Stories about the campfire – NEMO Knowledge Link

The story of man begins around a crackling bonfire. The fire created a safe place to sleep, kept predators away, and one could cook on it. It was our first home and the cradle of the first stories. “As human beings, we were confronted with all sorts of phenomena that we could not explain,” says Matthijs Schouten. “Take the sun: you did not know why the sun rose, but you knew you would die if it did” t. These forces were greater than us, and they gave a supernatural charge. “Schouten is emeritus environmental philosopher at Wageningen University and has researched the human and worldview of different cultures and religions.

The campfire is a place for stories, but also a first influence of man on his environment.

Worldviews can be seen as a triangle between man, nature and ‘supernatural’, Schouten believes. “Old cultures do not have a sharp division between the three. They see similarities between humans and non-humans, and see around them a nature that is animated: mountains, animals, trees and rivers. “There is also no distinction between worldly and supernatural: the divine is present in this world.

The image of people around a bonfire in an animated nature stands in stark contrast to our current world of smartphones, gravel gardens and houses like concrete boxes. NEMO Kennislink therefore talks to several experts about the question of how humanity viewed itself and the environment. We go through our history in seven-mile boots to see how our place in the world changed. We do this by looking specifically at the most important transitions and how this affected our most important asset: the house.


In 2000, Dutch Nobel laureate and meteorologist Paul Crutzen and American biologist Eugene Stoermer first described the “Anthropocene” as a new geological epoch. They claim that humanity has become a geological force of the world’s proportions. We deplete fossil fuels that are millions of years old, thus increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The greenhouse effect can affect the climate for the next 50,000 years. natural circuits They see the invention of the steam engine by James Watt in 1784 as the beginning of the ‘human age’.

The campfire is a place for stories, but also a first influence of man on his environment.


Did we live more in harmony with nature? A fire takes firewood, and on the fire lays the prey of the hunt. There is also evidence that humans played a role – through hunting or competition for food – in the extinction of prehistoric megafauna in Eurasia, America and Australia. Around the arrival of the first humans, large land mammals such as the mastodon, saber tiger and wild horse became extinct in North America and the kangaroo in Australia. Schouten: “People have always had an influence, there is no other way to survive. But that effect has grown. It started with hunter-gatherers, who were small communities. Their relationship to nature was reciprocal: give and take. For example, they sacrificed for hunting, to appease the gods. “Back then, people lived a nomadic existence with temporary shelter: a cave nearby, a simple hut, or a tent that one could take with them in the wake of the herd.

That changed when we started taming animals and growing plants as crops. Through agriculture and animal husbandry, we produced more food and the population increased. “This is how history, as we know it now, begins with tamed nature,” says Schouten. People no longer followed herds, but kept their own animals and crops. The house became a permanent structure surrounded by fields and meadows. The first villages and towns emerged.

With agriculture, the house became a permanent structure between fields and meadows.

“With the advent of monotheism, nature becomes de-divine and soulless. Religions such as Judaism and Christianity placed one God over the world. God was not in this world and then sat in heaven, and only man had an eternal soul. It became heresy to worship nature. ” The world was truly created by God, and according to Christian theologians, it thus intended to serve man.


The sciences from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries brought about a change in the Western view of the world. Emphasis is placed on understanding the world. Not as God intended, but how it works and is put together. “God as the watchmaker of the world disappears from the scene,” says Schouten. “We are moving towards an image of ‘big bang’ and evolution, physics and biology. Everything is an expression of laws from science.” The villagers move to the cities, the cities expand, and the distance between people and nature becomes greater.

The French mathematician and philosopher René Descartes subsequently also expelled the spirit from nature. Schouten: “In no other being than man has he established that spirit and matter are united. His followers conclude from this that everything that is not human is thoughtless: animals are machines that respond to the laws of mechanics. “


The idea that animals are thoughtless machines is not surprising given the spirit of the times. The first steam engines appeared in the eighteenth century, followed by the first factories in the following century. Harry Lintsen, Professor Emeritus of Technology History at Eindhoven University of Technology, researched technology from 1850 to the present. He argues that industrialization – along with the socialist movement – abolished extreme poverty in the Netherlands between 1850 and 1960, while the pressure on nature remained limited. “Until then, life was hard. Man was a working animal at the mercy of the forces of nature. One-fifth of the Dutch population (approximately 650,000 inhabitants in 1850 – ed.) Lived around the absolute subsistence level. Extreme poverty was solved in our country more than a century later, thanks to fossil fuels. “

Man and machine at a textile factory in England, 1913.

Coal powered the steam engines that mechanized work in the nineteenth century. In that century, energy consumption increased five times, Lintsen explains in his book The vulnerable prosperity of the Netherlands, 1850-2050† Coal displaced the other energy sources, mainly muscle power in humans and horses, wind and water mills and peat. “It led to increased productivity, and the products became cheaper,” explains Lintsen. “People had more money left over for food, clothes and a house.” Petroleum and natural gas later entered more and more appliances and machines: “Thanks to combustion and electric motors of the twentieth century, people were able to work shorter hours and have more time for education and relaxation. At the same time, living conditions were improved through social legislation, emancipation movements and hygiene. measures.facilities such as wastewater. “

Advances in fossil energy also had a downside: large-scale air pollution and environmental problems that ultimately led to climate change. Most of CO2the emissions did not come until after 1960. Lintsen: “We made great strides in mass production, mass consumption and extreme prosperity.” According to him, this was partly because people had more to spend. “On the other hand, the question arose of what a human being wants when his basic needs are met. The emerging middle class gave substance to this in the 1920s and 1930s: a washing machine, radio, car. In the 1960s, wages rose in the Netherlands, and middle-class ideals came within the reach of the working class. The prosperous and consumer society was born. After washing machine, radio and car came new needs such as television, central heating, computer and internet. ”


Philosopher Matthijs Schouten explains the extreme consumption in terms of the change in the Western worldview. “If you see forces in nature that are greater than you, then you are reluctant to intervene.” That reluctance disappeared when we took the divine from nature. “In addition, we have come to see soul, spirit and mind as exclusively human. The result: unlimited and increasingly intensive use of nature as our warehouse. ” We see only nature as a collection of goods and colonizable space, as Schouten quotes the French philosopher Bruno Latour. It’s time for skyscrapers and metropolises, unlimited calls and internet everywhere, airfare at bottom prices and flipped chicken on offer. Be quick because: it’s gone!

Until we get the sky on our roof. Climate change makes it clear that we still do not have control over everything, says Schouten. “Over the last half century, an awareness of the fragility of nature and the environment has emerged, forcing us to ask ourselves what we are really doing. Think of books as Quiet spring by Rachel Carson in 1962 and Limits to growth from the Club of Rome in 1972, the hole in the ozone layer, the extinction of species and finally global warming and the pandemic. “


Anthropocene, era of human influence, evokes different reactions. Schouten explains the classification of the Australian philosopher Clive Hamilton: “You have the deniers. Then there are the eco-modernists, who have an unfailing belief in science and technology and want to solve climate change with technology. If it does not succeed, we will move to another planet if necessary. “Schouten also mentions the anthropocentrists, who argue that man from his special position has the task of managing the planet sustainably.” Finally, there are the posthumanists who believe, that we need to rethink human space in the world: We must become partners or participants in the ecosystem. The last two groups are growing. “

From prehistoric times until now, we still stare into the campfire and drift our thoughts away into stories. But the stories we tell have changed a lot over the centuries. Today, more and more people are dreaming of a world where humans and nature are equal roommates in the same house on Mother Earth.


  • Broughton, JM, & Weitzel, EM (2018). Population reconstructions for humans and megafauna suggest mixed causes of North American Pleistocene extinction. Nature Communications, 9, 5441.
  • Crutzen, PJ & Stoermer, EF (2000). “Anthropocene”. IGBP Newsletter, 41, 17-18.
  • Lintsen, HW, Veraart, FCA, Smits, JPH, & Grin, J. (2018). The vulnerable prosperity of the Netherlands, 1850-2050: towards a circular economy. Amsterdam: Prometheus.
  • Prideaux, GJ, Ayliffe, LK, DeSantis, LRG, Schubert, BW, Murray, PF, Gagan, MK, & Cerling, TE (2009). Implications of the extinction of a chenopod-sur-diet for a giant Pleistocene kangaroo. PNAS, 106 (28), 11646-11650.

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