It is human nature to make mistakes. However, there are mistakes and blunders of such a magnitude that are hard to forget – the effect of them is felt for decades by residents of entire countries and continents, or even the entire planet. We have collected several cautionary tales on the topic of “We meant well, but it turned out as usual.”
DESTROYED THE FOREST
An example of irrational human activity is Easter Island. Before being settled by Polynesians in the 9th and 10th centuries, the legendary island was densely covered with greenery, and by 1600 there were no traces of the forest.
For centuries, people have been cutting down trees for agricultural land, to build boats, houses, fuel, and to create special wooden sledges for transporting maoi – giant stone statues of gods. Uncontrolled felling of trees led to soil erosion, reduced crop yields, and eventually resulted in a decline in population and complete degradation: people died of starvation, cannibalism, and war, stopped working on the land, settled in caves, and abandoned their gods.
When Europeans landed on the island in 1722, they did not see a single tree. Instead of the 17,000 people who once lived on the land, they counted about 3,000 natives. To this day, Easter Island has not been overgrown with dense forest, and many plants had to be imported from far away and planted artificially to replace the extinct ones.
The attempt of German scientists and foresters to build an ideal forest instead of an “ancient chaotic forest cluster,” as they called the natural forest, is also known in history. The idea was proposed at the end of the eighteenth century and systematically implemented for almost the entire nineteenth century: the Germans cleared the forest and created geometrically verified rows of trees that lined up like soldiers. At first, such a “correct” forest was indeed viable and brought considerable profit, and because of this, other countries began to adopt the experience, from Norway to North America. However, a generation later, the forest began to die, revenues began to fall, and the theory began to burst at the seams. It turned out that standards in forestry were not effective: soil depletion occurred, which reduced productivity. Finally, the forest was destroyed by massive disease outbreaks among monocultures.
TRIED TO TURN BACK THE RIVERS
In the second half of the twentieth century, the Aral Sea, the fourth-largest lake in the world, began to disappear in Central Asia. This was due to rapid agricultural activity in the south of the USSR: water from rivers flowing into the Aral Sea was used to irrigate land and was often used inefficiently.
Since 1961, the sea level has been falling at an increasing rate of 20 to 80-90 cm per year, the lake has been rapidly shrinking and in 1989 it split into two reservoirs. By 2003, only 10% of the original volume of water remained, and the level had dropped to 31 meters, 22 meters lower than in the late 1950s.
The consequences were catastrophic: the sea became too salty, leading to the death of many species of flora and fauna, fish farms closed due to the extinction of fish, and people lost their jobs. The climate has also changed for the worse: winters have become colder and longer, and summers drier and hotter. Chemicals and pesticides that have been brought here from the fields of the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers for years are still being carried by the winds and undermining the health of the population.
Ever since the Aral Sea began to shrink, Soviet scientists have been working on an ambitious plan to “turn the Siberian rivers,” hoping to restore the lake’s water level with the help of the Ob and Irtysh rivers. However, in 1986, the Politburo of the CPSU Central Committee terminated the project, agreeing that it could be catastrophic from an environmental point of view.
Another landscape change project, the reversal of rivers from the south to the arid north of China, has moved beyond paper. It began in 2002 and is expected to be completed by 2050. “Turning China’s rivers” actually means diverting a part of the South China River Yangtze and its tributaries to the country’s northern provinces using a system of hydraulic structures. Experts are already calculating the losses: they are associated with the loss of ancient historical structures, the displacement of people and the destruction of pastures. But time will tell what impact the river diversion will have on the environment in the long run.
BROUGHT RABBITS TO AUSTRALIA
In Australia, rabbits introduced in 1788 became a curse. They wandered in thousands near houses, eating everything around them. The situation was made worse by the British Tom Austin: being an avid hunter, he released several domestic rabbits in 1859 and urged others to follow his example, saying: “Releasing a small number of rabbits into the wild will do no harm and will help provide you with meat in addition to hunting.” However, he was wrong: as a result of crossbreeding between wild and domestic rabbits, new, very hardy and aggressive species were formed that have undermined the ecology of an entire continent. They destroy soil, eat plants, and contribute to the extinction of other species. Their numbers are poorly controlled, which is a major concern for Australian authorities and scientists.
Rabbits are shot, poisoned, trapped, and even infected with viruses on purpose.
The extermination of cats due to religious superstition in medieval Europe resulted in the bubonic plague: people were infected with the deadly disease from fleas that lived on rats that had bred after the extermination of the “devil’s animals.”
USED HAZARDOUS MATERIALS IN CONSTRUCTION
Since 1946, a small coral island in the Pacific Ocean called Bikini Atoll has been a US nuclear test site. After the locals were evacuated to other islands, 67 nuclear tests were conducted there. Ten years after the program was shut down, the US government declared the atoll safe for life and the islanders could return to their homes. However, it later turned out that this was not the case. 840 islanders soon died of cancer and other diseases. Of the 7,000 people who applied for compensation, 1,865 were officially recognized as victims of American testing, half of whom later died. In total, the United States, trying to make amends, spent $83 million on various kinds of compensation.
Another mistake of humanity is the widespread use of asbestos in industry and construction. This natural mineral emits invisible, dangerous dust that causes various diseases, such as asbestosis, cancer, and pulmonary fibrosis, if exposed for long periods of time. In Europe, the use of asbestos has been banned since 2005, but it continues to be produced and used in Russia.
Long before the Englishman James Cook, Australia, and New Zealand were first discovered by the “Dutch” and immediately… closed. Admiral Willem Janszon, who was the first European to reach Australia in 1606, called it New Holland and declared it a possession of the Netherlands, but it went no further than that. In 1642, the merchant Abel Tasman, who was looking for new markets on behalf of the East India Company, discovered the island, which later became known as Tasmania, and reached New Zealand. His impressions of the new land were severely spoiled by the local Maori natives: they attacked the Dutch, killed several sailors and disappeared, after which the angry Tasman called the place Murderers’ Bay (now Golden Bay). Continuing his journey, Tasman reached Australia and mapped much of its northern coast. However, the management of the East India Company recognized this expedition as a complete failure, as it did not bring results either in the field of trade or navigation. Then Australia and New Zealand were “forgotten” for more than a century, until they were rediscovered by the enterprising Englishman James Cook during his expeditions in 1767-1774. Soon, the United Kingdom had two new colonies in the Pacific Ocean.
The most famous of the discoverers who made a significant mistake is, of course, Christopher Columbus. As you know, he did not know that he had discovered America, not India. His expedition across the Atlantic Ocean was the result of a mistake: he believed that there was a shorter sea route to India from Europe, and that was the way to the West. Having reached the Caribbean islands, Columbus considered them to be the outskirts of China, Japan, or India, and because of his mistake, these lands were called the West Indies for a long time (and India itself and some Asian countries were called the East Indies), and the local aborigines were nicknamed Indians. By the way, another mistake of mankind is to consider Columbus the discoverer of America: the Icelandic Vikings reached North America much earlier, back in the Middle Ages..