The ecosystem an extension of self
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Deforestation "caused tremendous economic dislocations," says Robert Askins, professor of zoology at Connecticut College in New London. And "when there was no longer a source of ship timber, that could weaken an empire."Skip to next paragraph
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As dramatic as these ecological changes were, nothing prepared societies for what lay ahead. Starting in the 17th century, the Industrial Revolution transformed the environment more profoundly than any other millennial event. And here, the West reaped the biggest benefit and sowed the most damage - a legacy that continues today.
"We live in an era that's so different that we need to be not too sanguine about saying: 'Well, human beings have been messing up the places they live in for thousands of years," says Max Oelschlaeger, director of the Center for Community, Culture, and Environment at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. "Circa 1000, the human species did not possess somewhere between 65,000 and 75,000 chemicals that we had made. Even if they had wanted to put holes in the stratosphere [and] deplete the ozone layer, they couldn't have done that." The engines of the Industrial Revolution chewed through wood, then coal in quantities previously unthinkable. Its factories belched smoke into the air and sewage into the water. Its ever-increasing flow of goods created mountains of unwanted byproducts.
Economically, it bestowed unimaginable riches. Ecologically, it proved a disaster. "Throughout the industrial age, we've used the environment as a repository for waste," says Phil Scheuerman, director of the environmental health sciences laboratory at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City. Now "we're recognizing more that this is not an endless repository."
It would take more than a century before that view began to take hold. Seventeenth-century scientists and philosophers were too busy revealing the vastness and complexity of the world to worry about its limits. Francis Bacon argued man could improve on nature through science and technology. Isaac Newton likened the universe to a clock. And people drew the conclusion that if the world was a machine, then humanity could rev it to achieve its own ends.
Later writers, such as Chateaubriand and Lord Byron, began to view the wilderness with awe rather than Petrarch's disdain.
Not everyone was so optimistic. English essayist Thomas Malthus argued that man was condemned to bump into natural limits. Population growth would always overwhelm the increase in the food supply. But technological innovations kept proving him wrong. Railroads collapsed long distances. Gaslight and later electric power allowed work at night. Vaccines and pesticides eliminated dangerous viruses, engendering a faith in technology that continues today.
"The goal of the 20th century - and to some extent the 19th century as well - was to eradicate and dominate," says Stuart McCook, a history professor at The College of New Jersey.
By the late 1800s, however, the downside of the Industrial Revolution began to reveal itself. Already concerned about deforestation, Europeans were practicing tree conservation, which the Japanese had pioneered two centuries earlier. In the United States, some animal populations declined so precipitously - the great herds of buffalo, for example - that no one could dismiss man's impact as inconsequential. But what really pushed the environmental movement into high gear was a small blue-gray headed game bird called the passenger pigeon. In the 1870s, a commission in Ohio investigated the open hunting of the passenger pigeon and concluded the population was so vast that it couldn't decline. But 20 years later, it lay on the verge of extinction.