The ecosystem an extension of self

Every time mankind has stepped forward, it has left behind a nasty footprint.

Early hunters decimated populations of the woolly mammoth. The ancient Chinese exhausted their soil. The Greek and Roman civilizations turned the forested Mediterranean into a semidesert long before AD 1000 had rolled around.

But it's the latest millennium that has really transformed the earth. Industrialization, unprecedented population growth, and trade have shrunk the wilderness, devastated ecosystems, and now threaten the planet. Many environmentalists believe we've already poked such a hole in the ozone layer and pumped so many greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that global disaster looms.

At the same time, the last 1,000 years reveal humanity's growing awareness of its nature-trashing ways and its ingenuity in minimizing them. Societies have found new methods of production and new methods to limit pollution. Governments have cordoned off vast tracts of land and water either to regulate human exploitation or ban it altogether.

New environmental problems will sorely test that ingenuity. We will either race ahead with new technology or change our ways to live more lightly on earth (or perhaps some combination of the two). Either avenue will reorient our relationship with the natural world.

"We're part of the web of life," says John Cairns, professor emeritus of environmental biology at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. "If we destroy any part of the web, then we're inflicting self-damage. That's the paradigm shift that's beginning to occur. You have to think of the ecosystem as almost an extension of yourself."

To 11th-century peasants laboring in Europe, such notions would have seemed entirely foreign. Life was rude and agriculture marginal enough that, as a practical matter, nature needed to be beaten back at every turn. Even as a religious idea, nature was no Garden of Eden but, according to the prevailing Christian view, a fallen world.

The European elite of the Middle Ages also regarded nature with suspicion. After admiring the view from Mt. Ventoux in 1336, Italian scholar Petrarch opened St. Augustine's Confessions and read his warning about the delights of natural wonders. "I was abashed," the scholar wrote, and "angry with myself that I should still be admiring earthly things who might long ago have learned ... that nothing is wonderful but the soul."

In any case, nature began to look less and less wonderful and bountiful. Owing to intensive logging in the mid-12th century, French Prime Minister Suger had to travel nine hours southwest of Paris to find trees big enough to make roofing beams for his Abbey of Saint-Denis. England became so denuded it began importing fir trees from Norway and using smelly sea coal to fuel its limestone kilns.

The coal fumes got so bad in 1257 that they drove Queen Eleanor from Nottingham Castle, perhaps the world's first victim of air pollution. Human waste accumulated to such an extent in preindustrial England that in 1388, Parliament passed the first national antipollution act, forbidding among other things the throwing of garbage into rivers.

Environmental degradation was not limited to the West. The Tupi in southeastern Brazil adopted a highly destructive slash-and-burn agriculture. The great Pueblo culture of the American Southwest declined after a late 13th-century drought, brought on in part, some scholars say, by poor conservation. Extensive lumbering in parts of Japan caused so much deforestation that the industry turned to plantation tree-farming after 1600. Economics and security dictated the change.

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."

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.

"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."

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

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