- Historic Sites
“full Speed Ahead And Damn The Tomorrows”
Our Frontier Heritage of Waste
December 1977 | Volume 29, Issue 1
During those three centuries of westering, the American people enjoyed a degree of opportunity for individual selfadvancement unknown elsewhere in the world. Basic in frontiering was the altered ratio of man to land; in Europe and the settled East, land was scarce and men were many; in the advancing West, land was plentiful and men were few. Each move forward opened fresh resources to exploitation: furbearing animals to be trapped, mineral riches to be mined, lush pasture lands to be grazed, virgin soils to be cultivated, timber to be stripped from the hills. Here was opportunity unlimited for the ambitious and the energetic.
Moreover, these virgin resources served as an avenue of escape from poverty and subservience. Those with the skills and wherewithal for pioneering were offered a recurring opportunity to better themselves economically and socially. That few found the pot of gold at the end of their rainbows made little difference; all were certain that their luck would be better. This was the American dream during the nineteenth century, and that dream helped shape the habits, attitudes, and ambitions of generations of Americans. Those attitudes persist in the frontierless land of today and underlie the problem of the nation’s leaders who would reshape the nation’s temperament to the realities of the modern world.
What are those frontier-engendered habits and attitudes that distinguish the American character? One national trait, traceable in part to our frontier heritage, is that most criticized today: our heedless wastefulness of our resources. Throughout our history, visitors from overseas have been shocked by our reckless spending of nature’s riches; travelers today find but slight improvement. The United States is known as the land of the paper towel, of disposable tissue, of no-deposit-no-return bottles, of throwaway beer cans, of the bag within the bag within the bag at the supermarkets. American machines are viewed by visitors as cunningly contrived for premature obsolescence within a disgracefully short time; American homes have been compared to reverse assembly lines deliberately designed to reduce the gadgets with which they are stocked to rubble so that replacements will be required.
My awakening to the national compulsion to destroy came during a year spent as a visiting professor at Oxford University. In England, I soon learned, your pound of plaice from the corner fishmonger came wrapped not in a spick-and-span new bag, but in yesterday’s copy of the Oxford Mail . There the handkerchief, often slightly soiled, reigned supreme over disposable tissue. There the empty wine bottle was returned to the neighborhood pub rather than cast into the dustbin. Perhaps nothing brought the cultural difference home to me more vividly than a letter from my bank—a highly respectable and affluent financial institution—which arrived in a used envelope that had been addressed to the bank, then readdressed to me. Not even the smallest savings-and-loan concern in the United States, I realized, would stoop to such economies; every letter would be written on embossed stationery, probably with a multicolored letterhead, and with the names of thirty-eight vice presidents crowding the margin.
Why this difference? Our wastefulness is a habit taught us by our pioneering ancestors. As the frontiersmen moved westward, they were confronted with such an abundance of natural riches that their exhaustion was inconceivable. Why bother to conserve amidst such plenty? If asked about posterity, they were likely to answer: “What has posterity done for me?” So they exterminated, or nearly exterminated, every animal species of value, the beaver and buffalo being the most notable examples. They grubbed out mineral wealth by destroying the countryside; strip mining and sluice mining were commonplace even though they left the countryside an unsightly shambles. They slashed away the timber, and moved on. They mined the soils of their fertility, leaving behind unsightly fields, gullied and worn. There was no need to conserve; the resources were inexhaustible. There was no compulsion to protect the landscape; moving on to an unspoiled countryside was easier and more profitable.
So destruction became a virtual obsession among frontiersmen. To those in forested areas, the tree was an enemy—a symbol of the savagery of nature—that must be removed. Pioneers cut every tree in sight, even those needed for shade, shelter, windbreaks, even maple groves useful for sweets. The true Westerner’s ideal was a flat field, beautified perhaps by a smoking factory. Once the land was cleared, the destruction continued. Farmers in that day knew about fertilizers and crop rotation, but they preferred to butcher the soil, then press ahead to virgin fields. “Why, son,” boasted one Nebraska farmer, “by the time I was your age, I had wore out three farms.”
So it was that moving became a habit of the pioneers, and of their descendants. This was noted by nineteenth-century travelers; it is noted by visitors from overseas today. Americans, they say, are perpetually on the move. We live in automobiles. In 1973, of the 210 million people in the United States, 121,383,381 were licensed drivers, operating 125,156,876 automobiles and trucks over nearly 4,000,000 miles of surfaced roads, burning 105,944,521,000 gallons of gasoline, and killing 55,800 persons yearly.