Conservation Equals Survival

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It seems to us a relatively new science, but George Perkins Marsh comprehended its basic laws as early as 1864. As a Vermont farm boy he had observed how woods, streams, lakes, ponds, swamps, plants, animals, fish, insects, earthworms, and weather form a flexible and dynamic system in which every part—even the earthworm—has a function. As Lincoln’s ambassador to Italy, he had seen in Mediterranean countries the manmade deserts that taught him how civilizations are brought to an end. He was one of the first to point out that man is an agent of erosion and, in his book, to warn against “the dancers of imprudence and the necessity of caution in all operations which, on a large scale, interfere with the spontaneous arrangements of the organic and inorganic world.”

We could have found our land ethic long ago in Marsh, or Bartram, or Jefferson, or Powell. We could have found it in Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac (1949), one of the great love letters to the natural world.

If we read their books at all, we read them as metaphor, or as something applicable to other parts of the world or to a time centuries away. Our faith in science told us that when minerals and fossil fuels ran out, science would find substitutes; when earth’s fertility declined, science would feed us on fish meal and plankton that the taste buds could not distinguish from prime ribs. We forgot Paul Sears’s warning that nature is not an “inert stockroom” but “an active system, a pattern and a process.” We forgot that every human act against the earth has consequences, sometimes big consequences.

One Santa Barbara with its fouled beaches and its slimed and dying sea birds and seals is enough to make a conservationist of a confirmed exploiter and force us to ask ourselves how much an oil field is worth. The poisoning of the Rhine reminds us that American rivers—including the Mississippi—have been similarly poisoned, that Lake Erie is so clogged with sewage and industrial sludge that fish cannot live in its oxygenless waters, that whole catches of the painstakingly cultivated coho salmon of Lake Michigan have been declared inedible because of the amount of DDT in their bodies, that our eagles and peregrine falcons and perhaps our pelicans as well are dying out from eating DDT-contaminated prey. The plight of the angry Dutch at the Rhine’s mouth is not so different from the plight of any of us. It is dangerous to live downwind or downstream from an industrial community, and in this global world every place is ultimately downstream or downwind. Penguins at the South Pole have DDT in their livers; the Greenland icecap has a dark modern layer, courtesy of the smog blanket of Los Angeles, Tokyo, and London.

Smog has been one of our best teachers. A recent poll indicates that more than half the people of the United States think air pollution one of our most pressing problems. Most of us, on reflection, would rate water pollution as being just as serious. Hardly a river in New England runs Class A—drinkable—water. Many run Class E—sewage. And all of them have poisons washed into them from sprayed and dusted fields or forests or swamps.

We show signs of putting certain villains down: DDT, dieldrin, and the other chlorinated hydrocarbons. These so-called “hard” pesticides are man-made compounds that do not exist in nature; they were never born and they are all but eternal. Instead of dispersing and becoming harmless, they concentrate in living forms, moving from food to feeder, prey to predator, accumulating as they go.

Suppose we do ban the worst of these poisons, as we seem likely to do. What then do we do with the vast quantities already in existence? What do I do with the junk in my garden shed? Bury it in the ground? Dump it in the ocean? Incinerate it so that it can be blown around the world? Sweep it under the rug? Whatever I do with it, it is in danger of joining those amounts that already contaminate the natural world and are sneaking up on me through the food chain. It is a problem that promises to be as difficult of solution as the disposal of radioactive wastes, which have a half-life infinitely longer than that of any container in which they can be locked. Those lead canisters we sink in the sea will be tracking open one day to leak their contents into the water from which, the scientists assure us, much of our food will ultimately come.

Sooner or later our wastes and poisons become part of the garbage problem. In this high-consumption country every one of us generates 5.3 pounds of refuse a day exclusive of sewage, which is a separate problem. It is no longer possible, because of air pollution, to burn even those parts of it that are combustible. We spend more on garbage collection and disposal than on any public service except schools and roads, and still we fall behind.

Not one of our environmental problems—ecological disruption, depletion, pollution, the shrinking of healthy open space—gets anything but worse, despite all our ingenuity. For as we mine from nature more than we have a right to take, we make it possible to go on multiplying in exponential ways the real root of our difficulties: ourselves. There are too many of us now. Like bacteria, we multiply to the edge of our agar dish. When we arrive there, as many nations already have, we will either starve or strangle in our own wastes.

Unless.