A huge and growing ‘sustainability’ movement obsesses over man’s use of natural resources. Oddly, this movement has grown despite the fact that resource use in advanced nations during recent decades has been leveling off or even declining. In a superb article at The Breakthrough Institute, Jesse H. Ausubel shows that the trend in diminishing resource use is driven by technology, and that the trend appears in most major resources, including timber, farmland, energy, and water.
[B]y about 1970 a great reversal had begun in America’s use of resources. Contrary to the expectations of many professors and preachers, America began to spare more resources for the rest of nature — first relatively, and then more recently in absolute amounts. A series of “decouplings” is occurring, so that our economy no longer advances in tandem with exploitation of land, forests, water, and minerals. American use of almost everything except information seems to be peaking. This is not because the resources are exhausted, but because consumers have changed consumption, and because producers changed production. These changes in behavior and technology are today liberating the environment.
In particular, improvements in agricultural productivity have freed millions of acres of farmland to be reclaimed by forests. Thus technology has obviated the famous concern of Teddy Roosevelt and the conservation movement of the early 20th century that the forests would disappear unless preserved in government-managed state and national parks.
[A]round 1900,…states such as Connecticut had almost no forest…. The thick green cover of New England, Pennsylvania, and New York today would be unrecognizable to Teddy Roosevelt, who knew them as wheat fields, pastures mown by sheep, and hillsides denuded by logging.
People often view technology as something that creates an artificial world, and thus alienates man from nature. To the contrary, however, technology is enabling a rewilding of the land, and bringing humans into contact with wildlife in ways that haven’t been experienced in more than 100 years.
Fox experts now estimate that about 10,000 foxes roam the city of London, more than the double-decker buses. Foxes ride the London Underground for free. The mayor of London, Boris Johnson, became enraged when his cat appeared to be mauled by a fox, and perhaps because of the fare-beating too. English snipers charge $120 to shoot a fox in your city garden. Meanwhile in rural England, badgers are causing an uncivil war between farmers and animal protection groups….
[T]he incipient rewilding of Europe and the United States is thrilling. Salmon have returned to the Seine and Rhine, lynx to several countries, and wolves to Italy. Reindeer herds have rebounded in Scandinavia. In Eastern Europe, bison have multiplied in Poland. The French film producer Jacques Perrin, who made the films Winged Migration about birds and Microcosmos about insects, is working on a film about rewilding. The new film, The Seasons, scheduled for release later this year, will open millions of eyes to Europe’s rewilding.
The image of a humpback whale in New York Bight with the Empire State Building in the background was the most significant environmental image of 2014. Humpback whales and other cetaceans, perhaps even blue whales, are returning in large numbers to New York Bight. Recall the whale despair of the 1970s and consider that the Bronx Zoo has just announced a program together with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution to monitor whale numbers and movements in sight of New York City. Many decades without hunting, and improved Hudson River water quality, have made a difference.
Whether into the woods or sea, the way is clear, the light is good, and the time is now. A large, prosperous, innovative humanity, producing and consuming wisely, might share the planet with many more companions, as nature rebounds.
We experienced firsthand this ‘backyard rewilding’ on a recent visit to Massachusetts. In one of the most densely populated of states, we were shocked to see huge wild turkeys running around suburban neighborhoods.
Wild turkeys – the official game bird of Massachusetts – are impressive animals that can grow to be roughly 20 pounds and 4 feet tall. By 1851, they had been eliminated from Massachusetts, a victim of hunting.
But now they’re back.
[T]oday’s turkey population in Massachusetts lingers around 20,000. But Marion Larson, an information and education biologist at MassWildlife, said officials had not counted on the turkey’s appetite for suburban – and even urban – living.
“That was something that surprised us,” Larson said. “Who knew? The last time there were turkeys in Massachusetts there weren’t a whole heck of a lot of suburbs.”
This time around, of course, that is not the case, and turkeys have proven especially adaptable to residential living. By his last count, Verrier said, there are at least two dozen wild turkeys living in Brookline, feeding off everything from bird seed to gutter trash and, sometimes, scaring the wits out of the townspeople.
New England wouldn’t just look different to Teddy Roosevelt; it even looks different from the New England in which we grew up.
Wild turkeys in Massachusetts
In another encounter with suburban Mass wildlife, our dog got into a tussle with a skunk. As a result of that experience, we can report that the old folk remedy of dousing the dog with tomato juice does not get rid of skunk odor, and merely results in a dog that is both smelly and pink.