While traveling through the mountains of West Virginia, I passed through an area of old strip mines and it brought to mind the ranting of radical environmentalists. To them, strip mines, development, and any other such desecrations of the natural, untouched, pristine world are the rape of mother earth. To them, such scars are permanent marks which never will be healed and are never to be forgiven. To them, human civilization is a scourge on the earth that only destroys. That type of speech is good for getting up the dander of a gullible population and stoking emotion for their cause, but such gross overstatement has a serious problem. Reality doesn't bear it out. As humans, we may not be able to envision the long-term changes in the natural world because it takes longer than our impatient human character cares to wait. There are very good reasons, however, to be optimistic about the future of the earth, of nature, and of the human race.
Over the course of geologic time, the world has continually changed. In the past million years, there have been many cycles of cooling and subsequent warming, each encompassing a period of approximately 100,000 years. The last glacial maximum, or ice age, ended only 10 to 12 thousand years ago. The climate of most areas in the world was very different than it is today. It is likely that many regions which are now dense jungles in South America and Africa were grasslands at that time. Much of the southern United States was probably covered with hardwood forests, which we now associate with colder, temperate areas of the north.
The present warming period melted the glacial plates, including one up to two miles thick which covered half of North America, and raised ocean levels nearly 400 feet. As those glaciers receded, they left behind an earth scraped bare, with massive scars now known as the Great Lakes, the Finger Lakes, and the thousands of water-filled pits which constitute the main attractions for many modern-day parks and scenic areas. Those millions of square miles of formerly-barren earth and rock are now the habitats for an immense variety of plants and animals well adapted to the conditions. The face of the earth has not always looked the way it does today.
The natural world is continually scarring itself, and life is continually adapting. Mount St. Helens erupted in 1980, blowing off 1,300 feet from the top and spewing forth millions of tons of solid material and toxic gasses. Four billion board feet of timber were destroyed or damaged. The habitats of countless species of plant and animal life were wiped out. The area looked like a moonscape for many miles, yet life is regenerating, with plant and animal species adapting to the new environment, making a natural order out of what seemed like permanent destruction and chaos, all without any direction from human intelligence. The end result will be fundamentally the same environment that existed before the blast, which was itself a recovery from prior eruptions, an environment determined by climate and geography.
Forest fires, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, and all other natural disasters are not recent developments and aren't inherently good or bad. They are ordinary, natural phenomena which are only called disasters because we don't like them and we have the conscious ability to classify events as good or bad. Natural forces tear up the face of the earth as much or more than human forces. They always have, and that leads to the most optimistic perception of the living world. It always adapts. When a habitat becomes less suitable for one species, it becomes more suitable for another.
Nature is not some cosmic being with a life of its own. It is merely what we call all of the physical and biological processes and materials. Rather than being a fragile balance, life is extremely robust and resilient, always adapting and always surviving. It constantly changes forms based on which ones use the existing resources most advantageously.
This is not to say that there are no problems with strip-mines, land development, or other human interventions in the natural world. There certainly are. No person or organization has a right to destroy the property or pollute the air, water, or land of others. Those responsible for such things should absolutely be held accountable. The issues are primarily property rights matters, problems of human society. Permanent destruction, however, is not and has never been a problem for nature.
Dan McLaughlin is a columnist for The Post-Journal. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.