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The ecosystem an extension of self

(Page 3 of 3)

"Extinction of the passenger pigeon was a huge shock," Professor Askins says. "Up until that point, people had the conception of unlimited resources on the North American continent."

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Scientists and policymakers began taking seriously the writings of conservationists, such as Aldo Leopold, who wrote treatises on how wildlife could be managed sustainably. Game hunting became a regulated sport. Gifford Pinchot, US forestry chief under President Theodore Roosevelt, led the fight to create national forests whose resources would be managed and wisely used.

Meanwhile, another branch of environmentalists emerged. Inspired by Henry David Thoreau and galvanized by naturalist John Muir, preservationists argued that wilderness should be sheltered, not managed, and they pushed for the establishment of national parks. Starting with Yellowstone in Wyoming, the US government locked up millions of acres for recreation only. By the 1920s, the idea had spread to every continent in the world.

Industrialists were too busy to pay much attention. Thomas Edison's popularization of electricity spawned huge coal- and oil-burning power plants. Henry Ford's mass production techniques not only revolutionized the factory, it made cars affordable to the middle class. But the results of burning great quantities of fossil fuels became all too evident a few decades later. By the 1940s, Los Angeles was battling smog. The increasing use of manmade chemicals in agriculture and elsewhere boosted crop yields but poisoned water and wildlife. Rachel Carson's seminal book, "Silent Spring" (1962), illustrated the long-term effects of pesticide buildups.

Aware of these problems, Western governments stepped in with laws and regulations that have managed to curb pollution and ban some pesticides. From 1970 to 1990, for instance, most US air-pollution emissions fell by a third to a half, thanks in large part to government insistence on catalytic converters for cars. The nation also boasted cleaner water and better waste disposal.

But if societies have a better handle on local and regional pollution at the end of the millennium, they're stymied by the three new global environmental problems. Although the US and others have banned ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons, some countries continue to pump them into the atmosphere and weaken the earth's protection from the sun's ultraviolet rays. Air pollutants continue to jump continents and cause acid rain, killing fish and weakening trees. The buildup of greenhouse gases threatens to heat up the atmosphere and transform, perhaps dramatically, the earth's climate.

The problems are so large and so inextricably linked to economic activity that fixes don't look easy. Will humanity engineer a solution to global warming or will it be forced - finally - to accept natural limits that Malthus wrote about two centuries ago?

Scanning the record, many environmental historians are skeptical of our drastically changing our ways and walking lightly on the earth.

But some ecological philosophers see a hint of change. "We're beginning to grasp the world in ways that weren't conceivable 50 years ago, in its nonlinear, self-creating ways," says Mr. Oelschlaeger. If humanity can stop thinking about the environment as something out there and think instead of nature as God's creation and as a part of itself, then dramatic changes could happen, he adds.

*This is the last part of the Monitor's millennial series. To read earlier, parts go to

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society