Redefining Progress: A Time to Repair the Earth

Earth Island Institute Chairman David R. Brower. Photo by Mark Mardon.

David Brower, the grand old man of conservation — the man author John McPhee once dubbed The Archdruid — sips a martini at Sinbad’s, his favorite lunch spot, overlooking San Francisco Bay. He looks out through the plate-glass window, scanning the air just above the water, hoping — expecting — to spot brown pelicans in flight as they pass under the Oakland Bay Bridge.

“There, three of them!” he points excitedly to some specks near the water’s surface, just forward of the bow of an immense, slow-moving container ship. “Do you know,” he boasts a moment later, “just a few days ago I counted 25 while I was sitting here having lunch?”

Brower’s enthusiasm for counting brown pelicans is understandable. Twenty years ago, their numbers had dwindled so drastically along the West Coast that they appeared to be on the verge of extinction. The culprit was DDT, an insecticide that became popular following World War II and that earned its developer, Swiss scientist Paul Mller, the 1948 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine.

What the Nobel committee did not foresee when it bestowed the prize was that huge quantities of DDT would soon be leaching off farms into rivers, lakes, and oceans. The chemical would break down into DDE, which would steadily accumulate in the flesh of fish. Those fish would be consumed by raptors and sea birds. And those unfortunate creatures would lay eggs with shells so thin they couldn’t hold up during incubation. So insidious would DDE’s effects become, in fact, that by the spring of 1969, bird watchers on Anacapa Island near Santa Barbara, California, would count 320 new pelican nests–only 19 of which would contain eggs.

In the 1960s, when environmental activists like David Brower (who then ran the Sierra Club) called for a sweeping ban on the use of DDT, the pesticide industry accused them of being “antitechnology.”

What that vague but deliberately unflattering epithet implied was that anyone opposed to DDT was anti-progress. And to be against progress, as any high school history student learns, is to be not merely anti-American, but anti-Western Civilization.


Shifting paradigm

Our Western culture — if not every civilization — has long nurtured a sense of time-continuum, a moving forward, a reaching out to explore new ideas and frontiers. In this respect, human beings have been optimists, never recognizing limits to the space available to them. Wherever and whenever we have perceived a void, we have rushed in to fill it in what historian Daniel J. Boorstin calls “the spirit of exploration.” Behind this spirit, always, lies the sense that something waits to be discovered.The Magellans, Amerigo Vespuccis, and Captain Cooks of our Western history revealed our ignorance of the physical world; the Darwins, Adam Smiths, and Sigmund Freuds of our heritage revealed the dark continents of genetics, economics, and the subconscious. Each plunge into these alien territories brought us greater understanding of ourselves and our universe, while strengthening our resolve to explore further.

And so, continually, we raise ourselves to new plateaus, only to discover vast, unexplored areas ahead of us. “We cannot assure the future,” reads a poster tacked to a mud wall in a Colombian farming village, “we can only risk the present.” Risk it for what? The farmer might ask. And comes the unfailing answer: Progress, to move forward. To push on. We dare not retreat. Retreat is inimical to our collective sense of destiny.

But as Thomas S. Kuhn pointed out in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, our movement forward will always be nonlinear. We try numerous paths, only to discover that many lead us astray. Clues that we are on the wrong track begin to mount up. Finally, assuming we do not wish to perish in the wilderness, we heed them, retracing our steps in order to scout a better route.


A host of troubles

The environmental ills we confront today indicate that our “advanced” technological path is leading us not out of, but ever farther into the jungle (and certainly our course is no better charted than Columbus’ prior to his first expedition to the Indies). Yet despite all the gadgetry we carry on our backs, we’re hopelessly ill-equipped to avoid the jungle’s pitfalls. Technology, for all its promise, is landing us in quicksand.

So familiar are the troubles besetting our environment that the list of them reads like a litany, recalling the Biblical plagues:

•  human reproduction has spun out of control, with 5.2 billion of us [in 1990] now overloading the planet, creating unmanageable wastes, widespread poverty, and overwhelming demands on scarce, nonrenewable resources;

• quietude is being eroded and scenery obstructed, especially by automobiles and airplanes, frustrating our chances for reflection and rejuvenation;

• vast swaths of tropical rainforest the world over are being clearcut and burned, largely to make way for temporary farms and cattle grazing; temperate old-growth forests are being ravaged for fuel and lumber, often as export commodities;

• aquatic ecosystems, including commercially-vital fisheries, are succumbing to the ravages of oil spills and pesticide runoffs;

• fertile soils are turning to dust, victimized by overgrazing and excessive tillage, contributing to the inexorable spread of desert-like conditions around the world;

• the air surrounding us becomes fouler each day, with pollutants drifting on currents, causing acid rain, ozone-layer destruction, global warming, and a host of health problems;

• wildlife habitats are being demolished by bulldozers and their kin, with the consequent extinction of plant and animal species at a rate unprecedented in Earth’s history;

• toxic chemical and nuclear-energy-production wastes have been silently, steadily seeping into aquifers, threatening all animals’ lives;

• nuclear weapons proliferate around the globe, manipulated by capricious politicians and warriors, threatening to decimate all animal and plant ecosystems, leading many, perhaps most of us, to a profound pessimism and uncaring about the well-being of the Earth.

No question about it: These are mighty unpleasant happenings, which is why a great many people would like to ignore them — for peace of mind’s sake. But not looking at one’s compass is a sure way to wind up in a morass.

Practical people lost in the woods like to read maps — as opposed to tea leaves — in order to find trails to follow. Environmentalists have many times been accused (usually by those who think technology offers solutions to all ills) of being pessimists. But all they are doing, really, is plotting landmarks on maps, hoping to discover where they are heading.

That is what biologists Paul Ehrlich, Anne Ehrlich, and John Holdren do in their textbook, Ecoscience. Having plotted various environmental stress signs on their map of civilization, they conclude that a realistic path for the future includes continuing worldwide inflation, a widening of the gap between rich and poor, increased incidence of famine, heightened social unrest characterized by strikes, riots, and terrorism, more frequent international confrontations over resources, and a probability of nuclear war that increases “in some (perhaps nonlinear) relation with the growing number of possessors of nuclear weapons.”

This is where we appear to be heading with our so-called progress.


Down to Earth

“The Big Party,” says David Brower, “otherwise known as the Industrial Revolution, is reaching its end.”

And what will take its place? Chaos? A colonization of outer space?

Princeton physicist Gerard K. O’Neill and science writer Isaac Asimov believe the latter is necessary to avoid the former. They propose that humans leave their crowded countries and stretch out in the wide-open expanses beyond Earth’s atmosphere.

“Once we break out from the confines of this planet,” wrote O’Neill in 1976, in The High Frontier, “we can begin building new lands from the limitless resources of our solar system.” But, he added,the most important benefits of space colonization are neither physical nor economic, but “the opening of new human options, the possibility of a new degree of freedom.”

These are the very notions that set sailors voyaging across the oceans in the 15th century, that have motivated explorers throughout the ages. They epitomize our society’s long-held concept of progress.

But people adhering to such ideas today ignore every blinking red warning indicator on the map of civilization. They take comfort in the notion that, if we soil our planet — even make it unlivable — we needn’t worry because we have rockets to facilitate our escape.

Consider this: By the time we mass our resources to put even a few handfuls of people into space stations, the Earth’s capacity to sustain human life will have eroded beyond repair; we will have permanently lost the strength to make our odyssey among the asteroids. Perhaps a small population of moon humans will serve as the seed for a new civilization hundreds of years hence, but that, as Asimov knows, is speculative fodder for science fiction.

What we really need to be strong, David Brower says, is to take a very different course. We must put all of our energies into undoing the damage we have done to our planet.

“We need to take whichever word we like best,” he says, “— renew, rehabilitate, regenerate, repair, replace, restore — and go to work with it, rebuilding our own life-support system.”

“In the Franklin Roosevelt administration,” Brower says, “we had the RFC and NRA — the Reconstruction Finance Corporation and the National Recovery Administration — to get us out of a deep economic depression. We are entering a much deeper ecological depression.” Brower believes the time has come for a new Restoration Era. In the way that the Industrial Revolution began putting people to work in the late 1700s, the Restoration Era would see us working to undo the damage done by our hardworking forebears. He endorses the call by California environmentalist John J. Berger for the creation of a “Restoration Corps,” loosely modeled after the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). In Restoring the Earth, Berger asks that the world’s peoples commit themselves to replanting forests, restoring streams and prairies, renovating and expanding public transit systems, and reintroducing native species to carefully reconstructed habitats.

Restoration work has long been done — is still being done — on a piecemeal basis. Much of the know-how exists. One much-acclaimed project is Daniel Janzen’s effort to re-create a dry tropical forest in Costa Rica, a habitat that had been reduced to “scattered biotic debris.” Janzen pays local people to assist him in reassembling the forest from its remnants. “He depends on help from the people who were making a living by taking the ecosystem apart,” Brower says. Today the Society for Ecological Restoration and Management in Madison, Wisconsin, documents countless restoration projects.

As David Brower contemplates a piece of chocolate cake for dessert, musing that he’s no longer the lithe young man who once climbed peak after rugged peak in the Sierra Nevada, he repeatedly turns to look out the window, in the direction of Oakland.

“San Francisco Bay could be restored, too,” he muses, sharing the hope of all the area’s environmentalists. For decades the Bay has been subjected to dredging, landfilling, and industrial pollution. And the fresh water that feeds the Bay, nourishing its extraordinary ecosystem, now trickles in at less half its former volume; most of it is now diverted to housing and industrial farms to the south. Environmentalists would like to see most of that water brought back home to rejuvenate an estuary that development-crazed people have allowed to decay.

Progress, for David Brower and for all those who advocate a Restoration Era, means abandoning the industrial path that leads to ruin, repairing the earth we tore up in our forward rush, scouting a new path, and starting all over again.

NATIONAL_FORUMThis essay originally appeared in the Winter 1990 issue of National Forum, the Phi Kappa Phi Journal. It was commissioned by the editor for a special issue devoted to “preserving the global commons.”