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Conservation for Survival | The Nation

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Conservation for Survival

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Conservation is no longer' a cause; it is a crisis. Its features are drawn in taut lines by forces unprecedented in human history, like a human face contorted by foreboding and strain. Conservation today bears scant resemblance to the historic pattern of the familiar wallflower at the ongoing dance of material progress. Under the impact of a rocketing population, an insatiable spiral of economic expansion, as well as a gargantuan and pitiless technology, the very character of the concern of conservation has shifted. Once preoccupied with the quantity of resources, its attention is now focused on the quality of environment. Once a question of supply, conservation is now an issue of survival-of species, of habitat, of mankind.

 This article appeared in the August 26, 1968 edition of The Nation.

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Daily, the country is, or should be, shocked by the brinkmanship of the exploitation we live by. Dr. Barry Commoner has reported that some tested baby food has been found to contain enough nitrogen fertilizer to endanger life. Dr. Lamont C. Cole warns the American Association for the Advancement of Science that had a ship the size of the Torrey Canyon, loaded with concentrated herbicides rather than with crude oil, sunk off our coast, it would have erased the photoplankton of the sea which produce 70 percent of the world's oxygen, and man and beast throughout the Northern Hemisphere would quickIy have found themselves gasping for breath. As for air poisoning, despite mandatory crankcase and exhaust control devices on Los Angeles automobiles, the amount of hydrocarbons spit into the air daily has leaped from 1,870 tons in 1960 (before controls) to 10,860 tons a day, and the mustard blanket wraps that city--and most cities--more tightly than ever in its choking embrace.

Secretary Udall comes up with the mournful list of seventy-eight American species of wildlife which we have pushed to the brink of the never-never land--among them the American bald eagle, the national emblem. In December, 1967, thousands of oil-blackened waterfowl washed ashore on Maine's sub-zero coast, there to starve and freeze to death, victims of an illegal oil spill.

In the next thirty years, says Russel E. Larsoan, dean of the College of Agriculture at Pennsylvania State, the world - must duplicate all the progress made through agriculture since the beginning of time, if we would avoid world-wide starvation. And in 1967, eighty nations of the world were for the first time moved to meet in Washington, D.C., in "a massive cooperative international effort to find solutions-for man's water problems,''in the President's words.

All these calamities and crises which now tread on one another's heels are symptoms, environmental warnings. We are burdening the land with more people, production, and machines than it can possibly sustain.

"The problem," observed biologist Hugh H. Iltis of the University of Wisconsin, "is one of a single 'species of animal who is making the earth unfit for habitation by conquering it." It is a problem unique to our age. Not until 1915 did the United States reach its first 100 million population. On November 20, 1967, an unthinking, if not an ignorant, crowd stood in the foyer of the Commerce Department and applauded wildly as the census clock registered the 200 millionth inhabitant. In thirty-five years, perhaps even in twenty-five, if bullish tendencies prevail, another 100 million Americans will appear on the scene. These are the increased hordes who will inundate the parks, blight the landscape, crowd the beaches, destroy the air and make life unbearable for one another.

They 'are also compounded of an individual and collective appetite that is driving society to dyspepsia. Every "7 1/2 seconds a new American is born," begins our" Moment in the Sun. "He is a disarming little thing, but he begins to scream loudly in a voice that can be heard for seventy years. He is screaming for 26,000,000 gallons of water, 21,000 gallons of gasoline, 10,150 pounds of meat, 28,000 pounds of milk and cream, 9,000 pounds of wheat, and great storehouses of all other foods, drinks, and tobaccos....

"He is requisitioning a private endowment of $5,000 to $8,000 for school building materials, $6,300 worth of clothing, $7,000 worth of furniture-and 210 pounds of peanuts to pass through his hot, grasping little hand. He is yelping for a Paul Bunyan chunk, in his own right, of the nation's pulpwood, paper, steel, zinc, magnesium, aluminum, and tin. . . ."

This infant will grow into the world's most prodigious consumer, citizen of a nation that accounts for one fifteenth of earth's people but consumes one-half of its total product (and aspires, by the year 2000, to consume 83 per cent of it. We wallow in statistics projecting a gross national product by the turn of the century that will be more than double our present GNP-and appear charmed by the vision of 244 million cars on the road in that same year. We plan on a building pace of five times present experience. It is this double threat of more people demanding more per capita production that makes the modem conservationist run scared.

Nor can he muster much hope to save the beauty and balance of man's surroundings when he considers the relentless, savage power of the forces of predation. The exploiters are armed with an artillery of modern machinery as to make the universe quake.

A "mechanical monkey," for instance, has been announced with cheers. It embraces a living tree in a death hug and climbs to the top, chewing off 'all branches as it goes. It promises to consume every last unprotected tree of our once vast forests. "We shake up the earth and make it tremble!" exulted one TV documentary on man's subjection of nature. In Florida, a land speculator has developed the giant "tree-crusher" which shaves a 27-foot swath through the region's great cypress swamps for more housing developments.

The replacement of the bulldozer with the immense earth-churning cats plus powerful new chain saws, have enabled the lumbermen of the Pacific Coast to promise the extermination of all of the prehistoric coastal redwoods within this one generation. "The redwoods are commercially valuable," declared a lumber company spokesman, "and therefore they must be cut.''

True to their promised goal, as soon as the Senate, in November, 1967, cautiously approved a modest 66,000- acre park on Redwood Creek (with options for Secretary Udall to add to it the treasured "Emerald Mile," just upstream from its boundary) the barons acted. Overnight, the owners moved their mammoth machinery into the Emerald Mile, quickly felled a dozen of the 300-foot-tall giants, and rigged up the skidroads to strip down this breathtakingly beautiful spot. The old imperiousness of the 19th-century lumber baron was resurrected from ghosts Americans thought long banished.

Indeed, the "climate of 'conservation,'' as far as the redwoods are concerned, has the stability of a wraith. After long-drawn-out hearings, the, House Committee under Wayne Aspinall of Colorado shocked the entire nation by slashing the 66,000-acre park passed by the Senate to a miniscule 32,OOO acres (more than two-thirds of it composed of already saved redwoods in two state parks)! Lest anyone think this figure respectable, Yosemite claims, by comparison, 759,000 federal land acres, Yellowstone Park is composed, of 2,213,000 acres and even little known Isle Royale National Park in Michigan contains 539,000 acres.

But that was not the worst. The committee thumbed its rather soiled nose at democratic procedures as well as at the desires of 95 per cent of the public polled on this special park proposal. The miserly -32,000-acre substitute was presented to the House under a suspension of the rules-a gag rule that denied more than fifty park proponents in the Congress any opportunity for amendment or debate.

Senate conferees Henry M. Jackson, Clinton P. Anderson, Alan Bible, Thomas H. ' Kuchel and Clifford P. Hansen now face a September confrontment in conference committee with House-conferees Wayne Aspinall, Roy A. Taylor, Harold T. Johnson; John P. Saylor and Theodore Kupferman. The American people have this last-ditch opportunity to make their voice heard by these conferring gentlemen, if they act at once. As it is, the face of conservation in California now wears a sardonic grin.

Surface mining done has defaced 3.2 million acres of land, and with the aid of a monstrous machine, equipped 1 with 200-ton jaws, the rate of disfigurement is now 150,000 acres a year which, it is estimated, we shall soon come near to doubling. Thus it is that today the defender of the environment tries to stand up against these demographic and economic forces with the breath of catastrophe and despair blowing down his neck. And as the forces of destruction expand, the land shrinks. No longer is the conservationist operations in a framework of almost wicked plenty-our virginal resource abundance which both dizzied and corrupted. Now each assailed spot becomes a final battle for its kind.

When the Eastern New York Chapter of Nature Conservancy wrenched Great Bear Swamp near Westerlo from the path of the Army Corps of Engineers' bulldozers, they were saving the last northern outcropping of the giant rhododendron in all New York State. When nature lovers rushed to stave off development of the Wild Buffalo River in Arkansas, it was the last such river left in that section of the country. When the Audubon Society and others joined forces to set aside habitat for the Kirtland's Warbler in Michigan and the Atwater prairie chicken in Texas, it was in each case the last such habitat available on planet earth.

Nor is the issue always confined so narrowly. The ecologist today worries about ecosystems. He sees us tampering with climates, willfully exterminating entire species, altering many thousand-year-old habitats. Says biologist Dan McKinley of the State University of New York at Albany in his colorful prose: "A broad ecological disaster will now be final, in a world where untapped frontiers no longer beckon us and temper our mistakes. . . . The man who burns his incense to an expanding economy must learn to investigate what is going up in smoke." Today's conservationist must view the landscape not in spots and dabs as he once did but in its entirety. He must be concerned with a biotic community, with complete ecosystems. His vision has perforce come to encompass the whole web of life, including man. Thus he no longer sees just a poison bait carelessly planted here and there or an aerial spray drifting down on a field of cabbage, but bewails rather the systematic nation-wide saturation of the American environment with an annual 700 million pounds of biocides, herbicides and pesticides. He sees the predacious disruption of a whole watershed.

As a consequence he mourns not only a specific wildlife loss from an occasional chemical "spill"-but the blotting out of an entire species such as the Atlantic salmon, or the Great Lakes sturgeon. The California condor, the timber wolf, the grizzly bear, the roseate spoonbill. the southern sea otter and many more--even the Eastern bluebird-are struggling gamely against man's ingenuity in order to stay alive. Never before in history has there been concern over the ability of nature to defend herself, but Professor Iltis expresses the new attitude. "It is abundantly clear," he says, "that one of the most important jobs of the conservation movement today is to expose the fallacies of the indestructibility of nature." Certainly no one who honestly confronts the assorted revolutions in population, in production and in expectations can ignore the limitations on resources. On this finite, raked-over little globe gluttony must soon have an end. Even the most optimistic find hope only in the "resources" of manipulation, foreign importation and scientific innovations-shaky piling indeed.

Lucky "breakthroughs" and scientific serendipity aside, however, the startling emphasis today is not primarily a statistical one. A qualitative deterioration is impoverishing and debauching our environment. Scientists no longer worry as much about the coal and oil supply as about the life-endangering contaminants their combustion throws into the atmosphere. Public officials have transferred their concern from the inventory of chemicals available, to septic rivers, the 100,000 defiled lakes, and the poisoned estuaries that have resulted from these products. The question as to whether we shall always have enough plastic and paper is blotted out of sight by the mountains of "discards" and trash we must wade over and through. Whether we have enough steel to make automobiles becomes secondary in urgency to the blight of junkyards and the aggressiveness of the motor vehicle.

Maybe the more visionary scientists are right when they assert that some day- they will need "only mass and energy'' in order to create anything; we can then stoke the stomachs of the most crowded population with tasty viands concocted of granite, industrial dust and kelp. But the modern ecologist must weigh against the satisfactions of fecundity and stomach stoking the losses in quiet, in health, in open space, in dignity, in sanity itself, and in the preservation of natural beauty.'

This qualitative malaise is nature's backlash that, at long last, is beginning to raise some welts. "Committing that sin of overweening bumptiousness, which the Greeks called hubris," wrote Aldous Huxley, "we behave as though we were not members of, the earth's ecological community, as though we were privileged and in some sort, supernatural beings and could throw our weight around like gods."

The crisis has come upon us suddenly; by the same token, the sting of the ecological backlash can be countered only with emergency measures while we buy time. Harsh and limiting expedients are justified if they will allow. us to come to grips with the basic economic and social distortions. This generation is experiencing the convulsions of a dying nature. Only mouth-to-mouth resuscitation will revive her now.

For example: the seas of the world are suffering progressive deterioration and mindless abuse. Whole species are being fished to death by unregulated mechanical rakes that comb the ocean floor, by percussion, explosion, and the greedy rivalry of prowling fleets of scores of nations existing in feudal maritime disorganization. Until international law can regulate in some measure the exploitation of the world's maritime waters, holding actions must be adopted. If, unilaterally, this country can prevent the fatal destruction of the estuaries, breeding grounds for two-thirds of the ocean's sea life within its jurisdiction, legislation' to that end should be risked.

Again, 462 million tons of particulates are spewed into the air each year with catastrophes of deadly proportions impending when weather inversions press these masses of pollution too long and smotheringly over the metropolises. Any measures--restrictions on the automobile or tinkering with the smokestacks--are a boon.

If we would save the Emerald Mile, or the Northern Cascades, or the Grand Canyon from precipitant destruction, quick Congressional action is imperative. If we can stave off the rising tide of infectious hepatitis (50,000 new cases a year) and mononucleosis (resembling leukemia) by reducing the septic threat of the river sewers, we shall have to act boldly in this staying action. If New York Councilman Robert Low's bill to prohibit transistor radios in buses, subways and public places will aid in preserving the hearing, health of the heart and normalcy' of the blood pressure (as Dr. Samuel Rosen declares), such a bill can hardly be tossed aside as "futile" or "immaterial."

However, to be realistic. it must be repeated that these holding actions are not solutions but expedients, and their most drastic implementation now promises, dismally, to offer little more than temporary relief. The real solution to this whole complex of civilized afflictions is a package of such cultural intricacy-it calls for revolutionary shifts in values and social goals--that the and intense 'effort alone can bring it about. In the long run, the conservationist cannot really save any natural wonder, any threatened species, any significant open space, breathable air, potable water or the amenities of civilization unless he grapples with the self-destroying expansionism doctrine.

How can what Aldo Leopold termed "the ecological conscience" replace the ingrained American creed of unceasing growth? We denigrate the stature of our President by forcing him to become little more than a barker for the new jobs industry creates and the increasing glut of goods the market provides. How can we, in the words of Secretary Udall, "disentangle our minds and hearts from our purse strings?"--even to save ourselves?

By this time even the most crass and obdurate expansionist must face up to the pitiful incompetence of both industry and government to protect the natural heritage or safeguard the future. Industry is profit oriented; government is power oriented. The nation needs a stewardship of our remaining treasure that is posterity oriented.

Of late, many suggestions are springing forth as to how to effect this new sense of values and at the same time protect what is left. Federal Power Commissioner Charles R. Ross himself brought to attention the idea (publicized by Scenic Hudson Preservation Conference) of the British National Trust--guardians of the public weal--whose duty it is to examine all proposed projects in the light of historical as well as environmental damage. Composed of the most prestigious and impartial citizens personally selected by the Chancellors of Oxford, Cambridge and the University of London, the Trustees of the British Museum and National Art Gallery, the presidents of the, Royal Academy of Arts, the Youth Hostels Association, the Entomological Society and Royal Horticultural Society, as well as heads of the National Trust for Scotland, Ramblers Association, Government' of Northern Ireland, Commons, Preservation Society, Society for the Promotion of Nature, and one or two others, it has served well "to save 'the pleasures, of, England, from the social and economic revolution which is threatening our landscape."

"With the wealth of organizations in addition to the Sierra Club, such as the National Geographic Society, the Conservation Foundation, and the Wildlife Federation, this Nation could easily establish such an illustrious and influential body whose opinion would normally carry the day." "At the very least," adds the Commissioner, "the 'advantages of any development would have to be clearly in the Nation's interest before this Commission or the Secretary would overrule the objections of, such a body." In the same vein, Rep. John V. Tunney of California is pressing hard for a "Council of Ecological Advisers"- eminent citizens divorced from, commerce-to speak out for the public interest. It is certain that bureaucratic heads and pressure-tormented officials would, as Commissioner Ross has revealed, welcome such a trust for it would take the heat off their own necks. Best of all, for the first time in American history, the suicidal effects of the growth fixation would lie nakedly, and honestly exposed.

Prof. Nathaniel Wollman, writing 'in Daedalus (Fall, 1967) is convinced that our only hope lies in the power of such a board of environmental experts to reduce o h reliance "upon a technical elite for making the correct decision. . . ." And writer Robert Boyle restates' the same idea in more earthy fashion when he says in Sports Illustrated: "Putting an engineer in charge of a resource such as a river is like hiring a plumber to design a fountain." Always heretofore, when public agitation has risen to a head for some reform measure to save the land. the head has been neatly decapitated by the high-powered economists of the threatened interests {see the $40,000 or so of ads placed in the biggest newspapers from coast to coast in January by the California Redwood Association to scuttle the proposed National Redwood Park bill). Public rights and desires are left headless and speechless, and usually bleed quietly to death.

For another instance of this one-sided propaganda: right now when public anxiety is ,at its height concerning our foul rivers, we are slapped in the face with the statement that the $20 billion a year which it might cost to bring them back to a state of "pristine purity" is about as much as the nation spends for its public school education. Most people, we are assured, would find such an undertaking "ridiculous." The crusade falls on its face.

But if we had a public-oriented group of economists of the stature of Professor Wollman of the University of New Mexico, they might quickly tear such smug arguments to bits. Twenty billion dollars a year is "roughly one-third to one-half the amount by which one year's GNP exceeds the previous year's GNP. Should we decide, therefore, to restore our streams to purity," he concludes tellingly. "the cost is a delay by four to six months of the expected increase in all other goods and services that we would otherwise enjoy." Here at last we have both sides of the coin. Would that we now had at hand a National Ecological Trust where the rebuttal powers of Mr. Wollman and others like him might be broadcast to the entire populace rather than 5e hid, as they now are, in the esoteric covers of that weighty little Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Daedalus.

For the findings of such 'a trust would be broadcast. By its very prestige, if not by the shock of its disclosures, it would command all communication media instantly. There arises here, however, the ancient enigma of the irresistible force and the immovable object. Once again the inborn growth obsession lifts its formidable head. We, have built a whole set of sturdy institutions, economic and social, on the annually accelerated gouging of the environment. But in the words of architect Robert W. Patterson, "You cannot multiply forever both people and the things that people want unless you plan to take y e r more territory than the sterile moon represents." As we have emphasized in Moment in the Sun. the tragedy of our times is that we have institutionalized the agents of appetite and victimized the advocates of deeper satisfactions. We stand sullenly frozen in the consequences of our folly-the doctrine of ever more people demanding ever more things-while our leader. standing before Congress, recites our phenomenal growth statistics and laments "Why are you not happy?"

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