Kansas has reason to be proud of Donald Worster, one of America’s foremost environmental historians. As a distinguished professor at the University of Kansas for more than 20 years, Worster has built an enviable resume in both teaching and writing, publishing vital volumes that spearhead much contemporary debate about the nature of growth, the extent and inevitability of climate change, hydraulic culture and the American West, and ecology and the American imagination; moreover, his is the definitive life of John Muir (“A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir,” 2008). His life of John Wesley Powell stands alongside the work of Wallace Stegner, and his “Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s” (2004) is a classic. Now honorary director of the Center for Ecological History at the University of Remnin in China and still American history professor emeritus at the University of Kansas, Worster has produced a new book examining our Western belief in never-ending abundance.
Americans, unlike many Europeans today, often think of growth and abundance as permanent features of the “natural world” and our economy. When European settlers arrived in “The Second World,” the North American continent promised “untapped seas, minerals hidden in underground seams and veins, wild-growing plants and animals, and all the forms of energy latent in the earth’s crust.” Pretty soon, capitalists began exploiting these resources, preaching the gospel of unlimited and unbounded growth, a promise underscored by the seemingly “endless” supply of raw materials like coal, soil, water, oil, fresh air, and animal life (both terrestrial and aquatic). Despite evidence to the contrary in the form of disappearing bison, extinct species like passenger pigeons and whales, and the drying up and blowing away of topsoil, the engine of growth purred ever louder as the 20th century dawned.
Worster traces the history of resistance to this logically unsupportable idea of growth and offers examples ranging from Nantucket island, where whaling was the primary economic engine, to Pittsburgh where coal and oil dominated the economy, to the Imperial Valley, a classic hydrological culture, borrowing Colorado River water against a steadily deteriorating topsoil. In each case, abundance turned into scarcity fairly quickly. Worster also discusses at length prescient classics of the newly emerging ecological “consciousness,” books like Fairfield Osborn’s “Our Plundered Planet” (1948) and William Vogt’s “Road to Ruin” (also 1948), both of which hinted at limits to nature’s abundance. Calling for a more “critical-minded view of history and progress” caught the eye of citizens, voters and natural scientists alike, resulting in a divergence from the traditional path of “conservation” that emphasized preservation for use and exploitation toward a new “environmentalism” that understood scarcity and limits as boundaries to our desires.
Worster’s is a humane eye; his new book thoughtful instead of hectoring, filled with profound insights. There are many among us who cling to the idea that nature was made for man to dominate and subdue. There are some who believe that despite shrinking resources, our scientific ability and technological know-how can somehow save the planet as we inch towards 9 billion mouths to feed. Worster asks his reader to understand Jay Gatsby’s fascination with the “green light” as an ecological lament. Perhaps, but beyond the literary conceit is a dramatic concern for what will happen if we don’t heed nature’s warning signs and come to terms with our shrinking planet.
Gaylord Dold is a crime novelist based in Wichita. Visit his website at www.gaylorddold.com.