SCIENTIFIC understanding has progressed tremendously from the primitive theory of ``phlogiston'' - an imaginary substance that was thought to be emitted when things burned. But modern man is still in the dark ages of another challenge, one of his own making: how to keep the effluent of technological progress from choking, poisoning, and otherwise ruining the habitat in which human beings live. This can be said at the outset: No physical, social, or other law declares that human use of the earth must inevitably lead to the earth's deterioration. Given an understanding of what effect their manufacturing, recreation, urbanization, and agricultural practices have on the earth's ecology, humans can do differently. The standard for human use of the earth should be to demonstrate how it can bear abundantly. Pure water, clean air, and unspoiled land should be the expectation. Putting limits on contaminants is but a first step. The more advanced nations should show the way in the proper treatment of the planet, even while much of today's deterioration is in nations that are trying to ``catch up'' or are burdened by overpopulation and poor land use.
A realistic appraisal of where things are today shows cause for concern and some hope.
First the pluses: Waters have visibly begun to revive: the River Thames, the Hudson, Lake Erie. In automobile-dependent countries like the United States, auto emissions have been sharply cut back as a result of legislated emissions standards.
The minuses appear more abundant: In its ``state of the world'' report issued this week, the Worldwatch Institute warned that use of air, water, land, forests, and other systems are being pressed to their limits. Declining food and fuel production in parts of the world, contamination of the atmosphere, climatic change, extinction of plant and animal species, and general decline in the quality of life are under way. ``Since 1950, the world population has doubled, food production has nearly tripled, and fossil fuel use has more than quadrupled,'' Lester Brown of Worldwatch reported. The capacity of forests to tolerate pollution, of the atmosphere to absorb waste gasses, and of cropland to sustain cultivation is at risk.
Ten years after a United Nations conference called for a ``decade of action'' to halt the expansion of the earth's deserts, the situation has grown worse. Agricultural land is turning to desert at a pace of some 15 million acres a year, members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science reported this week. Overgrazing, cutting of firewood, and periods of drought are factors. In 1977, 94 nations ambitiously agreed to contain the spread of deserts. The plan called for $4.5 billion to be spent a year, which was expected to return $26 billion a year in increased output. In the decade since, only $6 billion has been committed, mostly for roads and studies.
Now ozone is the latest eco-worry, along with a number of toxic substances emitted into the air. This Wednesday, members of the US Congress called for a joint congressional resolution on behalf of the Reagan position at a forthcoming meeting in Vienna. The goal is to protect the earth's ozone shield by freezing the production of chlorofluorocarbons at current levels, and ending their use over time. Japan, the Soviet Union, and the European Community oppose an accord.
On the same day, Sens. John Chafee (R) of Rhode Island and Max Baucus (D) of Montana introduced bills that would gradually eliminate 95 percent of the chlorofluorocarbons most harmful to the atmosphere's ozone over six to eight years. Friends of the Earth, an environmental group, has begun a consumer campaign to warn against products like Styrofoam products that may harm the ozone. And the National Resources Defense Council wants to include more of the 129 toxic substances listed in the Clean Water Act - such as formaldehyde, dioxins, and dry cleaning fluids - in clean-air legislation.
These efforts deserve support. It's a long way from the phantasy of phlogiston to the realities of ozone. No challenge is more serious than restoring full livability to Earth.