Image courtesy of University Press of Kentucky
by Jim Patterson
The litany of woe has become familiar and seemingly overwhelming: The Earth is running out of fossil fuel and facing chaotic weather due to global warming. Water will soon be scarce, and world population continues to explode, taxing diminishing resources.
All are true to some extent, but despite the temptation for doom and gloom, all is not lost, according to Paul Conkin, Distinguished Professor of History, Emeritus, at Vanderbilt and author of the new book The State of the Earth: Environmental Challenges on the Road to 2100, published by the University Press of Kentucky.
“Humans will endure,” Conkin said. “It’s a problem of, at what cost?” The State of the Earth attempts a broad perspective on environmental issues, taking a long view of how humanity came to this crossroads and how Americans can craft policies that may preserve a healthy Earth.
“I know of no other book that tries to tease out the implications of the modern industrial age into the 21st century for a non-specialist audience,” said Mark Cioc, author of The Rhine: An Eco-Biography, 1815-2000, about The State of the Earth. “It will stand the test of time.”
Conkin, an historian by trade, has written histories of Vanderbilt University and Vanderbilt’s Peabody College, plus more than 15 other books on recent American history, American religion and philosophy, economic and political theory, and Darwinism and the history of science.
“My background is as an historian and I draw on that, but I’m not trying to write an environmental history about how we arrived where we are today,” Conkin said. “I have attempted to do what historians rarely do – look way ahead rather than backward. I believe I understand the various sciences well enough to do a fair and honest job of presenting many very complex issues to a lay audience.”
Sorting through the many environmental challenges, Conkin sees reason for hope, especially in efforts by industrialized countries to cut down on greenhouse gases. Alternative fuels and other new technology offer promising answers to fuel shortages, and nuclear power should be reconsidered “as one of the best of the bad answers,” Conkin said.
But if it isn’t checked, population growth and the subsequent need for continued economic expansion could ultimately overtake all of the well-meaning efforts, according to Conkin.
“There is no way we can increase the level of consumption 12 times over in this century, as we did in the 20th century,” Conkin said. “Yet, the present structure of our economic system is orientated to growth.”
This direction could put the United States in the unenviable position of asking other nations to forgo the U.S. standard of living in the name of conservation while we continue to enjoy the highest level of consumption in human history.
“Part of humanity has moved in the last century far beyond the normal scarcity that all nonhuman species have always confronted – farther than anyone ever dreamed possible,” Conkin wrote in the conclusion of The State of the Earth. “But most humans still remain perilously close to such a level of scarcity. … The more humans who live at a subsistence level, the more of these resources that are available to those with high levels of human and material capital.
“Can the affluent rest at ease and continue to enjoy high living standards with the knowledge that there are not nearly enough resources for all humans to join in the feast? And in such a world, how long will the affluent be safe at their banquet?”