Conservation Equals Survival

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Unless, being men and not bacteria, and living not in an agar dish but on a renewable earth, we apply ourselves and our habitat the intelligence that has endangered both. That means drastically and voluntarily reducing our numbers, decontaminating our earth, and thereafter husbanding, building, and nourishing, instead of squandering and poisoning.

Some say the world will end in fire, Robert Frost wrote, some say in ice. His alternatives do not exhaust the possibilities. For destruction, overpopulation is very adequate; pollution and depletion are also great, and will suffice. If Professor Lamont Cole of Cornell is right, our large-scale burning of fossil fuels endangers the atmosphere in other ways than pollution. The percentage of oxygen in the air we breathe goes imperceptibly down as pollutants and carbon dioxide go up. We will feel it first at night, when photosynthesis stops, and in winter, when it is slowed. But ultimately we will feel it. Two conclusions emerge: fossil energy is the worst discovery man ever made, and his disruption of the carbon-oxygen cycle is the greatest of his triumphs over nature. Through thinner and thinner air we labor toward our last end, conquerors finally of even the earth chemistry that created us.

These are hard doctrines, and an America lulled by four and a half centuries of careless plenty accepts them unwillingly if at all. I myself find them difficult to accept, sitting in my woodsy shack on a bright Vermont morning, with a junco working in the balsam fir outside and a spider knitting up a captured fly in the corner of the window—weather and plants and creatures and I all going about our comfortable business. American optimism asserts itself against the doomsday demographers. I comfort myself that one demographer. Donald Bogue of the University of Chicago, predicts not a geometric progression of our numbers but a levelling off of the American population at about two hundred twenty million in the next decade, and relative stability thereafter. Japan has succeeded in controlling its population, though Tokyo in 1969 is a horror, a paradigm of the merely bearable world that we will all go through on our way to doomsday if we do not make peace with the earth and learn what conservationists have long known: that living with the earth is healthier, saner, and more rewarding than living against it.

The conservation movement that began as a small group of nature lovers working for the preservation of natural beauty has expanded in numbers and influence and broadened its areas of concern. The Sierra Club, born in the early part of this century of John Muir’s fight to save Hetch Hetchy Valley from a storage dam, has grown from ten thousand members to eighty thousand since World War II. The Wilderness Society, formed by Aldo Leopold and other ecologists to help save for science small remnants of the untouched American biota, has similarly grown. So has the Audubon Society, created to save from extinction the egrets of the Everglades. United with other groups—Izaak Wallon League, National Parks Association, Federation of Western Outdoor Clubs—they have had their surge of militancy as our environmental problems thickened and the outdoors came under greater threat. They have had their victories—they blocked the proposed Echo Park Dam in Dinosaur National Monument and the Marble and Bridge Canyon dams in the Grand Canyon; they appear to have won in Red River Gorge in Kentucky; they have played watchdog on the government agencies charged with the care of the national parks and forests; they are locked in battle with Consolidated Edison over the Hudson and with Walt Disney Productions over the Mineral King. They helped make Stewart Udall’s eight years as Secretary of the Interior productive of sixty-four new additions to the national park system, including four new national parks, six national seashores and two national lakeshores, seven national monuments, and dozens of historical parks and sites and recreation areas. If they have sometimes sounded alarmist, their alarm has not been unjustified.

Conservationists, being the first to comprehend ecology, are the people best equipped to spread their knowledge of how inextricably related our environmental problems are. They comprise the indispensable counterforce to industrial exploitation. They have a political base; they can swing elections; their zeal often takes precedence over party and must be wooed by both sides. If there is a hope for the American habitat and for the quality of American life, it is the hope that they represent through their capacity to educate and to get environmental sanity incorporated into law.

Froelich Rainey, Loren Eiseley, and some of their associates at the University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, are currently working on an exhibit that will demonstrate both man’s disastrous effect on his environment and the single hope they see of recovering from his abuses. Their exhibit will be in three parts: the first showing the world in its natural balance, nature in full charge, man no more than one more primate; the second showing man in charge, progressing through higher and higher technologies with greater and greater damage to the earth and all its interdependent forms of life; the third, a hypothetical stage barely suggested by our present small efforts at correction and adjustment, showing man learning how to rejoin and develop in harmony with the nature he has previously slashed, burned, gutted, mined, poisoned, and overused.