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From the NS archive: Man and his environment

12 March 1949: Humankind is destroying his resources with reckless prodigality.

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In this review of “Our Plundered Planet” by Fairfield Osborn (published by Faber & Faber in 1948), the philosopher and broadcaster CEM Joad called the book “the best and clearest presentation of our predicament that I have read”. It is striking to acknowledge, 73 years later, that humankind remains in an increasingly worse predicament than is outlined here, and we now have a more damning name for it: the climate crisis. Yet the two key problems that the book detailed remain: the exponential increase in populations, and the increasing “recklessness” of man’s exploitation of the natural world – cutting down forests, farming wastefully and building more and larger cities. Joad suggested that these problems went unnoticed because without a concept of “world citizenship”, “it is hard for us to take an interest in what affects mankind as a whole”. Furthermore, a growing belief in the marvels of science meant people felt technology could do anything – even provide a substitute for nature. To take significant steps to protect the environment, Joad argued, a single overall authority would need to take ownership of the world’s needs. “This obviously implies a world government and is incompatible with the continuance of national sovereignty.”


A number of books and articles has recently appeared warning us of the impending crisis of our civilisation, as the result of growth in population combined with the decline in the production of food. This is the best and clearest presentation of our predicament that I have read.

Through most of recorded history the human population of the world has stood at about 400 million. In the 19th century, owing to the effects of the Industrial Revolution, assisted by the spread of hygiene, it began rapidly to increase, so that in 1900 it stood at 1,600 million; today it is 2,250 million, and it is increasing at the rate of 21 million a year; every day we wake up to a world containing 57,000 more citizens than it did on the preceding day. It is an impressive thought.

Dominated by nationalism and communism, our two leading contemporary idols, states still exert themselves to increase their populations. They cannot, it seems, have enough babies. We must be numerous, they say, in order that we may be strong enough to defend ourselves in war. Yet population pressure has long been recognised as one of the major causes of war. In Mr Osborn's view, the importance of this cause will tend to grow as productive land diminishes and populations increase, so that today "every country in the world is met with the threat of a common crisis". We are enclosed here within a vicious circle whose circumference runs: expanding populations tend to produce war, therefore we must all expand our populations in order to defend ourselves if war comes.

Meanwhile, man is destroying his resources with reckless prodigality. Mankind has always tended to plunder the soil upon which its livelihood depends, cutting down the trees, recklessly over-cropping and over-grazing and then moving on to the next patch. Hence, the spreading deserts and the decaying civilisations of the Middle East. But today, new-armed by science, man bas become what Mr Osborn calls "a largescale geological force", that is to say, he is destroying his environment on the scale of a force of nature. Broadly, his attack takes three forms: he cuts down forests and therefore destroys the sources of water conservation. When the rains come there is nothing to hold the water which, instead of draining into the ground, pours into the rivers taking the top soil with it. Now "it takes nature under the most favourable conditions, including a good cover of trees, grass or other protective vegetation, anything from 300 to 1,000 years or more to build a single inch of top soil." Secondly, man farms wastefully, over-grazing the land so that the grass is destroyed, and raking crop after crop without adequate intervals of fallowing, thus further assisting the process of soil erosion. The internal combustion engine appears as the villain of the piece, since it has enormously increased man's capacity to exploit the earth's surface of forest and crop-land. Thirdly, he builds ever more and larger cities, suburbs, roads, factories and aerodromes.

From all these causes the area of productive land in the US alone is said to be diminishing to the extent of 700,000 acres annually. Now it is estimated that it takes some 2 1/2 acres of land adequately to support a human being; the proportion at the moment is about 4 acres to three human beings.

Always, hitherto, there have been new areas of unexploited land in reserve; but today none is left. People talk of Central Africa and the Amazonian Jungle, but these tropical areas do not easily lend themselves to productivity, their conversion could only be effected at enormous cost, while their torrid heat and torrential rainfalls make them unsuitable for human habitation. In any event the effect of bringing these areas under cultivation would be only temporary, since, if present tendencies continue, in a hundred years or so mankind would find itself in the same position as it did before they were opened up.

Mr Osborn's conclusion in regard to America is that "the once apparently inexhaustible natural assets of this continent are now little more than sufficient to support its own increasing population", and in regard to the world that "if the present velocity of destruction of the earth’s living reserves continues", society will disintegrate.

Two questions arise: first, why do these facts attract so little attention? There is a number of reasons. There is as yet no concept of world citizenship and it is hard for us to take an interest in what affects mankind as a whole. Secondly, most of us live in cities – in the US 55 per cent; in England and Wales, between 80 and 90 per cent of the population – and the conception of man as a part, one among many, of a single biological scheme, whose survival depends on the maintenance of a delicately balanced relation with his environment, lies beyond the range of our imagination because it is outside the confines of our experience. But the most potent cause of indifference is the current belief in the marvels of science. Science and technology, people feel, can do anything. They can even provide a substitute for "the elemental workings of nature".

The second question is, what, then, should be done? Unfortunately, the answers – for there are two of them – are all too clear. First, within the boundaries of each nation to coordinate the use of the land as a whole under a single over-all plan. But such a plan is in the long run incompatible with the private ownership of the country's resources. Secondly, as regards the world, to establish a single over-all authority to take cognisance of the world's food needs in the light of its population, and to take steps to ensure the necessary correlation between the two. This obviously implies a world government and is incompatible with the continuance of national sovereignty.

The reader will be able to judge for himself the degree of probability that the necessary remedies will be applied.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)