A comprehensive essay by Jesse H. Ausubel called The Return of Nature: How Technology Liberates the Environment documents how technological advances have allowed the developed world to do more with less and how this reduced dependence on natural resources has led to significant environmental improvements. The bottom line is that not only are things not getting worse, in most environmental areas they’ve been getting better for some time and will likely continue to do so.
Here are a few of my favorite nuggets from the piece:
Agriculture has always been the greatest destroyer of nature, stripping and despoiling it, and reducing acreage left. Then, in about 1940, acreage and yield decoupled in the United States. Since then American farmers have quintupled corn while using the same or even less land (Figure 1).
The 800 million or so hungry humans worldwide are not hungry because of inadequate production.
If we keep lifting average yields toward the demonstrated levels of David Hula and Randy Dowdy, stop feeding corn to cars, restrain our diets lightly, and reduce waste, then an area the size of India or of the United States east of the Mississippi could be released globally from agriculture over the next 50 years or so (Figure 6).
The fact that we’re using corn to make fuel while America is producing record amounts of oil is insane.
Measured by growing stock, the United States enjoyed its forest transition around 1950, and, measured by area, about 1990. The forest transition began around 1900, when states such as Connecticut had almost no forest, and now encompasses dozens of states. The thick green cover of New England, Pennsylvania, and New York today would be unrecognizable to Teddy Roosevelt, who knew them as wheat fields, pastures mown by sheep, and hillsides denuded by logging.
Bottom-up land-sparing forces relating to farms and forests and top-down forces are collectively causing global greening, the most important ecological trend on Earth today. The biosphere on land is getting bigger, year by year, by 2 billion tons or even more. Researchers are finding the evidence weekly in places ranging from arid Australia and Africa to moist Germany and the northernmost woods.
Back in the 1970s, it was thought that America’s growing appetite might exhaust Earth’s crust of just about every metal and mineral. But a surprising thing happened: even as our population kept growing, the intensity of use of the resources began to fall. For each new dollar in the economy, we used less copper and steel than we had used before — not just the relative but also the absolute use of nine basic commodities, flat or falling for about 20 years (Figure 8). By about 1990, Americans even began to use less plastic. America has started to dematerialize.
While America added 80 million people –– the population of Turkey –– American water use stayed flat. In fact, US Geological Survey data through 2010 shows that water use has now declined below the level of 1970, while production of corn, for example, has tripled (Figure 11). More efficient water use in farming and power generation contribute the most to the reduction.
The arc of sulfur dioxide forms a classic curve in which pollution grew for a while as Americans grew richer but then fell as Americans grew richer still and preferred clean air. American emissions of carbon dioxide appear to have peaked around 2007 (Figure 13). Emissions in 2014 dropped to 1990 levels. It does not take a rocket scientist to project a falling trajectory.
Not everything is rosy and Ausubel notes that wild fishery stocks have been dangerously depleted. However, there is a solution for that:
High levels of harvest of wild fishes, and destruction of marine habitat to capture them, need not continue. The 40 percent of seafood already raised by aquaculture signals the potential for reversal. With smart aquaculture, life in the oceans can rebound while feeding humanity and restoring nature.
Until about 1970, per capita petroleum use in America rose alarmingly. Most experts worried about further rises, but Figure 14 shows what actually happened — a plateau and then a fall. Partly, vehicles have become more efficient. But partly, travel in personal vehicles seems to have saturated. America may be at peak car travel. If you buy an extra car, it is probably for fashion or flexibility. You won’t spend more minutes per day driving or drive more miles.
He also shows what all these improvements in resource efficiency mean for the environment, especially the return of nature:
So why do we want nature to rebound? And why do we care about the achievements of farmers like David Hula and Randy Dowdy and aquaculturist Aaron Watson and their counterparts in forestry and water resources? Because the incipient rewilding of Europe and the United States is thrilling. Salmon have returned to the Seine and Rhine, lynx to several countries, and wolves to Italy. Reindeer herds have rebounded in Scandinavia. In Eastern Europe, bison have multiplied in Poland. The French film producer Jacques Perrin, who made the films Winged Migration about birds and Microcosmos about insects, is working on a film about rewilding. The new film, The Seasons, scheduled for release later this year, will open millions of eyes to Europe’s rewilding.
Environmental fear-mongers like to portray a world that was once clean and pristine and has been steadily and progressively destroyed by the acts of man. The only way to stop this on-going destruction is to halt further advancements and return to a more “natural” state even if that means leaving millions (if not billions) of people behind in poverty. The latter is usually not stated so clearly of course.
The reality is that the environment hasn’t been on a constant path to inevitable destruction and in fact in many areas we’re in far better shape today than we were thirty or forty years ago. We don’t need to give up the trappings of modern civilization or prevent those in less developed countries from one day enjoying them. With advances in technology we can continue to produce more of what we need while using less resources. Things have gotten better and they will in the future if we don’t overreact to overhyped fears of impending catastrophe and give up on one of our greatest attributes: our ability to innovate and adapt.