Sustainability in Geography and History

As long as humans have been on the earth, we have been interacting with the environment. We hunted and gathered. We harnessed the power of fire. We learned to hunt more efficiently and eventually learned to farm. We dug irrigation ditches. We terraced hills to grow crops on them. We began to settle and harvest resources in ever increasing numbers from the earth. We have depended on the natural systems on earth (along with our alterations and adaptations) to survive and thrive here. Sustainability is the balancing point. When human practices are such that the environment can remain productive indefinitely, you have sustainability. When our practices cause the environment to lose its productivity, we lose sustainability.

One theory about the weakening and end of ancient Sumerian civilization has to do with unsustainable farming practices. This theory holds that the ancient Sumerians, by way of irrigation and the evaporation of that water, left salt in the fields to the point that the farms were no longer productive enough to sustain their civilization as it existed.

A theory of the decline of Maya civilization also has to do with the overuse of the land for agriculture. This led to poor production, famine, and decline. The way the Maya lived became unsustainable.

The Dust Bowl of the 1930s in the Great Plains of the United States is attributed by many to unsustainable farming as well. As the west opened up for settlers, land was given to them by the government – homesteads. Crop prices rose, and farmers plowed up more and more land to capitalize on it. As wheat and corn replaced the native prairie grasses of the Great Plains, the environment’s natural wind erosion control system was seriously removed. Then when drought and high winds hit in the 1930s, the topsoil of the Great Plains blew away. Farmers then had to learn to farm in ways that were more sustainable.

Sustainability has been an issue for humans since the beginning. In looking at history, we can see time and time again that ignoring the balance that must exist between humankind and nature can have devastating effects. Just ask the Sumerians, Maya, and Great Plains farmers of the Dust Bowl era.

Ancient Mesopotamia - Babylon

In a few months when the spring floods arrive, it will be very different. For now though it is a peaceful scene. Boats laden with trade goods float lazily down the Euphrates River. Beside the river, children play in the shade beneath date palms that wave gently in the breeze. Farmers work in their fields, finishing up the barley harvest and praising the gods for the bounty they provided. Beyond the fields stands a great wall that protects the city from invaders and the floods, and inside the wall is a city unlike any other. Once the largest city in the world. This is the great Mesopotamian City of Babylon.

A visitor to ancient Babylon would have witnessed a scene bustling with activity. At its height, Babylon boasted a population over 200,000 people. Located in the heart of Mesopotamia, Babylon lay in a very fertile area between the Tigris and Euphrates River. In modern terms, Babylon was about 50 miles south of Baghdad, Iraq. Because of its location, Babylon was at the crossroads of trade within Mesopotamia. It was also in a great spot for trade between Asia Minor, Egypt, India, and Persia.

The history of Babylon mirrors the history of Mesopotamia itself. Throughout the centuries, the city (and the region) has been conquered, destroyed, and rebuilt to greatness many times. Babylon was the seat of power for King Hammurabi’s Babylonian Empire. Later, another great king, Nebuchadnezzar, is said to have built his “hanging gardens” in Babylon to remind his wife of her home in the mountains. Alexander the Great took his last breath in Babylon, and after his empire crumbled, the city never really regained its greatness. Today it lies in ruins, but it serves as a reminder of the achievements of the people of Mesopotamia that once called it home.

Religion of Ancient Mesopotamia

Religion was an important part of daily life of ancient cultures going all the way back to the earliest hunter-gatherers. Why are we here? Why do the rivers flow? Where do the animals come from? What is that bright thing in the sky that warms us? Questions such as these led to the beginnings of organized religion. The Ancient Mesopotamians had one of the first organized religions ever, and it dominated daily life for them too.

The Ancient Mesopotamians were polytheistic. They believed in more than one god. In fact, they believed in a great many gods (over 500 of them). A few of these gods were Anu, lord of the sky, Enki, god of water and intelligence, Enlil, god of wind and storms, Inanna, goddess of love and war, and Shamash, the sun god. Mesopotamian people prayed and left offerings to these and other gods and goddesses to show devotion and hopefully win their favor. The Mesopotamians believed that they were put on earth to serve the gods.

Reconstruction of the Ziggurat of Ur in modern-day Iraq. (From Wikipedia - CC BY 3.0)

Mesopotamian cities had temples called ziggurats where the gods were believed to live. Some people think the Tower of Babel from the bible was a ziggurat in Babylon. These step-shaped mud temples had a shrine at the top and even had bedrooms and dining rooms for the gods. Priests were stationed at the ziggurats to serve the gods and offer sacrifices. Priests were the only people allowed on or in the ziggurats. As you can imagine, priests were very important people in Mesopotamian society. In some Ancient Mesopotamian periods, the period of Sumerian civilization for example, the kings actually served as head priest too. We call them priest-kings.

The Mesopotamians believed in an afterlife, but it was not much like the modern concept of heaven that many people today have. The Mesopotamians thought that they descended to an underworld where they basically continued their job as servants to the gods.