the parts of the world they discovered also had a devastating impact on the environment. For example, after the discovery of New Zealand by Captain Cook, the British brought many of their own plants and animals, including rabbits, deer, opossum, willow, poplar, gorse (10). These non-native plants and animals flourished in the new environment but at the huge cost of the indigenous plants and animals. Established ecosystems have developed methods of keeping the natural balance and control over time and this intricate balance in nature is crucial for the survival of the plants and animals that belong to this ecosystem. When non-native species are introduced in such a system, they can upset this existing balance, reduce biodiversity, degrade habitats, alter native genetic diversity, and transmit exotic diseases to native species (11). The Europeans brought horses to ride and cattle to eat to North America. They also brought spices and seeds to plant (wheat, barley, potatoes) in the new world. However mixed in with the seeds were weeds and other plants. These unwanted plants sometimes flourished and replaced native plants. In the same way, the increase in number of non-native horses and burros, mainly in the western United States, subsequently decreased the food supply available to the native deer and antelopes. The main reason why these non-native species thrive in a new environment is due to the abundance of food sources and the lack of natural predators or parasites to moderate their growth (12). For example, there are almost no native predators for the burros and horses and “as long as they can find food, their numbers grow as does their impact on the environment” (13).

Furthermore, the technologies brought by the Europeans to the new world had an effect on the environment. The introduction of guns affected the eastern sub arctic region the most (14). Using guns, Europeans hunted for furs and destroyed the local wildlife. “Often they just skinned the animals and left the meat to rot” (15), which caused a shortage of food and fur for the natives in the area. In addition, the introduction of this technology to the native population had a similar impact. The Cree, one of the largest native groups, moved south into the Great Plains to hunt bison using guns. The bison population, estimated to be up to 70 million, was at the verge of extinction after the introduction of guns and the subsequent abuse of this technology (16).

In conclusion, the European expansion had greatly affected the environment and the people involved. The actual exploitation of natural resources of the discovered places, the diseases, non-native species, and technologies they brought along with them, took their toll on the native population and the environment. Even in our modern time, human travel continues to affect the environment and humans in the same manner as discussed in this paper. Although we do not have an entire population getting wiped out because of the lack of immunity to certain diseases, we still suffer from the effect of the transportation of non-native species and ‘bad’ technologies crossing country and continent boundaries. The effect of globalization, the ultimate product of human travel and cooperation, has not been completely determined yet. Human travel will continue to have an impact on the environment, for the better or worse.

Notes
1) Cippola, 133
2) Cippola, 132
3) Cipolla, 133
4) Cipolla, 134
5) Link to Jessie’s paper
6) Cipolla, 144
7) Ponting, 224
8) Ponting, 232
9) Ponting, 232
10) http://www.scholars.nus.edu.sg/landow/post/nz/nzmaori5.html
11) http://www.eco-pros.com/invasive_non-native_species.htm
12) http://www.envirotacklebox.org/teacherguide/module3/3nns.htm
13) http://www.envirotacklebox.org/teacherguide/module3/3nns.htm
14) http://www.funsocialstudies.learninghaven.com/ articles/natives2.htm
15) http://www.funsocialstudies.learninghaven.com/ articles/natives2.htm
16) http://www.cws-scf.ec.gc.ca/hww-fap/hww-fap.cfm?ID_species=67&lang=e


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