Man, Enemy of Nature

By Russell Kirk

In our 20th century, humankind is proud of “conquering nature,” by tools that vary from the bulldozer to insecticides. But like other merciless conquests, this victory may end in the destruction of the victor.

Nature is not wholly tamed, of course. Not long ago, I spent some days in a cottage near Muskegon, on Lake Michigan. There the narrow ribbon of sandy beach is littered with the rubble of cottages destroyed by fierce waves in the storm of 1952; twisted pipes, chunks of concrete green with weed protrude here and there, reminders that man is not omnipotent.

Yet man’s assault on nature is the more deadly and persistent. Lake Michigan is being poisoned by man’s industrial and domestic wastes, so that within this century it may “die,” its fish destroyed by a human upsetting of the natural balance. It may become a vast sewer in which no one can swim: that has already happened to Lake Erie. It is happening speedily, in the neighborhood of Muskegon, to smaller inland lakes connecting with Lake Michigan.

Lake Superior, with little population along its chilly shores seems safe for a long time to come; but the other Great Lakes are used as cesspools by the people who ought to be guardians of their beauty and resources.

We poison, too, the air—at even greater risk to our own survival. At Lake Arrowhead, in California’s high sierras, certain species of evergreen are said to be dying, afflicted by the man-created smog of the coast which now drifts upward even to such heights. Probably, we will do nothing effective about smog until some dreadful day when a city’s air is so polluted that hundreds of people with pulmonary trouble perish within 24 hours.

Americans are not the only depredators against nature. Off England’s eastern coasts, the ancient oyster beds are polluted by wastes. The old Romans shipped oysters all the way from Colchester to Italy; in the 18th century, oysters were the cheap food of the London poor. But 20th-century man-created poisons have so devastated the British oyster beds that oysters have become the costly indulgence of the affluent in modern London.

Atomic wastes may injure nature more hideously than all man’s previous assaults, throughout the existence of human beings, have done. We have discovered no means for preventing the perpetual radioactivity of such wastes. At present we seal up radioactive rubbish in concrete and sink it in the ocean, but concrete soon disintegrates, and masses of deadly waste may begin to devastate aquatic plants, fish—and ourselves.

Meanwhile, in much or most of the world, soils are deprived of their nutrients through excessive cultivation or imprudent fertilization with nitrates, and forests, hewn down to satisfy immediate human demands, are not adequately replanted. Erosion follows rapidly. Barren Cyprus, and such denuded lands, may be a foretaste of all the world’s fate.

“Men who do not look backward to their ancestors will not look forward to posterity,” Edmund Burke said. Many people in our generation are contemptuous of everything accomplished in past ages. It is not merely coincidence that modern nations make too little provision for the welfare of future generations.

What we call “piety” includes respect for the natural balance in the world, and for the people who will follow us in time. An impious generation often has been roughly rebuked by mysterious forces not subject to human rationality.