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The History and Future of Global 'Sheeplands'

The Ecotopia 2121 project attempts to predict and design for the future environmental challenges besetting cities all around the world. As such, the main focus is upon urban settings. However, this month, we tried something slightly different; to predict the influence of changing rural environments on the urban world.

We also concentrated on one particular agricultural relationship; the "human - sheep" relationship. Long ago, the relationship between humans and sheep via sheep farming set up a gradual change in how humans managed and organized their environment. This included the creation of the world's first cities in ancient Mesopotamia. We depicted this in a short film we've made (see below) which introduces the 10,000 year history of the role of sheep in human civilization.

Movie: A Sheepish History of the World (produced by Alan Marshall). This movie won "Best Educational Film" at the International Children's Film Festival of Wales in October 2023, and was also screened at the Zacheta Modern Art Gallery in Warsaw, Poland (during the Edukino film festival) and at the Rovereto Civic Museum, Italy (during the RAM 'Archeology and History' Film Festival).

Moving from the ancient past and into the far future, we present below the continuing saga of human - sheep relations...

The largest city in modern day Mesopotamia is Baghdad, located right next to the site of the ancient city of Babylon. Every day, Baghdad sprawls a little more into the countryside, over-running nearby rural villages. The future scenario laid out here — set around a century from now — presupposes that sheep-farmers are still resolutely hanging-on to their flocks despite their villages and fields being swallowed up by the expanding city.

A Mesopotamian Sheepscape of the Future – Mosaic Suburbs in Baghdad (by Dr. Alan Marshall).

In this future Baghdad, an urban-rural mosaic emerges, where fields and wastelands are interspersed with gardens and buildings. Sheep and their shepherds can make a home here since there is enough wasteland vegetation to graze upon and because sheep’s milk and cheese is eagerly sought by nearby suburban consumers. The sheep can also be rented-out to graze as ecofriendly organic lawnmowers for private gardens and public reserves.

Wool is a remarkable natural insulator against cold and rain. Set in the Cambrian Mountains some two centuries ahead, this Welsh village uses woolly roofs to insulate against bitter highland winters.

A Welsh Sheepscape of the Future – A Village in the Cambrian Mountains (by Dr. Alan Marshall)

Although sheep are usually presented as cute and natural, they could also be construed as evil climate change monsters. This is because sheep fart-out lots of methane, a potent Greenhouse Gas. In this scenario, though, Welsh farmers of the future have worked out the precise recipe for a climate-friendly sheep diet which radically lowers the amount of methane that each sheep can produce.

Given the past destruction of British woodlands caused by the desire to farm sheep, this following scenario — set maybe one thousand years into the future — seeks to envisage a more sustainable relationship between trees, sheep and humans. It does so by forecasting the Millennium-long reemergence of the ancient Forest of Arden into and throughout the city of Birmingham.

An English Sheepscape of the Future – Birmingham and the Forest of Arden

(by Dr. Alan Marshall)

Intermingled within verdant urban woodlands, clear canal waters, and sustainable buildings, are leighs, fields, and meadows — co-habited by suburban sheep. The sheep serve as organic lawnmowers, roaming freely to service the park-like landscape for the communal benefit of all. In this future, the homes and automobiles of the suburb are also given a ‘retro’ feel which –along with the sheep — mark out a link to the region’s heritage.

The following scenario is set in 10,000AD; in the toxic landscape of the American West. Here now, the U.S. has become so chronically polluted with deadly hazards that the locals must live out their lives entirely confined inside ‘moonbase’ homes.

An American Sheepscape of the Future – ‘Moonbase Homes’ in the American West

(by Dr. Alan Marshall).

These moonbase homes enable humans to self-isolate from all manner of futuristic harms: fatal urban smog, radioactive dust, and global pandemics. The homes exist as closed life-support systems able to recycle and purify both air and water. They can also act as greenhouses for the cultivation of fruits and vegetables. As for the sheep, since the humans are permanently self-isolated indoors, wild species of sheep — like the rare Bighorn — can reclaim landscape it had previously lost to over-hunting and over-development.

For more information about the history and future of these sheeplands, as well as future super-green urban settings around the globe, you can view an article in Wales Arts Review or investigate the case studies at the Ecotopia 2121 project website. Also, in 2022, the European TV channels arte and NDR broadcast a two-hour movie about the history and future of sheep, which includes a narrative from Dr. Alan Marshall, coordinator of the Ecotopia 2121 project. You can check out a preview here.

Filming of "Planet Sheep" movie

Still from "Planet Sheep" movie

All these various historical and cultural reflections are explained in a 'Global History' manner via our new book distributed in North America by University of Chicago Press...


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