- Epilogue: A Look Ahead
Environmental policy is about fixing a problem—a large, complex, foundational problem. From the 1960s to the end of the century, the United States engaged this problem on a wider scale and with more energy than ever before, as a part of a global, multinational effort in this direction. Seen from our experience and vantage, what are the prospects ahead of humanity and nature in the ongoing negotiation of our relationship?
Serious thought on this question usually begins not with historical inquiry but with reports from technology and the natural and social sciences, disciplines that habitually project events and trends ahead. But projecting likely futures also turns out to involve history, since formulating educated guesses about what lies ahead requires us to estimate what momentum and direction we have already established strongly enough to shape that future. The two broad schools of opinion on tomorrow have been called the Cornucopian and the Malthusian, labels that exaggerate the bias of the extreme ends of debate. Let us use the terms eco-optimists, people who wind up cheerful after they concede that there are a few problems, and eco-pessimists, people who see bad outcomes but still believe that something can be done or they would not be speaking.
The conviction that the American environment offered an inexhaustible resource was of course the primal assumption shaping our national history. Pessimism about using things up came later, the chief voices including George Perkins Marsh (Man And Nature, 1864), Frederick Jackson Turner’s thoughts on the implications of the discovery in the Census of 1890 that the era of the frontier was over, the warnings of Teddy Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, and others in the first and second Conservation movements (who were usually [End Page 157] optimists at bottom). The alarm-sounding books by Vogt and Osborn in 1948 and Walter Prescott Webb’s The Great Frontier (1952) touched on the United States only as part of a global crisis of population pressing upon depleting resources, and were influential among a limited readership. The Sixties cranked up virtually every concern to a higher volume and larger audiences, and the reception of Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (1968)—selling over a million copies in paperback, Ehrlich being interviewed in Playboy magazine and receiving wide media attention—gave the message of ecocrisis a mass audience. “The battle to feed all of humanity is over,” Ehrlich wrote, predicting the deaths of hundreds of millions of people in famines across the l970s and mounting pressure upon resources and environment even in affluent societies like the United States. The Club of Rome’s best-selling The Limits to Growth (1972, written by a team of MIT scholars led by Dennis L. Meadows, offered a melancholy projection of population pressure, resource depletion, and pollution that described a grim global slide over the next three decades into “a dismal and depleted existence,” a miserable condition they called “overshoot and collapse.” Eight years later the U.S. government came out in broad agreement. Global 2000, an interagency report commissioned by President Jimmy Carter and published in 1980, reported that “if present trends continue, the world in 2000 will be more crowded, more polluted, less stable ecologically, and more vulnerable to disruption than the world we live in now.” 1
A counterattack against this strong current of eco-pessimism was predictable. Offer an idea that receives wide public attention in America and people will piggy-back into the limelight by providing an opposite view. Further, optimism runs deep in American history, and tends to assert itself when gloom is expressed. More important, one implication of the forecasts of ecocrisis was criticism of and demands for curbs on growth, a sentiment fundamentally and deeply alarming to the business community and other elements of American society. Another reason for stiff resistance to the very idea of eco-pessimism is its implication that there must be a larger role for government in regulating resource uses, waste disposal, and even procreation. “Mutual coercion mutually agreed upon” in the area of human fertility was the recommendation, and “freedom in a commons brings ruin to all” a...