By David L. Brown
Browsing in my library today I put my hands on a book titled “Our Precarious Habitat,” by Melvin A. Benarde. The sub-title of this book, which was published in 1970 by W. W. Norton & Co., is “An Integrated Approach to Understanding Man’s Effect on His Environment.” This is a hefty 362 page book with extensive notes and a very detailed index. Hmmm, I thought, it should be interesting to see how the future of our environment looked 36 years ago…
Thumbing through this work I soon was struck by an important fact: Virtually none of the problems we now see as the most serious threats to our environment were even on the radar screens in 1970. For example:
- The only mention of carbon dioxide was in connection with industrial illness from exposure to the gas; not the slightest awareness of its effect as a greenhouse gas is mentioned;
- There is no discussion of chlorofluorocarbons and their ability to destroy the ozone layer in the atmosphere;
- There is no hint of the possibility of climate change or of global warming;
- No recognition was made of potential sea level rise as a result of melting glaciers and ice sheets around the world, or of possible changes in ocean currents;
- The terms “rain forest,” “greenhouse gas” and “methane” do not appear in the extensive 26-page index;
- Although an emphasis of the book is on public health concerns, nowhere in the index do the terms “Ebola,” “Marburg Virus,” “Legionnaires’ Disease,” “Swine Flu,” “Lassa Fever,” or of course “Avian Flu” appear;
- The issue of growing water shortages and aquifer depletion is not discussed;
- The author does not touch on the issues of species extinction on land and on sea;
- Rather startlingly, the words “famine,” “starvation” and “malnutrition” do not appear in the index of this book;
- No attention is paid to the subject of resource depletion and the resulting problems for civilization;
- The impact of population growth is mentioned not as a threat in itself, but only in the context that to feed growing numbers would require increased use of chemical pest control with the resulting pollution of the environment.
This is an eye-opening glimpse into how much has changed and in so short a time. When Dr. Benarde wrote this book the major environmental concerns of the time were with toxins and industrial pollution in the water, soil and air, and with the threat of nuclear, chemical or biological warfare. DDT, Diazanone, Dieldrin, and a host of other pesticides are discussed at length, along with many similar subjects such as carcinogenic food additives, bacterial contamination, and so forth. The world of 1970 was oblivious to the looming threat of a stricken environment in a state of collapse.
Indeed the world of 36 years ago must have seemed endangered, but looking back from the vantage point of the early 21st Century those threats that were recognized then seem pale indeed compared to the developing environmental trends that face us today. I could go on and on about all the many pieces of the tapestry of environmental decline and breakdown of which we have become aware in the intervening years, but it would be a useless exercise because the subject is so broad and so deep. In fact, the entire content of this web site concerns these facts and speculations, so I invite the interested reader to browse the archives.
I should add that not everyone was unaware of at least some of the problems that lay ahead. Two years before this book appeared Dr. Paul Ehrlich had published his milestone work “The Population Bomb,” and as early as 1965 Georg Borgstrom predicted a future of worldwide famine in his book “The Hungry Planet.” Both those authors were ahead of their time and the full impact of their predictions has not yet come to pass, but even these prophets had no inkling of the many new factors of which we are only now becoming aware.
The question all this raises in my mind is this: What will the world as we understand it today look like from the perspective of 36 years hence? In the year 2042 it is my suspicion that the knowledge and predictions made in our present time will seem as strangely disconnected from the reality of that future era as 1970 does from our viewpoint today.
And you may call me a cynic, but I do not think the scientists, writers, and philosophers of the future will look kindly on the manner in which our generation has acted and reacted to the unfolding knowledge about the dangers to our environment. I suspect they will find it hard to believe that we knew all that we know, and did so little about it. Perhaps our present era will become known as The Age of Shame. Perhaps we will deserve that demeaning sobriquet.