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Conservation Equals Survival

May 2024
10min read

Wise men like Thomas Jefferson have always known how to live with the earth instead of against it. We need to develop a land ethic, with wise stewardship and a respect for the earth.

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.

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, 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.

What that projected exhibit is trying to come at in its third section is precisely what Leopold, Udall, and all the forces of ecology and conservation have been working toward: the development of a land ethic, a respect for the earth and its healthy relationships, a wise stewardship instead of wasteful greed, a rationing of our resources and ourselves for the purpose of promoting a sane, healthy, and renewable living place.

It is very late. But if we are not at the brink of a Spenglerian decline, with the conquest of the moon the last mad achievement of a mad society, we could be on the brink of the greatest period of human history. And it could begin with the little individuals, the kind of people many would call cranks, who insist on organically grown vegetables and unsprayed fruits, who do not pick the wild flowers, who fight against needless dams and roads. For that is the sort of small personal action that a land ethic suggests. Widespread enough, it can keep men from moving mountains.

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