Daily RC Article 72

Environmental Crisis Perspectives


Paragraph 1

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.

Paragraph 2

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.

Paragraph 3

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.

Paragraph 4

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.

Paragraph 5

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.

Topic and Scope:  

Environmental crisis; specifically, the way the debate over of the environmental crisis has changed over the last 100 years.

Purpose and Main Idea:

The author’s purpose is to describe the change that has taken place from 100 years ago to the present, in the debate over industry’s impact on the environment. The main idea is that the “extreme polarization of views” characteristic of today’s environmental debate is a relatively new thing, and is bound to make dealing with the environmental crisis even more difficult.

Paragraph structure:

Paragraph 1 offers some history on the environmental debate; the author notes that awareness of the crisis itself is not new and goes back at least 100 years. In response to growing environmental harm and growing pessimism about the ability for society to deal with such harm, environmentalists have lashed out at industry. These “accusatory polemics” have provoked a backlash by industry. The author then adds her own opinion: This “polarization,” that is, the extreme hard line taken by each group today, is only going to make it harder to deal with the environmental crisis than was the case 100 years ago.

Paragraph 2 sets up a contrast between the relationship between reformers and industrial supporters 100 years ago and their relationship today: Back then, the reformers and industrialists were pretty much on the same page in that they both recognized the problem, and shared in the confidence that solutions were at hand. The author cites the example of Marsh, who decried environmental hazards posed by industry yet didn’t receive any backlash from industrialists; in fact, they mostly agreed with him.

Paragraph 3 goes on to explain why the industrialists and entrepreneurs of the later 1800’s agreed with Marsh and didn’t fight him: Inherent in Marsh’s critique was the notion that improvement of the situation was inevitable. He never fought the idea that harnessing the power of nature was desirable; he only railed against the bumbling techniques employed. The industrialists agreed with his general message—that what they were doing was fine and good, but they must learn to do it better, with less damage to the environment. Marsh didn’t point fingers, and the corrective actions he suggested didn’t entail much sacrifice on the part of industry. This all explains why there was little or no conflict 100 years ago between reformers and industrialists.

Not surprisingly, the final two Paragraphs tell the other side of the story: how the relationship between the reformers and industrialists turned adversarial. According to Paragraph 4, it happened around the 1960’s when Clements’ equilibrium model began to hold sway. This posed an entirely new philosophy: Leave nature alone; it’s at its best when man doesn’t interfere; technology can only destroy nature. No wonder the industrialists turned reactionary: This philosophy runs directly counter to their aims, and we now understand better the evolving rift between the two groups.

Paragraph 5 simply fleshes out the equilibrium model, and notes its influence on the environmentalist movement. It reinforces the difference between twentieth-century reformers’ vision of nature and the earlier Enlightenment vision of nature.

The Big Picture:

  • We might expect the author to follow up on her opinion expressed at the end of the first Paragraph , but essentially she doesn’t. The rest of the passage deals mostly with the history of the debate, and is not directly about how solving the problem is harder now than in the past. So while this passage promises at one point to take on an opinionated tone, it is for the most part descriptive.
  • When a debate is introduced, strive to determine where the author stands on the issue, if he or she even takes a stand. Here, the author doesn’t explicitly take sides, but does state that the extreme nature of the debate itself, the “polarization” she refers to, will make it harder for industry to respond to a situation that “demands action.” Although we may expect a stronger opinion on the debate itself, her main concern is how and when this polarization evolved.
  • Learn to recognize time clues and to understand what they tell us regarding the author’s concerns. In the first sentence, the author says that a current debate is not new. She then goes on to speak about the nature of the debate in the 1860’s, and then jumps to the debate in the 1960’s. All of this strongly suggests that the author’s purpose is to describe an historical development, a notion that helps bag a few questions directly.
  • Think ahead as you read, and always pay careful attention to structural signals. The word “Why?” as the first word of Paragraph 3 can only mean one thing: The author in this Paragraph  is going to explain the phenomenon of the previous Paragraph , namely, why there was no apparent conflict in the late nineteenth century between environmental reformers like Marsh and the leaders of industry. Anticipating the author’s next move and using structural signals can help you to incorporate each Paragraph  into the gist of the unfolding story.

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