In many instances Coates refers to how throughout history and even in today’s age some nature is placed above other nature. These places range from ancient sacred groves to national parks and wildlife preserves. Coates described the Ancient Greeks as having shrines and temples in the most beautiful places that had guards to make sure they were left undisturbed. Coates finds such places to be the “classical national parks” (pg 31). Coates also describes a Cypress tree in California that is protected by law. Another example he uses is the United States law against killing a Bald Eagle, because it is a National Symbol. Coates several examples point out that our biased love of some nature if not a new thing, but has been happening throughout history as well.Although people mean well by protecting these beautiful animals of landmarks and species, do not all places and animals deserve to be treated with such respect?
As Coates describes the history of man’s view of nature and environmentalism it becomes evident that pollution and environmental degradation are not just modern human’s doing. A quote from Rene Dubos states that the pollution and degradation have always existed, but that “world population constantly increased and the means of destruction became more powerful” (pg 17). Coates describes how Europe was deforested for firewood, which also released greenhouse gases, and to make room for agriculture. Rene Dubos states that “the goat has probably contributed even more than modern bulldozers to the destruction of the land and the creation of deserts” (pg 28). In the Middle Ages, peasants were oppressed and were not able to use much of the land. However, eventually this rule was abolished and the peasants were set loose. The peasants treated the land as if they were the King of it, cutting down “two firs to make a single pair of wooden shoes” (pg 47). All of these examples point to one possible outlook: humans have always thought that they were in charge of nature, instead of a part of nature. Humans have always used nature for their own benefit, never thinking of how they are impacting the environment or others living there. As George Marsh states “Wherever he plants his foot, the harmonies of nature are turned to discords” (pg 21).
Elephants, an endangered species, were always thought to be that way because of the ivory trade. This is mostly true, however, its also true that their habitat destruction and use as beasts of war also helped to decimate their population. Elephants could be tamed and then taught to charge, spearing opponents with their large tusks and stomping people into the ground.
In ancient Rome a common form of entertainment came in the form of venationes, or the staged hunts in which professional killers killed animals for an audience. One protest to this absurdity came from Cicero saying “what pleasure can it give to a civilized man when…a noble beast is pierced through and through by a hunting spear?” (pg 38).This practice was also compared to Nazis “who were in many other respects decent and well-balanced individuals, could be conditioned into thinking of such acts as utterly normal” (pg 39). Just as the Nazis would go home to a their loving families, so would the participants and spectators of the venationes. Looking back on these examples modern humans see them for the cruel and intolerable acts that they are, but they turn a blind eye to those happening in the present. Do not the majority of people eat an animal that has been treated with cruelty its whole life and then killed with cruelty, but go home and shower their dog or cat with love and adoration? One again this is the treatment of one species as better than another.
In one section in the Middle Ages chapter Coates describes the effect Christianity plays in the way that humanity regarded nature. Christianity turned the focus from nature to God and God’s children who were created in his image, humans. This separated humans from nature by grouping them with God so therefore superior to nature and other creatures. This furthered the human idea of exploiting nature for their own benefit. Coates also states that the Christian belief in Armageddon furthers humans exploitation of nature, because if the world is going to end why should we take care of it? However, although Christians are above nature and its inhabitants, they do not rule over them (that’s God’s job). Instead God wants humans to be stewards of nature.
Coates also describes the animal trials in Europe. In such trials animals were put on trial for their “crimes.” These ranged from murder to criminal trials. Some examples include:
- A donkey accused of bestiality was confirmed innocent after witnesses testified of her good behavior and virtue, while her human counterpart was put to death.
- A rooster was put on trial for the act of laying an egg, which was supposedly spawned by the devil.
- Many pigs were put on trial and found guilty for murder.
Native Americans are generally thought of as ecologically friendly and are praised for exhibiting the right way to live in harmony with nature. They are at one with nature, taking only what they need when they need it. However this is a broad generalization. Not all Native American tribes lived similarly. Some participated in deforestation for agricultural purposes, some participated in the European fur trade, and according to Paul Martin, some were responsible for the extinction for megafauna such as mammoths and mastodons. The Native Americans had a different way of living than anything Europeans were used to seeing. However, just because it was different does not mean it was more environmentally friendly.