A careful student of man's activity over the past 6,000 years can distinguish two different modes of adaptation to the physical world.
Certain civilizations have tried to conquer their environments: they achieved impressive initial successes but ultimately failed in part because destructive habits undermined the biosystems on which their existence depended. Others have melded so unobtrusively into the matrix of nature as to be neutral or even benign in their effects — at least before the rise of population in the 20th century.
We in the West seem to have modeled our behavior on the more destructive cultures. In both Europe and the United States we have mined, farmed, deforested, littered, and urbanized everything in sight, with little thought to the limits of our resources or to the preservation of natural beauty. We have thus far postponed disaster but we have not preempted it, and recent signs have persuaded many that the time has come for detoxification on a global scale.
Indeed, the environmental movement which began three years ago far transcends the call for clean air, pure water, and more parks. For the first time in the developed nations we are questioning the consequences of mindless demographic and economic growth. We in America have begun the long transition from a culture of action to a culture of understanding, from an obsession with things to an esteem of the good and the beautiful. All this is, of course, manifestly unconventional. One senses the beginning of that new historical era predicted long ago by John Adams.
In a letter to his wife Abigail in 1792 the second President wrote with remarkable prescience that "the mechanic arts are those which we have occasion for in a young country as yet simple and not far advanced in luxury. I must study politics and war, that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy, commerce and agriculture, natural history and naval architecture and navigation, in order to give their children the right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain."
In a sense, he was setting priorities. America, Adams was saying, had first to guarantee its independence, then satisfy the material needs of her people and finally meet their intellectual and spiritual requirements. As Adams knew well, it was a task for more than three generations.
But let no one imagine that changing attitudes toward the total environment are the special property of this country. Unmistakable signs of a similar awakening have appeared in West Europe, in Japan, in the Soviet Union and even in some of the undeveloped countries despite their legitimate desire for the advantages of a technological age. Pollution, over-population, ugliness and urban sprawl are not capitalist phenomena, nor is concern about them a monopoly of the affluent: they are the universal concomitants of ecological laissez faire.
I believe that one of the most difficult tasks in the remainder of this troubled century will be to find who can best manage the earth, who can best preserve this heritage we, the living, hold in sacred trust for all peoples and all generations.
Recently a study of man's environmental impact entitled The Limits to Growth drew widespread attention in this country and abroad. Essentially, it was a computer-based systems forecast of the demise of our civilization if we do not move swiftly to redress the imbalances of growing energy demand, production, pollution and population. Whatever the merits of such a projection, it does not solve the most urgent problem we face as a society, a problem we might call the limits of belief.
We live in a time of shifting values when it seems far easier to delimit those things in which we no longer repose trust than to define the principles and institutions which reflect a common tradition or shape a common purpose. This tendency to challenge long-established moral dicta may reflect a temporary cynicism, a fundamental crumbling of society, or even the emergence of new and higher ethics. But the transition can be painful.
In a recent column Smith Hempstone of the Washington Star analyzed the consequences of a radical discontinuity of values. "Morality, like faith," he wrote, "is a delicate plant which can flourish only when it is passed down from generation to generation among familiar landmarks which testify to the cadenced rhythm and immemorial permanence of things. When ancestral graves are no longer tended and the sayings of old men cease to be thought wise, the disposition to look beyond one's immediate and apparent advantage becomes slight."
The limits of belief may already have been reached. In the last 16 months I have traveled all over this country and one thing has struck me more than any other. Mistrust of our basic institutions is rampant. It extends to business, government at all levels, the schools, the professions, the crafts — even to the churches. This near epidemic of skepticism has been induced in part by a decade in which government consistently bit off more than it could chew, consistently overpromised and underperformed. As a society we have tackled all kinds of social problems with great energy and expenditure but have little to show for our well-meaning efforts.
If we have learned anything by now it should be to appreciate the intractability of social issues, to be realistic in our assessments and honest about the feasibility of our solutions. Nowhere is this more critical than in the environment, for renovating this ravaged earth is not going to be quick or easy or cheap.
Maybe the crisis of confidence we as a nation are experiencing today stems from the implicit utopianism of many cries of reform, the notion that man is capable of perfecting himself and his society. In my view the danger of this assumption in politics is that if society is clearly seen to be perfectible, one is justified in adopting rather stringent methods to perfect it. When these solutions fail they often generate even more extreme measures and ultimately devolve into authoritarianism. We can read this lesson in the grim annals of the French and many other revolutions.
The threat of autocracy may seem remote, and it probably is. But there are more immediate shoals on the voyage to Utopia. One is the loss of perspective. If it is possible to legislate absolute equality of opportunity, to ensure perfect justice, to gain total freedom, then any mere approximation of these ideals must seem like an invidious compromise. Progress then is not measured for what it is but rather in terms of failure to achieve the ultimate. The result is despair. Blind idealism ensures that some will cop out, will quit the moral battlefield when disappointment sets in — as it always does.
To say all this is not to deny the importance of action, but to insist upon responsible action. For example, I think it must be conceded by any fair-minded person that until recently our anti-pollution laws were not really taken seriously. The early water legislation of the 1880's and 90's was not enforced; the newer air and water laws in the 1950's and 60's were weak but not as weak as the will to use them. We got nowhere. There was reason for distrust, even disillusionment. But much has been achieved in the last two years.
In the 16 short months since the President created the Environmental Protection Agency, we have devised the first uniform air quality standards to protect the public health and the environment everywhere in this country. Under the Clean Air Act of 1970 these standards must be complied with in a strict time frame. We have initiated a national permit program to control the discharge of effluent into every lake and river in the nation. We have researched completely new approaches to the handling and disposing of solid waste. We have taken hundreds of polluters to court, more than in all previous decades.
In other words, we have been laying a foundation for solid progress, and the air and water will be appreciably cleaner within the next 3 or 4 years. That should fire confidence that we are capable of managing technological civilization. In fact, a victory over old habits of waste and exploitation might rekindle hope generally in this nation, renew our vigor to grapple with other social problems whose solution has defied us — race, poverty, urban decay and even war.
The main task of those committed to a better life is to be rigorous and yet sensible, determined to aim high yet refusing to fall for plausible "solutions" that are bound to disappoint in the long run. We cannot return to an idyl of pastoral simplicity. We will not be able to restore the conditions of 1492 or 1620 or even 1776, and we should not expect to reach some ideal standard of pristine purity.
Moreover, the surest way to alienate potential allies and destroy the effort to restore the environment is to link it with radical proposals unrelated to the main objective. For instance, population control is necessary but we need not stop procreating altogether. Unplanned economic growth cannot continue, yet to bring growth to a crashing halt would wipe out the fiscal wherewithal for anti-pollution measures. And though technology cannot be allowed to run wild, we must have new technology to produce clean energy and in fact to clean up the environment itself.
What we need at this point in the environmental movement is a good dose of old-fashioned Kansas common sense, the kind which Alf Landon has always represented. A third of a century ago, he observed:
If a high wind "rips the roof off a house. . .we don't tear down the walls and abandon the whole structure. . .we put on a new and better roof, strengthening those parts discovered to be weak."
The question, therefore, is not whether there shall be growth — there will be growth of one kind or another as long as man struggles to perfect himself. The question is how to define it, how to plan for it, how to limit its deleterious consequences over the span of decades and centuries. Indeed, the emergence of environmental concern gives us a unique opportunity to prove that we can create a society that is clean, safe, quiet and beautiful, and yet also satisfies legitimate material needs.
I believe profoundly that earth renovation is tantamount to self renovation, the key not only to a clean and orderly society, but to greater human happiness as well. I envision a time when the majority of our people will regard it as an essential aspect of good citizenship to incorporate the precepts of environmentalism into their daily lives. They will come to see that no sacrifice is too great to restore the amenities of a decent life and to ensure the survival of mankind.
There is one more bit of wisdom I have learned from Alf Landon that I'd like to share with you. In times as difficult and trying as these three decades ago he said: "We are aware that we must make our just contribution to the solution of the problems of the times. Each generation in turn has its own problems to solve for posterity. No age has escaped this inspiring responsibility." In short, we must act or be judged not to have lived.
What awaits us is a world of unparalleled danger and therefore of unequalled opportunity. It is not a time which can give much comfort to the smug or the fainthearted, but it must surely stir the minds and souls of those who thrive on the challenge of new ideas. We are called upon to question some of the most hallowed notions of our culture — concepts of family size, energy use, waste, success, technology and uncontrolled growth which constitute the very foundation and thrust of America these last 200 years. We are called upon to build a world where human beings count for more than machines.
This, then, is the true meaning of environmentalism in our time. It teaches a new ethics and a new reverence for life. It can help to unify the American people. And if carried to fruition, it will inspire mature confidence in man's power to control his own destiny.
As the President said three years ago we should lower our voices, but never our sights. We must be a generation of idealists without illusions which seeks painstakingly, one step at a time, to fulfill the dreams that have inspired good men in all ages. There may be no Utopia, no recreating Eden on Earth, but there is for each of us a beckoning vision: man at peace with himself, his neighbor, his world.