Environmental Crisis Perspectives
The debate over the environment crisis is not new: anxiety about industry’s impact on the environment has existed for over a century. What is new is the extreme polarization of views. Mounting evidence of humanity’s capacity to damage the environment irreversibly coupled with suspicions that government, industry, and even science might be impotent to prevent environmental destruction have provoked accusatory polemics on the part of environmentalists. In turn, these polemics have elicited a corresponding backlash (a strong adverse reaction (as to a recent political or social development)) from industry. The sad effect of this polarization is that it is now even more difficult for industry than it was a hundred years ago to respond appropriately to impact analyses that demand action.
Unlike today’s adversaries, earlier ecological reformers shared with advocates of industrial growth a confidence in timely corrective action. George P. Marsh’s pioneering conservation tract Man and Nature (1864) elicited wide acclaim without embittered denials. Man and Nature castigated Earth’s despoilers for heedless greed, declaring that humanity “has brought the face of the Earth to a desolation almost as complete as that of the Moon.” But no entrepreneur of industrialists sought to refute Marsh’s accusations, to defend the gutting (to destroy the essential power or effectiveness of “inflation gutting the economy” of forests or the slaughter of wildlife as economically essential, or to dismiss his ecological warnings as hysterical. To the contrary, they generally agreed with him.
Why? Marsh and his followers took environmental improvement and economic progress as givens: they disputed not the desirability of conquering nature but the bungling way in which the conquest was carried out. Blame was not personalized (to make personal or individual; specifically: to mark as the property of a particular person “personalized stationery”), Marsh denounced general greed rather than particular entrepreneurs, and the media did not hound (underwrite: to pursue with or as if with hounds) malefactors. Further, corrective measures seemed to entail no sacrifice, to demand no draconian remedies. Self-interest underwrote (to guarantee financial support of) most prescribed reforms. Marsh’s emphasis on future stewardship (the conducting, supervising, or managing of something; especially: the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one's care “stewardship of our natural resources”) was then a widely accepted ideal (if not practice). His ecological admonitions were in keeping with the Enlightenment premise that humanity’s mission was to subdue and transform nature.
Not until the 1960s did a gloomier perspective gain popular ground. Fredric Clements’ equilibrium model of ecology, developed in the 1930s, seemed consistent with mounting environmental disasters. In this view, nature was most fruitful when least altered. Left undisturbed, flora and fauna gradually attained maximum diversity and stability. Despoliation thwarted the culmination or shortened the duration of this beneficent climax: technology did not improve nature but destroyed it.
The equilibrium model became an ecological mystique: environmental interference was now taboo, wilderness adored. Nature as unfinished fabric perfected by human ingenuity gave way to the image nature debased and endangered by technology. In contrast to the Enlightenment vision of nature, according to which rational managers construct an ever more improved environment, twentieth-century reformers’ vision of nature calls for a reduction of human interference in order to restore environmental stability.