- Historic Sites
This Is The Way The World Ends
October 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 6
A few weeks ago my eighteen-yearold son went to bed after me, leaving the lamps burning and the radio playing all through the night. I conclude from this that the human race is indeed doomed. Lest I be taken for something of a crank, let me explain that…
My son had spent the earlier part of the evening haranguing me about the destruction of man’s environment. He indicted the corporate society for polluting the sweet air with noxious automobile exhausts and corrupting the healing rivers in a frenzy to generate electricity. His familiar accusation frightened me far less than the melancholy discovery that the bill of particulars stopped short of incriminating his own carefree consumption. The world may indeed be trending toward an early end, and my son may know how to change it, but knowledge has not yet affected his behavior.
I do not claim that his few blithely squandered kilowatt-hours will shatter the ecological system of the planet, but rather that many of those most deeply outraged by the spoliation of their habitat have scarcely begun to measure the changes that would be required—not merely of General Motors but of themselves—to bring the spoliation to a stop.
In short, I am afraid that if the world is in fact ending—for any of the reasons currently heard—men and women will sooner let it end than make the changes in their ways necessary to save it. The institutional and behavioral rearrangements, the challenges to implicit value judgments, and the inversions of habit that would be required to save the environment are so serious, so devastating to popular notions of personal freedom, that we may surrender to inertia and keep on as we are even as the world dies around us.
Do we agree that the world is in fact ending? So far, at least, few of us have risen to oppose the testimony of scientists on the speed with which the common physical environment is deteriorating. But do we really believe the implications of such testimony? Judging by past performance, if we really perceived a threat to our life-style—imagining our steak reduced to wheat germ, half the horsepower subtracted from our Mustang—we would rush to challenge the prophets of doom.
But the environmental experts have so far been sheltered from criticism behind a pair of misapprehensions. First, that the technique and aims of serious conservation are simple. Second, that only Bad People—polluters, big business, etc. —will be hurt. Even those leaders who have glimpsed that something crucial is at stake have politely wrapped in soft slogans the fist of the political clout they will need to save the -natural environment. The nation, they tell us, requires a “rearrangement of its priorities,” a suggestion that remains reassuringly bland because most of us have got fairly well along into adult life without ever learning who established the priorities we have or what they are. After all, if we didn’t know they were there, how could changing them hurt us? Or we are told the nation requires active steps to improve the “quality” of American life—a supposition that disarms opponents who cannot be expected to remember that the last major effort to improve the quality of American life resulted in the Eighteenth Amendment, which outlawed drinking alcohol.
If all the criteria that are urged today as the hallmarks of sound legislation- high moral purpose, dedication to an improvement of the quality of life, and a business-be-damned animus—were indeed vouchers of legislative wisdom, Prohibition would have been the outstanding triumph of the government of free man. But these moss-covered reflections are hidden from a new generation that is prepared to undertake new Noble Experiments as readily as it accepts a new rock combo.
But the size of the problem we face is proportional to its cause: the success of the human species, a success so overpowering that it threatens not only every other form of life on the planet but ultimately even man himself. A serious program of environmental conservation must therefore reinterpret the very success of the species as a kind of failure and redirect human activity accordingly—a radical job.
Undeterred, a large and growing number of scientists insist the danger to life is real, though they may disagree among themselves over what constitutes the most pressing danger. Some, upset by significant changes in the basic chemistry of the air or transfixed by man’s delight in concocting deadly chemicals, subscribe to variants of a sort of Bang Theory- that all will end in a crash. Others, observing the relentless growth of population and the staining of the earth with the wrack and offal tossed off by human concentrations, accept a Whimper Theory—that earth’s life-giving resources will gradually be eroded until men fall before generations of bacterial predators or slay each other in a vain scramble for the remaining crumbs.