The First Civilization Discovers the Limits of Control

July 6, 2017 | Posted in: Sociology

Void of War, Paul Nash, 1918.

Void of War, Paul Nash, 1918. Courtesy of the Public Domain Review.

“Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.”
Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1877


Sumer is recognized as the first human experiment in urban living, beginning way back in the dimmest days of the historical record, circa 4500 BC. This prosperous civilization reigned in the area of modern day southern Iraq, and a populous like this was only possible with advances in agriculture. The Sumerians’ created vast and complex irrigation systems, drawing from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to water fertile soils. This heroic feat of human effort and ingenuity provided an abundance of grain and other crops, supporting the expanse of Sumer’s empire. The good days of seemingly endless expansion were long, in human generations anyways, but the soils protested.

“Over time … the Sumerians’ dams and canals silted up. Even worse, as the river water carried into fields by irrigation canals evaporated under the hot sun, it left behind its mineral contents, leading to increasingly saline soils. The only way to cope with this problem was to leave the land fallow for long periods of time, but as population pressure increased, this conservation strategy became impossible. Short-term needs outweighed the maintenance of a sustainable agriculture system. The Sumerians were forced, archeological records document, to switch from cultivation of wheat to more salt-tolerant barley, but eventually even barely yields declined in the salt-soaked earth.” Ashley Dawson, Extinction: A Radical History

The situation worsened with the wide-scale deforestation of the expansive cedar forests that had once grown in the region. The expanding population chopped and sawed the forests down to fuel economic growth and the building of new cities. Tree roots that once held soil in place were suddenly gone, and erosion added tons upon tons of sediment to irrigation canals already struggling with mineral heavy waters. Other animals species found themselves driven out of forests into man-made deserts.

“The Sumerians sought to cope with this ecological crisis by bringing new land into cultivation and building new cities. Inevitably, however, they hit the limits of agricultural expansion. Accumulating salts drove crop yields down more than 40% by the middle of the second millennium BCE. Food supplies for the growing population grew inexorably scarcer. Within a few short centuries, these contradictions destroyed ancient Sumerian civilization. The deserts that stretch across much of contemporary Iraq are a monument to this ecological folly.” Dawson

A Sumerian Palace and the "A" cemetery at Kish, Mesopotamia, Ernest Mackay, 1929.

What remains today of a once-great palace of Sumer. A Sumerian Palace and the “A” cemetery at Kish, Mesopotamia, Ernest Mackay, 1929.

Forests to deserts, huge expanding civilizations to complete collapse. It must have seemed to the people of Sumer at its height that an end would never come, that so much power and progress couldn’t be brought down by something as simple as salty soil. Yet, throughout human history this story of ecocide leading to an empire’s disintegration has played out again and again, as if humans simply read history for entertainment not edification. Right up to today, we can see how easy it is to disturb the ecological communities we’re dependent on, and what a difficult and long process restoring balance truly is.


Just one person out of 7 billion + on a journey to live a life that is vibrant, soul-fulfilling, useful to others, and consciously engaged with the ecological community that sustains all life, including mine and yours.