Sustainable Population

Book Review by Jenny Goldie

This remarkable book traces the natural history of New England and of the people who have lived there, starting with the Native Americans. It is a story of the unique relationship of the people with the land, water and sea. While it is primarily a history book, it covers a range of disciplines from archaeology to zoology. In that sense it is like Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize winning “Guns, Germs and Steel”. Like Diamond, Diana Muir is keenly aware of the problems of overpopulation. Indeed, the theme of the book is largely how people reacted to resource shortages brought on by excessive population growth and associated environmental deterioration.

Muir is quick to point out in the introduction that this book is not a jeremiad, that is, “an unpleasant guilt-inducing scold about our reprehensible environmental profligacy…” She argues instead that it is a paean of praise to Yankee ingenuity. And indeed it is, though she is scathing in her criticism of poor forestry practices, over-harvesting of beavers, pollution of rivers, the development and widespread adoption of the motorcar, dams that flooded upstream fields, and many other examples of environmental profligacy.

The Industrial Revolution in New England followed hot on the heels of that in England, out of necessity, given that these six states of north eastern USA had infertile soils, a cold climate and poor mineral resources. The Puritans were the earliest European settlers (though Basque fishermen preceded them by some hundreds of years) in the early 17th century but by the end of the 18th there was little new land left to farm. In order to feed large families, farmers were forced to adopt various industrial processes, utilising the energy of their many streams, to make things that others would buy. By the mid-19th century, the fertile mid-west was opening up and farmers’ children had the choice of heading west or working in New England factories. Today, much of New England has reafforested as farming became unprofitable on the thin, degraded soils.

The Agricultural Revolution saved hunters and gatherers from starving after they wiped out their bigger prey and populations grew too big to be supported by remaining food supplies. The Industrial Revolution saved the Yankees from poverty, but it depended on fossil energy, the by-products of which are polluting the earth. Muir thus argues that a Third Revolution is now necessary, one that will entail the discovery and deployment of new kinds of energy and materials.

Such a revolution is possible, Muir argues, because we no longer arrogantly assume that humanity is above nature. We now realise that we are part of nature and that the world has natural limits. Some may quibble with her assumption that this realisation need not prevent us from illuminating our homes, speaking with friends thousands of miles away, or flying across continents. But as she says: it does caution us to find ways to do these things without destroying the world.

This is a beautifully written, scholarly book. Highly recommended.

This article appeared in Sustainable Population Australia, September 2001