Revisiting Ancient Innovations for Modern Environmental Problems

When you think of the words “innovation” and “technology,” what do you immediately associate them with? Most likely, it’s something to do with modernity, futurism, and development. The word that probably won’t make the list is “ancient.” And yet, ancient natural technologies might well give us the answer to adapting to climate change that we desperately seek in modern innovations.

Looking both forward and backwards

For decades, we’ve assumed that, in the face of development, the destruction of nature is inevitable. Thus we tend to shrug off tree-felling in favor of flashy apartment complexes or ignore the razing down of critical forests to make way for highways. But the scarily reducing amounts of forest cover, the high rates of pollution, and unbearable weather shifts have put paid to that. The world is waking up to the stark reality that we can no longer degrade nature for development or stand neutral ground. To restore some semblance of balance, whatever we create next must add to nature.

Ancient wisdom can help us design more sustainable infrastructure without exploiting or outright destroying nature. In responding to climate change with complex infrastructures and monotonous high-tech design, we’re forgetting that we sit on a goldmine of millennia-old knowledge — about living in symbiosis with nature and striking a balance between growth and harmony.

Granted, not everything we leave in the past needs to be resurrected. But it’s worth understanding that some ancient innovations and processes might still serve us well. The point of looking both forward and backwards is to arm ourselves with a wide range of tools to adapt to climate change.

This isn’t all bluster. Plenty of countries around the world are looking to ancient wisdom for guidance and have reached levels of innovation that perfectly balance what was previously considered un-balanceable. Here are some examples!

Bolivia, South America: Elevated fields to cope with droughts

In Bolivia, Oscar Saavedra’s non-profit, Sustainable Amazonia, has taught 500 families a method of agriculture that he found by studying ancient archaeology. Saavedra was looking for ways to counter the catastrophic effects of climate change on crops and discovered that ancient farmers also faced the same problems: days of flooding followed by severe drought. He brought Camellones back from 400 BC — 7-feet high elevated fields that stood higher than floodwater levels and were surrounded by canals. During flood season, the canals would hold the water to prevent the fields from flooding. During droughts, the same nutrient-rich canal water would be used to irrigate the fields.

Kolkata, India: An organic wastewater treatment system

To call the Bheri wastewater aquaculture system an organic wastewater treatment system would misrepresent the number of additional roles this organic technology plays. It features 300 fish ponds that carry out chemical-free water purification by relying on not coal power but a combination of bacteria, algae, sewage, and sunshine. It’s also a source of food, an agricultural field, and a way of cleaning wastewater before it enters the Bay of Bengal. This non-tech innovation has made its way to Bangladesh, Thailand, Germany, and France to be used as a sustainable form of wastewater management and aquaculture.

Heilongjiang, China: Ducks to patrol rice paddies

In Heilongjiang, chilly winters delayed the hatching of pests in agricultural areas. However, with global warming came higher temperatures, which meant pests grew in leaps and bounds way ahead of schedule. To combat this, farmers desperately turned to liters of pesticides. It worked — the pests were destroyed — but with them went large swathes of the region’s wildlife, too. Fang Yongjiang, a farmer, thought up a chemical-free approach that required no technology — only the clever thinking of ancestry 600 years ago and a few ducks. Fang introduced ducks into rice paddies to feed on the weeds and insects so pesticides wouldn’t be needed. Their droppings doubled up as natural fertilizer, which was a win-win. Fang initially began with a handful of ducks over 25 acres. In just a few years, other rice growers also implemented the ancient wisdom to bring the number up to 500 acres of pesticide- and fertilizer-free rice paddies monitored by ducks.

Looking to agricultural heritage sites for wisdom

The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has recognized agricultural historic sitessince 2002. Their fundamental mission to improve sustainable food systems now includes this programme.

They recognize that we have plenty to learn from our ancestors, especially when it comes to implementing nutritionally and biologically sound techniques in harmony with nature. The goal is to assist the international community in advancing food production systems that efficiently use natural resources while also protecting soil health and biodiversity. Simultaneously, they work to meet economic, social, and environmental requirements through resilient food systems that also tackle climate change problems. It’s a big ask, but one that’s worthy of undertaking.

The involvement of the FAO is instrumental in providing institutional support for such sites. Public policy at the local level can build up the resilience of rural communities, support the right kind of innovations and safeguard natural resources at the same time. As of 2018, 50 sites across 20 countries have been recognized as critical agricultural heritage systems. They’re being conserved and studied over time.

Technology attuned to nature

Many of these ancient innovations are absolutely in tune with nature, using available resources cleverly to create a mutually beneficial relationship. They might be simple or complex, but usually, they’re already there in our history books if we took a closer look. As they say, history repeats itself — and a lot of our modern problems were also faced by ancestors when their times were considered “modern.”

There is no silver bullet solution that will resolve everything. It’s also not ideal to say that all of the ancient innovations can be applied today. But the fact of the matter is that there’s no harm in revisiting the past during research if only to discover nature-friendly ways to tackle problems and draw distinctive patterns. These ideas are usually dismissed as backward and not suitable for our times, but there are no written rules that today’s problems have to be solved by spending millions of dollars on futuristic machines.

The final word

80% of the world’s remaining ecosystems are in the hearts of the lands of indigenous people. For millennia, they’ve lived in harmony with nature without giving up on progress — and that goes to show that there is hope yet for environmentally-friendly solutions to modern problems. Ecology depends on the interdependence of multiple processes and schools of thought, so it’s impossible to say that there’s one right way to tackle all of the world’s environmental problems. It is important to note that solutions are often dictated by those in power, not those living the story. The smart way to go about adapting to climate change is to listen to those who’ve shown resilience in the face of it for years and reach a happy balance.

No matter where we live, we’re all still dependent on the same web of life. There is immense value in looking at solutions that succeeded in the past to see whether we can correct our course in time.

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Bas Fransen, CEO EcoMatcher

EcoMatcher connects companies, communities, and consumers through trustworthy and transparent tree-planting.