Conservation Equals Survival

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In the spring of 1969 thousands of Californians, warned by soothsayers that earthquakes impended, shut themselves up in their houses or fled to what they thought safe places, where they waited for disaster through a day and a night like nineteenth-century Millerites gathered for the Second Coming. The earth did not tremble and gape—the San Andreas fault is fairly unresponsive to soothsaying—but the gullible demonstrated one important human truth: we can be more frightened by fictions and phantasms than by the things that should really scare us to death. These frightened people huddled in houses that were sunk in air murky with poisonous smog; they should have sniffed panic with every breath they drew. Those who fled rushed past endless overcrowded subdivisions down freeways that roared with cars bumper to bumper, four lanes each way, at seventy or eighty miles an hour; they should have heard apocalypse rumbling before and beside and behind. Above the murk and the traffic the firmament split with sonic booms. The passing roadside showed them the devastated redwood groves of Eureka and Arcata. They drove past Santa Barbara, where crude oil bubbled from below the offshore drilling platforms and moved in great black rafts of tar toward the beaches; or through the Santa Clara Valley, where bulldozers pushed down prune orchards to clear the way for cheesebox housing; or up into Yosemite, where the gibbering of pre-apocalypse dementia greeted them from the thousand transistors on every campground; or down into the desert, where rallies of Hondas and Yamahas roared past in a mass frenzy called outdoor recreation.

People had every reason to turn pale, hide, flee, in the spring of 1969. But they hid or fled from the shadow of a fear, not from the true substance of their danger. From the thing that should have terrified them there is no hiding. How do we flee from ourselves, from our incontinent fertility, our wastes and poisons, the industrial society in which we are guilty, sufflering participants?

Six years ago Stewart L. Udall, then Secretary of the Interior, published a book summarizing the history of land use and abuse in the United States and suggesting a “land ethic” by which we might be guided. He called his book The Quiet Crisis; most readers probably read “quiet” as also meaning “slow,” “delayed.” Many probably assumed that he was talking primarily about open space and scenic beauty. To the average city dweller of the early 1960’s—and more and more we all tend to be cit dwellers—such concerns probably seemed minor by comparison with the cold war, the bomb, racial strife, inflation, the disintegrating cities, and much else. To people living in the ghetto these matters may have seemed, and may still seem, frivolous.

They were not frivolous—that was Mr. Udall’s point. Neither were they limited to open space and scenic beauty. Neither have they remained quiet. While we watched the horizon for mushroom clouds, a funnel-shaped one came up behind us with terrifying swiftness. It is perfectly clear now that we can destroy ourselves quite as completely, if not quite so spectacularly, through continuing abuse of our environment as we can through some mad or vengeful or preventive finger on the atomic trigger. Conservation still properly concerns itself with national parks and wilderness, but it has not for some years been confined to them. As Mr. Udall says in another context, true consevation begins wherever people are and with whatever trouble they are in.

People are everywhere, and in trouble wherever they are. It is not only amenity, not only quality of living, not only a supply of raw materials or open space for our grandchildren that we must fight for. Paul B. Sears and William Vogt and others told us what was at stake thirty-odd years ago in the Dust Bowl years: survival. It is even more at stake now—survival of this civilization, perhaps even survival of the living world. And it is later than we think.

Even in America, some wise men have always known how to live with the earth instead of against it. If we had had more husbandmen like Thomas Jefferson and John Bartram, the American farm might have remained as stable as those of northern Europe, where the soil has been farmed for two thousand years without becoming less fertile. If our lumbermen had been foresters as sane as Gifford Pinchot, we would not have mined the forests of New England, the Great Lakes region, and the Northwest and left so many of them scrub country unproductive for generations. If our dry-land settlers and their congressmen had made use of the foresight of John Wesley Powell, there would have been no dust bowls in the shortgrass plains. If more attention had been paid to a book called Man and Nature , published over one hundred years ago, we would not now have to learn, little and late, the principles of ecology.