Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Again the Backward Region?

Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Again the Backward Region?

Article excerpt

Environmental History in and of the American South

The end of the century proved a poor time to sound the warnings of ecological crisis. That message, called Ecopessimism by the media--despite the fact that people who warn others are optimistic that their listeners can change course-- shared the air with the same flock of strange birds that take flight at every century's close. There were the expected predictions of Jesus's return and global economic collapse, along with forecasts of terrorist exploits, global computer crashes, and other very bad events of the Book of Revelations sort. But more than end-of-century and -millennium jitters burdened the message of a large environmental crisis ahead.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, predictions of huge famines heralded environmental disaster. These forecasts have turned out to be, depending on your point of view, overstated or flatly wrong. This good news at the turn of the century imposes a heavy cost. Today's more soundly based ecopessimistic warnings sometimes have been dismissed as more of the same doomsterism. But this time, a generation later, a broad and deep consensus has formed among those who study the health of ecosystems and the dynamics of the human-nature relationship. While not predicting "Doom" or specific global famines as writers in the 1960s sometimes did, the emerging vision of what lies ahead is laced with pessimism and conveyed as an urgent alarm. This message appears repeatedly in the writings of individual scientists and collectively more than once, most notably in the "Warning to Humanity" issued in 1992 by a group of seventeen hundred scientists, including ninety-nine Nobel Laureates. "Human beings and the natural world," they wrote, "are on a collision course" marked by atmospheric problems including global warming and ozone depletion, pollution and depletion of water resources, buildup of hazardous wastes, erosion and salinization of soil, and rapid species extinction due to habitat destruction. Driving all this is the unprecedented acceleration of global population growth, which surged beyond the first billion humans in 1830 to two billion in 1930 and four billion in 1960, with nine to twelve bill/on humans projected by 2100.(1)

The consensus that ecological problems menace the human future allows for wide disagreement on the mixture of worry and hope appropriate in view of the trends at work. A recent issue of Daedalus, for example, describes as an encouraging historic trend the "dematerialization" and "decarbonization" of industrial economies, in which industry (in the developed world) is developing technologies that allow production with less waste and steadily reduce per-unit demands for fossil fuels? But this is to argue only that the descent into ecotroubles may have somewhat slowed. The conviction that we are moving into an era of dismaying ecological hazard has intellectually overwhelmed its ideological critics, the Ecooptimists, whose leading voice was stilled when Julian Simon died in 1998. In his place are marginal voices with no scientific standing, like radio host Rush Limbaugh and the Free Market religion sect in charge of the Wall Street Journal editorial page, allied with a small, well-financed band of "brownlashers," who insist that environmental crisis is a myth and ecological problems are exaggerated by statists and environmental organizations eager for members.

Accorded some respect in the 1980s, their argument ended the century in retreat before the strong consensus among natural scientists that the twenty-first century is loaded up with ecological breakdowns. Journalist Robert Kaplan captured President Clinton's attention with a 1996 article on the arc of countries from Africa through the Middle East, where cascading ecological collapse has intensified tribal and civil wars and several "failed states" have lost control over national borders. In a sophisticated look forward to 2020, Hamish McRae foresees water shortages, a tightening of oil supplies, relentless habitat destruction, and unavoidable international conflict as China moves ahead of the United States as the world's chief air polluter and thus cause of global warming. …

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