Easy Chair — From the February 2015 issue

The War of the World

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From one perspective, what we call the world had never been more devastated. From another, however, the world was in magnificent, Edenic shape. No great garbage patch swirled around the Pacific, and albatrosses, sea turtles, and dolphins in remote reaches were not strangling on plastic they mistook for edible matter; we had not yet discarded the billion tons of plastic that will litter the earth for the foreseeable future, because plastic was a relatively new material just entering mass production. In Africa, elephants and rhinos thrived in intact ecosystems, and in Asia, the Bengal tiger and snow leopard were similarly doing fine. The Amazon rainforest was still largely intact, and the California sardine fishery had not yet collapsed. Neither had the Scandinavian herring fishery, the Peruvian anchovy fishery, or the Atlantic cod fishery off the coast of Canada that had been fished for half a millennium by Europeans. The idea that the world’s fisheries might collapse — now a looming possibility — was practically unimaginable.

Seventy years ago, the nonhuman world still seemed vast and inexhaustible. Its stability was assumed, a reassuring background that persisted even when everything in the foreground was smashed up. The human population at war’s end was less than a third what it is now, and the great orgy of consumption — the frenzy of getting and spending that started in the United States, spread to a recovered Europe, and has since caught on in China and India — had not yet begun. Certainly the earth had been damaged before. In just a few decades in the middle of the nineteenth century, for example, the Gold Rush deposited hundreds of tons of mercury into California’s waterways, displaced rivers, washed millions of tons of silt downstream, hunted out much of its wildlife, and deforested areas around the mines, all in pursuit of a largely useless metal. World War II followed on the heels of the Dust Bowl, a man-made environmental calamity that came about when the topsoil of the prairie was destabilized during a drought.

But so much of the environmental damage we are facing has been done in recent decades. This is especially worth remembering when those who don’t want us to do anything about the catastrophes around us suggest that the costs of action are prohibitively high. Though it is shaming and alarming to look back on just how destructive the so-called Greatest Generation and its successors have been, it’s encouraging to note that when it comes to living standards we don’t need to return to the Stone Age or the preindustrial era but maybe only as far as 1940: to more modest scales of consumption, to agriculture that uses fewer chemicals and fossil fuels, to more locally sourced goods, and to less corporatized globalization. Instead of thinking in terms of “going back,” it may make more sense to say that it is finally time to end the war.

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