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ESSAY Again the Backward Region? Environmental History in and oftheAmerican South by Otis L Graham Where northern hardwoods and the oak-pineforests meet. Recreation and watershedforests in the southern Appalachian Mountains, ipßS, courtesy ofthe U S. Forest Service. 5° he end ofthe century proved a poor time to sound die warnings of ecological crisis. That message, called Ecopessimism by die media—despite die fact diat people who warn others are optimistic that dieir listeners can change course—shared die air with die same flock of strange birds diat take flight at every century's close. There were the expected predictions ofJesus's return and global economic collapse, along widi forecasts of terrorist exploits, global computer crashes, and other very bad events of die Book of Revelations sort. But more than end-ofcentury and -millennium jitters burdened die message of a large environmental crisis ahead. In die 1960s and early 1970s, predictions of huge famines heralded environmental disaster. These forecasts have turned out to be, depending on your point ofview, overstated or flady wrong. This good news at the turn ofthe century imposes a heavy cost. Today's more soundly based ecopessimistic warnings sometimes have been dismissed as more of the same doomsterism. But this time, a generation later, abroad and deep consensus has formed among those who study the healdi of ecosystems and the dynamics of die human-nature relationship. While not predicting "Doom" or specific global famines as writers in the 1960s sometimes did, die emerging vision of what lies ahead is laced with pessimism and conveyed as an urgent alarm. This message appears repeatedlyin the writings of individual scientists and collectively more than once, most notably in die "Warning to Humanity" issued in 1992 by a group of seventeen hundred scientists , including ninety-nine Nobel Laureates. "Human beings and die natural world," they wrote, "are on a collision course" marked by atmospheric problems including global warming and ozone depletion, pollution and depletion ofwater resources, buildup ofhazardous wastes, erosion and salinization ofsoil, and rapid species extinction due to habitat destruction. Driving all this is the unprecedented acceleration of global population growth, which surged beyond die first billion humans in 1830 to two billion in 1930 and four billion in i960, with nine to twelve billion humans projected by 2100.1 The consensus that ecological problems menace the human future allows for wide disagreement on die mixture ofworry and hope appropriate in view ofthe trends at work. A recent issue of Daedalus, for example, describes as an encouraging historic trend the "dematerialization" and "decarbonization" of industrial economies, in which industry (in the developed world) is developing technologies diat allow production with less waste and steadily reduce per-unit demands for fossil fuels.2 But this is to argue only that the descent into ecotroubles may have somewhat slowed. The conviction diat we are moving into an era of dismaying ecological hazard has intellectually overwhelmed its ideological critics, the Ecooptimists , whose leading voice was stilled whenJulian Simon died in 1998. In his place are marginal voices with no scientific standing, like radio host Rush LimAgain the BackwardRegion? 51 Farming and thegrowth ofindustry in the South have had unintended effects: habitat destruction. Courtesy of the Southern Historical Collection, the Library ofthe University ofNorth Carolina at ChapelHill. baugh and die Free Market religion sect in charge of the WallStreetJournal^editorial page, allied with a small, well-financed band of "brownlashers," who insist that environmental crisis is a myth and ecological problems are exaggerated by statists and environmental organizations eager for members. Accorded some respect in the 1980s, their argument ended the century in retreat before the strong consensus among natural scientists that the twenty-first century is loaded up widi ecological breakdowns. Journalist Robert Kaplan captured President Clinton's attention widi a 1996 article on the arc of countries from Africa through the Middle East, where cascading ecological collapse has intensified tribal and civil wars and several "failed states" have lost control over national borders. In a sophisticated look forward to 2020, Hamish McRae foresees water shortages, a tightening of oil supplies, relendess habitat destruction, and unavoidable international conflict as China moves ahead of the United States as die world's chiefair...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 50-72
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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