Generally, the discourse surrounding the contemporary environmental movement tends to fall within one of two rhetorical camps when considering the exploitation of natural resources. The first and more popular method adopted by scientists, intellectuals, and activists places emphasis on the deleterious effects of burning fossil fuels on vital earth systems; the argument goes, that by continuing to deposit carbon, nitrogen, and other chemicals into Earth’s biosphere, humans are directly causing irreversible climate change that will eventually lead to the failure of large-scale ecosystems. As the level of carbon in the atmosphere continues to vastly exceed pre-industrial levels and shows no signs of slowing down its increase, the proliferation of phenomena like global warming, oceanic acidification, and species extinction can be expected to intensify. This strand of discourse has firmly positioned the destruction of the planet as the inevitable outcome of our hubristic dependence on fossil fuels, and has—with moderate success—relied on doomsday-type predictions to mobilize and energize people to advocate for change.
The other, less common strategy used by environmental groups and thinkers has also operated under the assumption that maintaining a “business-as-usual” approach will inevitably lead to catastrophe, but for altogether different reasons. Whereas the first approach is primarily qualitative, concerned most with how the persistence of industrial-scale fossil fuel burning will further damage the biosphere, the second major strategy attacks the situation from a purely quantitative perspective by emphasizing how the depletion of the non-renewable resources available on Earth will impact local and global economies. While the first strategy tends to appeal more to moral and ethical considerations by highlighting the path of destruction industrial activity is unleashing on current and future humans and nonhumans, the second strategy emphasizes the more pragmatic concerns that come with the continued degradation of the biosphere by illustrating just how unsustainable these practices have become.
In Donald Worster’s latest book Shrinking the Earth: The Rise and Decline of American Abundance (New York and London: Oxford Univ. Press, 2016), the famed environmental historian adopts this latter strategy, focusing on the finitude of the planet’s resources as the most pressing challenge confronting the United States, as well as the global community. Amidst the numerous waves of environmental criticism and theory over the past 40 years, Worster, one of the early prominent voices of environmental history, manages to remain committed to the foundational principles that have defined the larger environmental movement, while also keeping in tune with the changing landscape of the field and the significant concerns of the present moment. Worster contends that for much of the history of human civilization an awareness of the natural world’s limitations was merely a fact of life to be dealt with like any other. However, the “discovery” of the Americas—which Worster refers to as “Second Earth”—in the late fifteenth century prompted a radical shift in the way people perceived their worlds, and in particular, their relationship to natural resources. The fertile, abundant, and largely unexploited American continents—especially in the centuries before the frontiers were settled—engendered a sense that the resources available to humanity were, quite literally, infinite. The days of limited resources were gone, and with the discovery of the New World emerged new ways of thinking about government, society, religion, and most importantly, economics. In fact, Worster argues at length that all of the major revolutions of the early modern period “could only have begun through an unprecedented collision of First Earth with Second Earth and its untold riches.” 1 While Timothy Mitchell has recently suggested that the modern object called “the economy”—which was structured around the circulation of banknotes as opposed to natural resources, and is dependent on perpetual, unchecked growth 2—has its roots in the early twentieth century, Worster contends that such a “theology of growth” became conceivable following the uncovering of a seemingly limitless supply of natural resources in the New World. 3
Despite this dramatic shift in the way (mostly Western) humans began relating to the availability of resources after the discovery of Second Earth, Worster structures the book around a chronological history of the various challenges to the idea that the planet had a limitless store of resources fit for consumption. From the earliest days following European discovery of the Americas, the over-exaggerated, fabulist representations of a new land of infinite riches had almost always been accompanied by much more realistic considerations of the limits of the planet, along with increasingly urgent warnings concerning the risks of unregulated growth and consumption. Worster identifies a number of key figures over the past 500 years—uniting such figures as Copernicus and Adam Smith with Theodore Roosevelt, Carl Sagan, and Donella Meadows—who have been instrumental in sometimes constructing, but more often challenging, the belief that the Earth can supply an unlimited quantity of resources.
As one natural resource after another has reached its peak extraction rate over the course of the past two centuries (and all signs point to this trend accelerating in the coming decades), coming to terms with the finite nature of the planet has become less and less avoidable. While speculation concerning the end of growth was not uncommon in the centuries after the discovery of Second Earth, in recent years there has been a notable shift towards recognizing the new economic reality in which perpetual growth becomes unsustainable. The promise and potential of the once-limitless expanse of Second Earth has been substituted—gradually at first, but with increasing rapidity—by a perception of the planet as being much smaller and certainly much more constrained with regards to its resource availability. Disappearing with our delusions concerning Earth’s abundance is the faith in an economic system based on unregulated, endless growth. As the biosphere’s total supply of valuable materials like oil, coal, iron, and fresh water race towards complete exhaustion, it becomes imperative, argues Worster, to challenge these dogmatic assumptions about society’s relation to the natural world that we have clung to since the days of Columbus.
What is perhaps most compelling about the book is the way Worster situates it in relation to the environmental humanities more broadly. Recent studies in the field have been heavily influenced by critical work devoted to debating the so-called “golden spike,” or starting point, of the global epoch in which human activity became a detectable geological force—what we refer to as the “Anthropocene.” Worster, however, manages to approach the question of the Anthropocene from a different angle by positioning the discovery of the New World and all of its material wealth as a landmark occurrence that produced the conditions of possibility for such a level of human influence to occur at all. In sidestepping the question of the Anthropocene, Worster is able to reveal something more fundamental about that concept; that is, the presence of a “theology of growth” lying at the foundations of the current geological age. And despite the steadily expanding influence of the environmental movement in many countries throughout the world, this faith in unregulated and infinite growth remains the most powerful and destructive ideology in the history of the human race, and may prove to be the most violent force in the history of the planet.
Worster ends the book by suggesting that when the time inevitably comes in which growth must be strictly regulated by local, national, and global governments, the people who will have the hardest time adjusting to the new restricted reality will be citizens of countries like the United States, Canada, and European nations, all of whom have grown accustomed to lifestyles dependent on advanced technology and unlimited access to fossil fuels, water, and food. While the mere thought of these limitations will no doubt meet stiff resistance in the Global North, I think Worster’s prediction may in fact be a future worth accepting, given that the citizens of the least developed nations have suffered (and will continue to suffer) the most dramatic effects of global warming. Furthermore, there is some hope that these changes could facilitate a move towards a collection of more balanced global socioeconomic networks in which the perpetually silenced peoples of the Global South find increasing opportunities to contribute alternative, minoritarian modes of relating to the natural world that have been up until now suppressed or ignored.
Kevin MacDonnell is a CENHS predoctoral fellow, Diana Hobby editorial fellow, and PhD student in English at Rice University. His research explores the ways in which 17th and 18th century literature and philosophy contributed to the development of early theories of energy and the environment.