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[ ] How man has deformed the pristine . . . is the central theme of the Symposium.—William Thomas, “Symposium Discussion: Retrospect,” 1956 11 “Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth” At the height of Sauer’s black pessimism about the state of learning and academic life, he gained unexpected respite from a major collaborative enterprise .1 In October 1953 William Thomas, a geographer at the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research in New York, invited him to chair a forthcoming symposium entitled “Man’s Impact as a Dynamic Agent in Changing the Face of the Earth,” as “the logical person to give impetus to such a vast undertaking.” From a list of ninety humanities and social science luminaries, Sauer was asked to select thirty participants. Although “aghast, excited, and somewhat scared” by the boldness and size of the scheme, he accepted at once. The proposal addressed one of his major concerns.2 “I thought that [it] might be better than most conferences,” he wrote Joseph Willits. “It didn’t belabor methodology; it saw that it needed minds of varied experience and texture; no attention was paid to officialdom; it required the knowledge of and from other parts of the world.”3 Over the next twenty months Thomas received a torrent of Sauerian advice, queries, reflections, professions, and “confessions.” Retrospect, Process, Prospect Sauer’s inputs were both practical and philosophical. Staging the conference within eight months was impossible; more lead time was essential. “Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth” 155 The proposed program needed historical reinforcement from European scholars who knew that “the past is living and that it can be made to speak to us,” to counter social scientists’ presentist theorizing. He disliked the title’s use of “dynamic,” an academic catchword among “sons of Daedalus to whom anything that happened before them is antiquarian.”4 Thomas accepted all these suggestions for the symposium, then renamed “Man’s Impact in Changing the Face of the Earth,” as seen in the past (“Retrospect”), the present (“Process”), and the future (“Prospect”). While lamenting insufficient perspective on the past, Sauer deprecated “crystal ball” gazing into the future. Futuristic scenarios would engender unproductive clashes, since a future that appears “to one in rosy glow gives to another the cold horrors.” Social scientists’ zeal to remake the globe depressed and frightened him. They claimed “the wisdom to reorganize and operate the world as a planned Utopia. I fail to see how this can be done except by total organization under an entrenched elite, the result as being presented by Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, architect Roderick Seidenberg, and Kurt Vonnegut. Hence my dislike of mastermind social engineers.” Sauer thought social scientists wrong in fact as well as in purpose. “Science must continue to work humbly with the natural order and its limits. Progress is limited and must always be paid for. Man remains within a limited ecological system. My opponents say I’ve got piety; I’d like to call it prudence in thinking that it’s best to let nature take its course, with some corrections of our imprudent actions.” Consequently, he told Thomas, he wanted “a minimum of blue-printing the future” in the symposium’s Prospect segment and elaboration of the Retrospect segment. The central questions to be addressed were, “How did we get to where we are?” and “How can we construct an intelligible description of where we are?” These keynote queries were passed on to every invited participant.5 Symposia at Berkeley on the use of resources had confirmed Sauer’s “historically-minded” perspective. These events had lacked interest for social scientists “unaccustomed to think of historical events and processes,” and unable to see “that the course of events, if not cyclic, sinusoidal or straight line, was any concern of theirs.” On the other hand, biologists and many earth scientists had “the proper enzymes in their rumens and chew such historical cud which to others may be cellulose waste.”6 156 to pass on a good earth Other participants had different concerns. Andrew Clark, a Wisconsin historical geographer, feared the program was “too inclusive.”7 Edgar Anderson , Sauer’s erstwhile collaborator on early plant domestication, felt the pace too hurried. The conference was so planned and so complete that there was little opportunity for new ideas to emerge. He urged Thomas and Sauer to “let the thing grow” by leaving gaps for subsequent additions, deletions, and alterations.8 But Sauer had an increasingly clear idea of what...


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