They saw value in nature for its own sake. The world was not cut up, divided and measured into how useful it was for man. The forests were good in their own right regardless of the fact that they provided us with firewood and building materials.
Civilization changed this. One culture out of the tens of thousands decided that the world belonged to man. It was ours by right. Suddenly in their eyes the world became one big farm for human food. A new way of life was born. The people of civilization sought to turn as much of the land as possible into producing human food. The more food they produced the more people they could support. As their population grew they expanded geographically. From one tiny starting point in the Fertile Crescent civilization spread across the entire globe. All in a mere 10,000 years.
Tribal cultures were sustainable because their vision meant they did not devour the world. They did not see the world as theirs so they did not turn the world all into human food. Their vision of man belonging to the world meant they were happy just to take what they needed and let the rest of creation do its own thing. They did not seek to control nature and obtain mastery over the planet.
Our civilization at its very core is unsustainable. Our destructive nature is caused by this vision that the world is ours by right. Whenever we cut down a forest to turn it into farmland we are displacing other life forms. But we do not think about that. Of course we can cut down the forest. Who cares about the birds and insects; they do not own the forest, we do. For 10,000 years we have been adding more human mass to the planet and at an equal rate non-human life has been disappearing.
Now as the human population grows faster than ever other species are dying out at an alarming rate. 200 species a day are becoming extinct. Our place at the top of the food chain is preserved only by maintaining the integrity of the earth's ecosystem as a whole. The more we destroy the other life forms that support us the more likely it is that the structure of the ecosystem will crumble. The straw that breaks the camels back is not that far away.
What To Do?
Most of the environmental messages you hear today are messages of shallow ecology. Recycle, ride your bike, do not use plastic bags, do not waste paper etc etc. Shallow ecology realizes that we are destroying the planet. So it encourages us to refrain from that - but only so we can continue to own it and exercise our control over it.
Deep ecology advocates a change at the fundamental level of our culture. Recycling will not save us. Changing the vision, seeing ourselves as a part of the community of life is what needs to change.
Change the vision and the actions will naturally follow. But try and mitigate a destructive vision with minor actions like Eco-friendly light bulbs and you will fail.
Thomas Maurer is a writer who explores the links between our culture, individual suffering and the present environmental crisis. He is an advocate of Deep Ecology which argues that man is a part of nature; not divorced from nature and needing to control it.