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The Erosion of Civilization

The Fertile Crescent's fall holds a message for today's troubled spots.

June 15, 2003|Jared Diamond | Jared Diamond is a professor of geography and environmental health sciences at UCLA. His book "Guns, Germs, and Steel: the Fates of Human Societies" won a 1998 Pulitzer Prize.

Iraq sits along a stretch of land once so productive that the whole region -- which included present-day Syria, Iran and Jordan -- was known as the Fertile Crescent. In ancient times, the area led the world in agriculture and technology. It's hard to reconcile that history with the reality of today, when the term "Infertile Crescent" would seem more appropriate.

The Fertile Crescent's current desperation stands as testament to the steepest downturn of local fortunes since the end of the last Ice Age. For 8,000 years Iraq and its neighbors led the world as the source of most things embodied in the term "civilization." Technology, ideas and power flowed outward from Iraq to Europe and eventually to America. Iraq's decline holds lessons the world should heed.

The region's ancient dominance didn't arise from any biological superiority of its people, just as America's dominance today has nothing to do with our own biology. Instead, Fertile Crescent peoples profited from an accident of biogeography: They had the good fortune to occupy the world's largest zone of Mediterranean climate, home to the largest number of wild plant and animal species suitable for domestication. Until 8500 BC, all the world's peoples obtained their food by gathering wild plants and hunting wild animals. Then the ancient Iraqis and other Fertile Crescent peoples began to develop farming and herding, domesticating wild wheat, barley, peas, sheep, goats, pigs and cows. Even today, these species remain the world's staple crops and livestock. Agriculture fueled a population explosion, and also generated food surpluses that could be used to feed full-time professional specialists, who no longer had to devote time to procuring their own food.

These specialists fed by agriculture included smiths and metal workers, who developed the world's first copper tools around 5000 BC, bronze tools around 3000 BC and iron tools around 1500 BC. The specialists also included accountants and scribes, who developed the world's first writing system around 3400 BC. That was a huge head start: Writing didn't reach what is now the United States until 5,000 years later. It makes Iraq's current rate of illiteracy an especially cruel irony.

Agriculture also fed politicians, bureaucrats and judges. That's why the world's first states arose in Iraq around 3500 BC, and the first multiethnic empire arose there around 3000 BC. The Middle East continued to lead and dominate western Eurasia for several thousand more years, and its languages were spoken from Ireland to India. The English we speak today grew out of the Indo-European languages originally spoken by Middle Eastern peoples, and the fact that people in the United States speak it -- as opposed to a language derived from ancient Algonquin or some other Native American language family -- is a testament to the Middle East's ancient dominance.

So how did Fertile Crescent peoples lose that big lead? The short answer is ecological suicide: They inadvertently destroyed the environmental resources on which their society depended. Just as the region's rise wasn't due to any special virtue of its people, its fall wasn't due to any special blindness on their part. Instead, they had the misfortune to be living in an extremely fragile environment, which, because of its low rainfall, was particularly susceptible to deforestation.

When you clear a forest in a high-rainfall tropical area, new trees grow up to a height of 15 feet within a year; in a dry area like the Fertile Crescent, regeneration is much slower. And when you add to the equation grazing by sheep and goats, new trees stand little chance. Deforestation led to soil erosion, and irrigation agriculture led to salinization, both by releasing salt buried deep in the ground and by adding salt through irrigation water. After centuries of degradation, areas of Iraq that formerly supported productive irrigation agriculture are today salt pans where nothing grows.

Once the Fertile Crescent began to decline for those environmental reasons, hostile neighbors helped speed the process. The original flow of power westward from the Fertile Crescent reversed in 330 BC, when the Macedonian army of Alexander the Great advanced eastward to conquer the eastern Mediterranean. In the Middle Ages, Mongol invaders from Central Asia destroyed Iraq's irrigation systems. After World War I, England and France dismembered the Ottoman Empire and carved out Iraq and other states as pawns of European colonial interests. As the end product of this history, the former world center of wealth, power and civilization is now poor in everything except oil. Iraq's leaders ensured that few benefits of that oil reached their people.

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