Dear Editor.

Over the years a number of articles have come to my attention about discovered ancient remnants of past civilizations. In England some excavations were as much as 40-feet deep. In Rome, archeologists found layers of structural improvements built over other layers down to more than 100-feet.

An explanation of the varying depths was never given. The evidence gathered was on the carbon dating, design, usage and attempts to reconstruct a narrative of how the societies functioned. The efforts to understand mankind’s past is a laudable enterprise, but as a subject of investigation should not be separated from the environmental conditions that in large part made the activities necessary.

What made those specific sites attractive to human habitation was the availability of resources necessary. Fresh water, materials for shelters, naturally found food sources and soil conditions that allowed for extensive agriculture were the essential criteria for site selection. Good water implied a watershed that was well forested to allow for infiltration of rainfall that results in sizeable aquifers, year-long running streams and rivers. It also resulted in the gradual accumulation of sediments that provide for alluvial plains, which with minimal periodic flooding, establish soils of a high fertility.

Those conditions became the idyllic vision of an earthly paradise. Not only did that pristine environment make human habitation possible, it was, up to a point, the condition that fostered population growth, the eventual division of labor that initiated the crafts and later still, the arts. In time, the carrying capacity of the land was reached, forests were reduced or completely removed, watersheds impacted to where they were no longer adequate or simply degraded due to unsanitary uses up stream. And so, the time came when ever-more distant lands needed to be accessed for needed resources of what became the city-state of the ancient world.

The idea not considered acceptable to a great number of those city-states was the observation of limitations imposed by the carrying capacity of their particular environments. When that time arrived and it became clear that they were not able to obtain the needed food and other necessities from their immediate surroundings, they ventured further to accessible sources. In turn, as other growing centers of habitation were encountering similar conditions, this brought on the necessity of naval forces to secure those distant sources and the established sea-lanes utilized. That is a very concise, but reasonably complete picture to consider the resulting problems of a development scheme that did not consider the outcome of a dramatically changed environment.

Like those early city-states, most societies today do not want to factor in the negatives associated with growth. Of immediate consideration would be the development occurring in the Virgin Islands. Our local government, carefully considered, operates in a dysfunctional manner more often than not. An illustration of this would be the many studies undertaken, at considerable cost to taxpayers, which then became unpalatable to enact as a revamped comprehensive development plan. And so, today, there are only the antiquated zoning/development ordinances; regulatory measures that fall far short of the intent required. When large-scale projects are proposed, the approval process becomes highly politicized and decisions rendered are contrary to environmental, esthetic or cultural considerations.

This seemingly haphazard growth of our economy and ballooning government deficits are, after all, not unrelated. Tax-abatement incentives that encourage growth, but place the burden of associated infrastructure and government services on the backs of the smaller taxpayers, are thinly-disguised efforts that avoid serious consideration to incorporate the public’s vision of what’s desirable to preserve and the needed discussion on how to recalibrate economic activity so it serves the needs of all residents. Electoral politics, practiced as a wheel of fortune for most office holders and their respective political parties are, however, not the cause but a consequence. They will continue as the gate-keepers holding the offering box for lobbyists and private interests until such a time when the electorate demands a constitutional convention that produces a document that includes the public funding of elections, thereby ending the influence of private contributions.

The temptation to digress has been considerable, but those impulses need to be reined in to address the principle concern here: EROSION! Our eroding prospects for good governance, pale in comparison to soil erosion that we ultimately depend on for locally grown sustenance, the natural reserve of water that aquifers have accumulated over durations of time, and the lush vegetation so many of our visitors associate with the “paradise” in which they desire to vacation. When that washes away, decimating the already stressed coral formations — well, in truth there will be no good reason for even the great majority of residents to remain, will there? Perhaps the only positive aspect in that scenario is that desert isles are not conducive to corrupt government. Small comfort indeed!

With ever-steeper hillsides being developed as prime locations, the inevitable consequence of a reduced forest canopy, less rainfall infiltration along with more surface run-off and the resulting greater erosion, we are, in fact, doing nothing more than repeating history. When the ancients chose to build with stone, we might interpret that as a rational decision toward permanence. Just as likely, however, it was a consequence of little choice, as receding forests were almost exclusively devoted to ship-building as war became increasingly necessary. Initially this may have been understood as “progress” civilization has been credited with, but to arrive at the truth required us to dig a lot deeper. Today, the call for “resilience” as a necessary element toward the goal of “sustainability” suggests neither the ancient past nor our current actions are as yet well understood. If we have not come to understand that conservation of forests is the means by which civilization is preserved, then we haven’t learned much. German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) said it best: “What experience and history teach is this: that nations and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted upon any lessons they might have drawn from it.”

— Hugo A. Roller resides on St. John.