An Environmental History of the World: Humankind's Changing Role in the Community of Life

By J. Donald Hughes | Go to book overview

9

Present and future

While histories do not often concern themselves with the future, it is appropriate for a world environmental history to look at the trends active in the twentieth century which are likely to persist into the twenty-first and will continue to affect the worldwide picture. Some of these were discussed in the preceding chapter. In this introduction, I will comment briefly on three kinds of change that are particularly salient and which promise to shape the future in positive and negative ways. These are high technology, including space technology; the world market economy in relation to natural capital; and the reduction of biological diversity.

A pervading transformation that seems certain to dominate human interaction with the environment is the continuing spread of high technology and its rapid series of innovations, so radical as to merit the historian’s designation as a new technological revolution. Machines with greater power and sophistication in making environmental changes will be created. The speed and spread of the reach of communication will continue to accelerate. Information of many kinds, including the facts of environmental change, will be more easily available. At the same time, governments will be able to watch social developments, gather information on their citizens, and possibly control their actions as never in the past. Satellites and other instruments in space will provide ever more detailed knowledge about the Earth’s environment, and information on processes of change that will aid in making judgments about sustainability and the advisability of various kinds of projects. The purposes to which such knowledge will be put remain in question.

In the latter half of the twentieth century, the exploration of the universe beyond the Earth provided a series of startling insights. People everywhere saw images of the Earth photographed from the Apollo 8 space capsule on the way to the Moon, as a single, undivided planet, a small island of life in a sea of space. Some have dated the beginning of prevalent modern environmental concern from that glimpse of our planet; as the poet Archibald MacLeish put it,

For the first time in all of time men have seen the Earth with their own eyes—seen the whole Earth in that vast void as even Dante never dreamed of seeing it…It may remake our lost conception of ourselves…To see the Earth as we now see it, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the Earth together…” 1

The view back toward the home planet, with the incredible detail of its environment that could be discerned in every part of it, is an aspect of the various national space programs with long-term value. In fact, that was the justification given by the United States and

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An Environmental History of the World: Humankind's Changing Role in the Community of Life
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Figures ix
  • Acknowledgments xi
  • Permissions xiii
  • 1 - Introduction 1
  • 2 - Primal Harmony 12
  • 3 - The Great Divorce of Culture and Nature 30
  • 4 - Ideas and Impacts 52
  • 5 - The Middle Ages 83
  • 6 - The Transformation of the Biosphere 109
  • 7 - Exploitation and Conservation 141
  • Notes 169
  • 8 - Modern Environmental Problems 174
  • 9 - Present and Future 206
  • 10 - A General Conclusion 238
  • Notes 241
  • Bibliographical Essay 242
  • Index 249
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