There have been some “bright spots” in human history regarding stewardship of the land. In his famous book Farmers of Forty Centuries, or Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea and Japan (1911), F. H. King reported how the fertility of agricultural land in the population-dense Far East was maintained for millennia by the careful return to the land of virtually every last scrap of every kind of organic waste—from crop residues to manures to leaves to ashes even to laboriously dug and spread river sediment, along with intentionally grown cover crops or “green manures,” all in the pre-chemical fertilizer days.
It came to be recognized as late as the 1930s, even in the West (Europe, America) that an extensive, intensive utilization of organic waste of all kinds was essential, even where chemical fertilizers were available, to keep the soil fertile (or, more often, to restore its original fertility). Some pioneering work in this regard was done by Sir Albert Howard (1873-1947) whose book An Agricultural Testimony documented the successful use of composting in maintaining the fertility of farmland in India, and is considered one of the foundational works in the modern organic gardening movement. In America, Louis Bromfield (1896-1956), prize-winning novelist-turned-farmer, pioneered modern conservation and restoration agricultural methods on a thousand-acre farm near Mansfield, Ohio. He wrote about his experiences in fully restoring the original fertility in less than a decade in the widely-popular and influential books Pleasant Valley (1945), Malabar Farm (1948), Out of the Earth (1950), and From My Experience (1955).
In more recent decades, the older farming practices of deep plowing and clean tillage have to a large degree given way to “no-till” and “trash” farming, whereby a maximum of organic crop residue is left on the soil surface to reduce erosion and maintain tilth, and to reduce the number of trips across a field necessary to produce a crop (one negative is the heavy dependence in this practice on the use of chemical herbicides and insecticides to control weeds and insect pests—things formerly chiefly controlled by tillage).
Of course there are things more permanently damaging and more difficult to remedy than the consequences of bad agricultural and forestry practices—depletion or polluting of ground water as well as creeks, rivers, lakes, and even to a degree the ocean, chemical toxicity, brine dumping, nuclear waste and other collateral damage to the environment of the modern age. Nearly the whole of such environmental harm is caused by negligence, carelessness, or disregard for the consequences to present and future generations, and is, as with most things, best remedied by prevention.
It is notable that in cases where such damage has been done, followed by the halting of further destruction, the natural world shows a great resilience in recovering and repairing the damage. It is not that many decades since the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught fire due to the large quantities of flammable chemicals that were routinely dumped into its waters, or the Great Lakes were nearly devoid of fish due to pollution of the water with industrial and chemical waste. That wholesale dumping has been stopped, and the river and lakes have to a large degree recovered. And even around Chernobyl in Ukraine, the site of the worst nuclear accident in history, though the radiation level in the immediate vicinity of the reactors is too high for human habitation, in the absence of human beings the trees, grasses, and especially wildlife have proliferated to an unimagined degree. This “no man’s land” has become a veritable “wildlife preserve.”
As long a men are still self-absorbed sinners, and as long as the “Golden Rule” of Jesus—“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”—is ignored in practice, there will be cases of exploitation and short-sighted abuse of natural resources, and the need of laws and regulations to restrict or prevent damage by one party to the life and property of another party. Of course, the kind and degree of regulation is the point at issue. Far better is the instilling of sound ethics and a sense of personal responsibility that “does no harm to its neighbor.”
The role of government
Those who think that a political-economic system tightly controlled by government is the best safeguard against such devastation of the natural world should reconsider. In the June 1991 issue of National Geographic, the ten most polluted locations on earth were spot-lighted, complete with graphic color photos. More than half—six out of ten—were locations in the old Soviet bloc of nations: Chernobyl in Ukraine, Copsa Mica in Romania, and more. In truth, rather than being guardians of the natural world, totalitarian states are consistently the worst plunderers of the creation, as their lust for continuing power trumps all other considerations, and it is just those relatively rich capitalist societies that have the resources—and the enlightened self-interest—to conserve resources and restore and repair damage done in early eras.
We must also recognize that governments are not somehow endowed with wisdom that has eluded the common citizen; in fact, government actions can be incredibly counterproductive, even highly destructive. In the time of the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East, the government imposed a tax on trees in that sparsely wooded region. The result: the chopping down of most of the remaining trees to avoid taxes. Far better would it have been to tax the absence of trees, which would have resulted in their being planted by the millions.
In America, it used to be the accepted “wisdom” of the Agricultural and Interior Departments that the best way to deal with flood-prone areas was to “channelize” streams—straighten, shorten and often pave them, thereby hastening the removal of excess water from a region, sending it hurrying downstream. Channelizing regularly reduced the amount of water that a stream could hold within its banks by half or more, worsening flooding in the immediate area, and by increasing the volume and speed of the flow down stream, causing worse flooding and erosion downstream as well.
And then in Egypt, the Aswan Dam project of the 1960s was hailed as a great contribution to Egypt’s future, since it would retain for agricultural use huge amounts of water, and would generate immense amounts of “green” (as they would say today) electricity for the nation. In fact, the dam has turned out to be an ecological disaster (and an archeological one, too). The pre-dam annual flooding of the Nile (usually in September) regularly deposited a layer of rich sediment on the farm fields in the flood plain and recharged the soil with water essential for crops. The dam stopped both of these things, resulting in a worse agricultural situation than before the dam was built.
In America, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations often do nothing substantial to improve the environment, but merely make things more expensive, or less productive. And the zeal among the environmental left to impose a very heavy “carbon tax” on energy use as a preventative of man-made global warning (a scenario which is very dubious at best, scientifically) has all the earmarks of misguided, good-intentioned (or maybe not) folly.