Back to the Land: Environmental Suicide

The world's major environmental problems are created by people struggling to survive, people with few options; not by industry, technology or the economy.


Many of us feel that we are living in a modern drama in which the "economy" and the "environment" are cast as antagonists. But is the antagonism—as in a play—contrived from human imagination, or is it real? I suggest that the so-called conflict has its foundations in the quicksands of environmental misconceptions, left over from an emotional era when we were told by ecologists, in virtually every medium, that the total environment is in jeopardy and that the prime villain is our "economic system" or "industry" or "technology."

It is unfortunate that the communications media presented one side of a complex picture and we came to believe some strange things. Alternative views never got much press. Unfortunately, the general public still believes some of the absurdities, exaggerations, or misstatements. For instance, too many of us believe the following:

• The environment and our economy are in conflict.
• The environment and technology are in conflict.
• Somehow "the answer" lies in going back to the land and to less technology, especially if we could be more like the Indians—the "greatest of all environmentalists."
• Industrial pollution is the most serious of pollutions and will kill us all.
• We are running out of resources—especially minerals and forests; therefore, we should stop our growth.

Even though all of the above statements are blatantly incorrect, many of the decisions of our society are based on such concepts. We no longer see the correct and the obvious because the environmental-conservation movement was largely taken over by the anti-business, anti-industry, anti-system zealots who have been able to control the popular media. The effect has been like brainwashing. We have lost sight of the fact that the evidence clearly shows that the health of the environment and the health of the economy are absolutely interdependent.


It should be obvious, and we should be continuously reminded, that only the wealthy can afford sewerage systems, sewage disposal plants, and garbage disposal. (A single sniff of any town in Africa, Central America, South America, south and central Asia, and most of the Oceanic Islands is all the evidence needed. And, no non-native ever drinks the water.) Just as a wealthy man creates a pleasant environment in which to live, so does a wealthy nation.

New York City—which forgot that a good environment is purchased—has had severe problems financing its new $460 million sewage disposal plant. Discouraging industry and letting power and other costs rise excessively is now hurting New York's environment.

We should also remind ourselves that only the wealthy and the technological societies can afford to leave their steep slopes in woods and till or pasture only their flat or gently rolling lands. Only the wealthy can control erosion to the maximum. Only the wealthy can make their land more productive than it was originally. Only the wealthy can afford reforestation.

This should all be perfectly obvious if we compare ourselves with the less-developed countries, where we see a dismal picture of environmental degradation on a massive scale. Crops are grown throughout much of the less-developed world on slopes so steep that they are difficult to walk on. In addition, goats, sheep, and cattle are too often pastured on such land. Often the forests were initially removed because of the need for firewood for cooking and heating. In most of the above cases, the slopes should have been kept in woods.

What happens when people remove vegetation from steep slopes?

• Heavy rains in 1966 and 1967 caused debris slides in and near Rio de Janeiro, killing about 2,700 people and all but destroying the new Nilo Pecanha power plant complex. The slides, numbering in the tens of thousands, were concentrated on the deforested lands stripped largely for crops and for habitation.

• In just seven years, the new lower Anchicaya reservoir in Colombia was filled with debris from stripped forest land. The power being generated is now only about one-third of that originally planned.

• Debris from steep, tilled slopes in Haiti has clogged the streams and filled the storm sewers in Port-au-Prince. Streets are being turned into gullies in some places and filled with debris in others. A debris-flow from steep, tilled slopes killed 29 people at the mining town of Meme in northern Haiti in 1969. And, as in so many areas of the less-developed world, the reservoir which supplies most of Haiti's hydroelectric power is rapidly filling with debris from slopes long stripped of forest.

• The forests of Nepal are largely stripped for use as firewood; the land is now used for pasture. Devastating debris-blows are common in Nepal, and irrigation ditches in much of northern India are choked with Nepalese debris.

The current process of degradation has a long history. It is responsible for the loss of forests in much of the Mediterranean area—largely before the Christian era. The famed Cedars of Lebanon have long been a rarity. And the Greek Pausanias in the 5th century B.C. described the rapid filling of the sea around Miletus by sediments eroded off bared slopes and carried to sea by the Maeander River. The current practice in Haiti of constructing rock barriers to stop the downward movement of debris from stripped slopes was used 2,000 years ago by the Romans in the French Alps. Then, as now, the practice had only temporary value.

At this time, from one-third to one-half of the world's forests have been stripped, largely for fuel, farming, or pasture land.

What happens when people overstress the flatter areas?

Over three-quarters of the world's deserts (an area about the size of the United States' "lower 48") are man-made. Much of the world's prairie is man-made (the great conservationist G.P. Marsh contended that all grasslands were formed by man through the use of fire). The soils of much of the less-developed world are being eroded away or chemically depleted or salinated or covered with sand dunes.

The global environmental impact of these problems is difficult to measure. The man-induced climatic changes, increased atmospheric dust, reduced atmospheric cleansing effect of forests, and possible changes in the carbon dioxide-oxygen ratio may all influence all of mankind.

The main point: It is common people—common people with few choices—in poor, low-technology societies who are creating the major problems. It is not industry.


For contrast, let's look at the United States, a country with wealth, with conserved and often manicured land. The grass waterways meandering through tilled flatlands, the steeper slopes kept in woods or grasses, the contour plowing, are all signs of a conserved environment. Our forests are far larger than 100 years ago, as are the deer and turkey populations, among others.

The land has been taken care of by generations that loved the land, by generations that, increasingly, have had the economic and technological wherewithal to conserve. Incidentally, the evidence overwhelmingly shows that good conservation and love of the land are not restricted to people who pretentiously call themselves environmentalists.

But it was not always thus even in the United States. We should remember that our "good old days," when we were a less-developed country, were times of stripped forests, high erosion rates, sediment-filled streams, almost extinct deer and turkeys, low agricultural productivity, general inefficiency. How did we increase our forests, decrease our erosion, improve our soils? Answer: We left the land to a large extent, gave much of it a rest.

The signs of healing land are the cemeteries of yesteryear now wooded; the currently forested, healed gullies of once-stripped land; the stone fences in woods where once there was cleared land; and the daffodils and lilacs around old house foundations. And how many of us have been frustrated when we tried to follow roads shown on old topographic maps in the eastern United States? No longer needed by farmers, the roads have reverted to woods.

Why did we leave the land? Why has it been allowed to heal? A look at the island of St. Croix discloses the reason. The heavily wooded, steep slopes are a startling contrast to the stripped slopes of Haiti. The reason: Industry. Industry on St. Croix allows people to leave the land and work elsewhere, and the steep slopes are not needed for food production because people have money to buy food produced more efficiently elsewhere.

Not that all of our problems are solved. Bad examples can be found. But to see only the bad—to view our world from "the garbage cans"—creates problems. For instance, at Voluntown, Connecticut, a group of people who could see only the problems "went back to the land." They rejected the standard energy sources, foreswore modern civilization in general. The inevitable result was that they cut all of their woods for fuel and eventually had to abandon the project.

Main point: The land improves when we are able to get off of marginal land and let it revert to forests. If we truly go back to the land, to our individual plots, our world will be more like it was 100 to 200 years ago—a time of less forest, more erosion, less game, poorer soils, when wood was our primary fuel—all of that when we had far fewer people. There is no room for the luxury of "going back," if that really is a luxury. We will become more like the less-developed countries—paradoxically, at a time when the less-developed are doing everything in their power to be more like us!


The Conservationist (published by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation) tells us, speaking of the Iroquois, "The sacred attitude that these people held for 'Mother Earth' is the central value of the overall culture." But, "because of their larger numbers, it became increasingly difficult to meet the needs of all the people 'by hunting and tilling;'" a decision was made to move and separate (thus forming, ultimately, the Seven Nations of the Iroquois). My translation: They overstressed their environment, just as virtually all low-technology societies historically have done and now are doing. The Anasazi Indians of the Canyon de Chelly area abandoned their cliff homes in 1300, very probably because they overstressed their environment; the present Navajos have created desert by unnecessary overgrazing. J.C. Malin, a geographer-historian at Kansas State University, notes: "The question does not appear to occur to historians that the Indian culture might have been headed for a major crisis, possibly disaster, even if displacement by white culture had not intervened."

It is not generally realized that the Indians burned woods and prairies extensively. Burnt Hills, New York, got its name because the Indians regularly burned the woods; in Illinois, Wisconsin, the Shenandoah Valley, northern Texas, adjacent Oklahoma and New Mexico, etc., early settlers were surprised to see untilled prairie turning to forest. The Indians created much of our prairie, probably well over 100 million acres; they created parklands; by burning prairie and exposing bare soil, they created dust storms (a major dust storm was described in Kansas in 1832, well before the plow and settlers). The Indians were simply like the typical less-developed peoples now, who also create prairies, overuse the land, and cause dust storms.

Referring to his boyhood in the mid-1800's in Wisconsin, an area of choice agricultural land, the famous conservationist John Muir said: "Where an Indian required thousands of acres for his family, these acres in the hands of industrious, God-fearing farmers would support ten or a hundred times more people in a far worthier manner." How much of this land would we need if we were "conservationists" like the Indians? If 400,000 Indians destroyed over 100 million acres of woodlands, 215 million people would have destroyed 52.5 billion acres, about 25 times the whole present United States. The forests of all of North America would have vanished long ago. Or if, as Muir claimed, an Indian family required thousands of acres, 215 million Indians would require over 40 billion acres, an area over 20 times the size of the United States.

The vague concept of going back to the land, being more primitive, is clearly not the answer to many of our current environmental problems.


We are told that industrial pollution will kill us (and some certainly can). But look at the overall record. The life span in the United States was 47 years in 1900; it is now 72 and rising. Pollution is obviously not destroying us. High-technology medical research can claim some of the credit, but medical research cannot supply food and the money needed for medical supplies. Advanced medical research is one more result of our wealth and technology. Most of our increased life span is the result of our standard of living, our wealth. On a worldwide basis, longevity bears a proportional relationship to the Gross National Product (GNP) as can be seen by consulting a world almanac.

The greatest pollutions over the world are really sediments, human excreta, and garbage. Not that we technological nations do not have pollution problems that require action. But remember, we often measure environmental problems in parts per million and worry about what could conceivably happen in decades or centuries; conversely, less-developed nations see environmental problems in terms of what is happening, in terms of starving children, short life spans, stripped forests, the high angle of tilled slopes, the number of landslides per rainfall, the loss of soil productivity, expanding deserts, loss of water resources, etc. For the most part, these are problems that we are rarely aware of, problems that we have been sheltered from for so long that we have forgotten that they existed.

I suggest that in our zeal to prevent all conceivable environmental health hazards, we might reduce the GNP and create the ultimate of health hazards: the inability to buy medical help and food.

One alleged justification for "no growth," for economic slowdown, is that we are running out of mineral resources. Yet for most minerals, the opposite is true. In reality, technology does not use up mineral reserves—it creates them. Writing in the New York Times Magazine, November 7, 1976, Singer and Bracken likened the using of minerals to using muscles: "They expand, get healthier with use."

At the dawn of civilization, our primary mineral resources were rocks like obsidian and flint, and perhaps later, ochre for body paint. (Is there any doubt that the Cassandras of that day, given access to MIT or Club of Rome computers, would have concluded that they were running out of ochre and that the gods would therefore destroy them because they could no longer paint their bodies for religious ceremonies?)

Within the past century, we have enormously increased the number of earth materials which we use. The cause has been the technological revolution, the revolution in which we have been defining the properties of materials which comprise the earth. When the technological societies discovered the nature of the air they breathed, the water they drank, and the minerals on which they walked, they were able to utilize them and to improve their environment on a truly large scale for the first time.

We should realize that mineral reserves are not God-given; they are man-made and a result of our technology. The higher the technology, the more minerals used, the greater the mineral reserves.

Reserves are proven by man; they are cultural and technological in nature and they come and go. Further, reserves are always finite. Any plot of any reserve of any mineral whatsoever against demand will show that we are depleting the reserve. After all, a mineral reserve is measured in the first place for the specific purpose of depleting it. Proving mineral reserves is costly, and only a fool measures reserves much beyond those needed to amortize his investment.

In actuality, reserves are proportional to need; that is, supply and demand operate. The accompanying figure shows a typical curve for some known mineral supplies.

These happen to be for the world's total lead, zinc, and copper. Similar curves can be drawn for virtually all minerals. Main points: Mineral reserves are proportional to demand, and at anytime in the history of civilization a computer would have told us that we are running out of minerals.


We will deplete some minerals, of course, but mostly we shuffle them around. They are, after all, what we walk upon. The earth is all mineral. We will run out of none of the common materials on which we walk. An average cubic mile of crust contains enormous quantities of mineral materials (see table. It is important to remember that after we have "depleted" all minerals (following the Club of Rome's scenario), the world will still weigh the same—they will all still be here!

We can seem to deplete the common materials of the earth, however, if we block by sociological mechanisms (laws) our ability to use minerals or we fail to develop our energy sources.

It is noteworthy that environmentalists are, with amazing success, employing sociological mechanisms to prevent the use of our minerals. In some strange way they have been successful in persuading much of the population that we are running out of everything—this, at a time when we use more types of minerals than ever before and when the world's total mineral reserves have never been larger.

Energy and economic strength are the common denominators that make all minerals available. But characteristically, people who call themselves environmentalists are attacking every practical source of energy: coal, oil, gas, and atomic and hydroelectric power, including pumped storage.

The major sources of energy are attacked on various grounds: air pollution, "ravaging" the land, waste-disposal problems, destruction of the scenery, etc. Pop-science is used to fight the use of practical energy sources; the fears and timidity of many people are preyed upon.

Environmentalists apparently prefer unproven energy sources—or those abandoned long ago as too inefficient or too costly. And wood is becoming an "in" fuel because it is "abundant" and "non-polluting." It is not certain whether environmentalists are blissfully ignorant or cynically knowledgeable of the fact that wood burning is one of the world's major environmental problems.

Of course, environmentalists are not satisfied with a single-pronged attack on our mineral resource base. The mineral industry has been attacked for causing environmental degradation. Yet it should be realized that mining really requires very little land. About 0.3 percent of the entire United States has been disturbed by mining since its inception (much is now largely rehabilitated). Compare this with the addition of 10 million acres of new forest in New York State alone (about 0.4 percent of the area of the United States) since 1900, when there were 7.3 million people in New York compared with over 18 million now. This net environmental gain is a direct result of our efficient industrial system, including our mining. Further, the use of more earth products for construction—that is, building more with metal, plastic, stone, concrete, and brick—is a way of saving timber and hence expanding our forests even more.

It is apparent that if environmentalists have their way, we will run out of minerals, not by depleting mineral resources, but by preventing their being developed.


If the reason we can conserve, can improve our environment, is our industrial-technological system (and the resulting strong economy), it follows that if we jeopardize that system we may hurt our environment. We can hurt the system, make it operate inefficiently, slow it down in various ways.

We jeopardize the system by acting upon the "no growth" concept. There is little doubt that many decisions which have slowed our economy have been made and justified because of this idea.

By requiring environmental impact statements (EIS) in advance of many major decisions, we introduce inefficiencies. The original justification for the EIS was that "all was bad and getting worse," that most major decisions involving the environment were bad. But if the accumulated impact of millions of decisions in our technological society has been to improve much of the environment, as I have previously indicated, the original rationale was incorrect. The EIS has now become an albatross on our system, slowing it down; increasing unemployment; increasing power costs; retarding the sensible development of our water, mineral, and forest resources; reducing general efficiency; delaying many needed activities, often to the point of preventing them.

We perpetrate harm, also, by withdrawing large areas of public lands from virtually all economic uses. The economic impact of such withdrawals has yet to be felt, but it is potentially devastating. One-third of the United States is federal land; about three-quarters of it can no longer be used for mineral extraction. If state-controlled lands which are in a similar category are added to this, the total becomes enormous. If we add lands where we have built over our minerals and lands which are zoned against mineral extraction (along with much of those where an impossible-to-get permit is required in order to mine), and lands which are privately owned by recalcitrant owners, the total land where minerals are no longer available may well be over 75 percent of our nation. Our mineral resource base, which is roughly related to area, has thus been vastly reduced, reduced at a time when we need a stronger domestic mineral industry because of our greater reliance on too-often hostile foreign countries for our supplies.

We do damage by acting as though even the most remote potential environmental health hazard is real. The search for environmental health perfection not only is a factor in further slowing our economy but could ultimately work against public health. In the long run, public health correlates with wealth. So the search for environmental perfection may become counterproductive to public health.

There is little doubt that if we continue to tamper recklessly with a system that has been so remarkably successful, we can weaken it and even destroy it. Paradoxically, the destruction would largely have been in the name of the environment that has so benefited by the system. And, also paradoxically, debilitating the system in the name of the environment would almost certainly result in degrading our environment by reducing our technological base. And weakening the economies and the political systems of the technologically advanced nations will mean that they will be less able to help the environments of the less advanced. "Environmentalism" will thus have become a major contributor to worldwide environmental degradation.


Has any environmentalist considered the following scenario? "Our population will stabilize, as is the trend of virtually all advanced economies. We will continue to mine ever lower grades of ores, as we always have. It will be economically practical because of technological advances—as it always has been. It will be practical because of inexpensive energy (cultivated organic energy, breeder reactors, fusion, or other). But we will recognize that mining lower-grade ores requires ever more land, so we will tend to mine more from underground in preference to open pits or quarries, and the underground space so created will later be utilized by society. Thus we will find ourselves in possession of large amounts of valuable underground space, space which is cheap to heat, cheap to cool, costs little to make usable—that is, requires few resources to use. The mining of one resource will have created a very valuable resource—efficient space. Many storage facilities and industries, even some homes, will be underground as people find themselves comfortable in such surroundings. Vegetables and fruits will be grown underground in soils made of waste materials, and such produce will be available from local sources throughout the year. The use of underground space will further reduce the need for surface land, and the controlled underground environment will require less water. Our forests will further expand and our waters will become purer and will increase."

This alternative to the dismal scenario spawned by the Club of Rome's computer is utopian, yes. But it is technologically wholly realistic; is already implemented, in part, in Sweden; and is probably inevitable—inevitable if environmentalists will let it happen. Note that contrary to the alarmists, the mineral industry saves rather than destroys the environment.

The environment of all of the technological societies has been improving for the past 100 to 200 years, considering the quality of the environment in terms of man's survival. As a place to grow food, a place for recreation, a place for man, it has been improving.

Most of the improvement has not been because of people who call themselves environmentalists, but primarily because of economic forces. The world's major environmental problems are created by common people trying to survive, by people with few options. Our society has many options. We can choose to conserve, to preserve, to manicure, to play, to beautify. Unfortunately, one of our options is to destroy the system that gives us the options—destroy it like pampered children throwing tantrums because our system has not made everything perfect for us. Yet overturning the industrial system is not the best way to improve the environment; it may very well destroy it.

The negative environmentalism of the zealots—people who may not even be truly interested in the environment—must be replaced with the positive environmentalism of professional people, who prefer to be called foresters, soil scientists, geologists, hydrologists, and the like.

The overwhelming reality that must be stressed and understood is that it is only the technologically advanced who have controlled their birth rates, expanded their forests, reduced erosion, and improved their soils. It is only the technologically advanced who can afford to collect garbage, to collect and treat sewage, to clean up their streams, to treat their water. A strong economy and a flourishing industrial system based on technology are far from being enemies of the environment; they are the environment's best friend. If we continue to ignore these basic facts, we may destroy our economic-technologic-political system, a system that has given us the luxury of choices—choices which, unfortunately, include cultural and environmental suicide.

Mr. Dunn is schooled in and a former teacher of geology. He is now chairman of the board of Dunn Geoscience Corp. and is active in various environmentalist arms of professional geological associations. His article here is adapted from a presentation at the 1977 meeting of the Aggregate Producers Association of Ontario.


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