Another False Alarm – ‘The Dying of the Trees’

October 4, 2012 at 9:00 am

Seventeen years ago, back in 1995, a book called The Dying of the Trees: The Pandemic in America’s Forests appeared. It was written by Charles E. Little, who is described on the back cover as a “veteran environmentalist.” Inside, a brief bio tells us he “worked for thirty years in the environmental field.”

The preface of the book declares:

the trees are dying everywhere, including everywhere in the United States of America. [page ix]

The back cover declares in large, uppercase text:

A FINAL WARNING FROM OUR WANING AMERICAN FORESTS

To what did Little attribute the apparent crisis? You guessed it, our nasty industrial society. You know, the  same material prosperity that has provided sanitation, powered medical facilities, and generally extended all of our lifespans. Here’s Little’s analysis:

We are almost certainly witnessing the accumulated consequences of some 150 years of headlong economic development and industrial expansion, with the most impressive of impacts coming into play since the 1950s – the Age of Pollution. [bold added, pages ix-x]

Also in the preface Little claims that:

One of the two oldest woodlands on earth is simply falling down – dead – the effect of a whole range of human-caused maladies, exacerbated (here as elsewhere) by the perfidies of the U.S. government. [page x]

The book talks about “a potentially catastrophic failure of global ecological balances” and “nightmarish biochemical and atmospheric feedback loops.” It frets about the consequences for future generations.

In other words, this is an eco-alarmist book. One in a long, long line of similar books promising disaster and devastation if we don’t take the author’s advice and renounce “headlong economic development.”

Within its pages experts who make dramatic, doom-and-gloom predictions are portrayed as heroes. Those who challenge them are described as “vituperative” and abusive (see page 23).

The book’s conclusions are, of course, grim. On page 231 Little writes:

What is to become of us now? Have we not crossed the threshold? Are we not dealing with nature in another zone? The endgame?

He references a 1993 article by E.O. Wilson titled Is Humanity Suicidal? He also quotes James Lovelock saying:

The human species is, in a word, an environmental abnormality.

Little tells us that we should plant billions of new trees, reduce “the pollution caused by gluttonous fossil-fuel use” back to the level of the mid-1950s, and stop “the cutting of forests” (page 232-233).

Using a tactic common to contemporary eco-activists, he tells us about his 12-year-old granddaughter who, he says:

worries constantly about the environment; sometimes she is sick with worry. [page 233]

He reports that, during the writing of the book, he suffered a

string of illnesses…so atypical that I must ascribe them, at least in part, to psychological causes. Despair. [pages 233-234]

The book’s final page contains phrases such as:

I have learned things I wish I had not learned…I have learned that we have crossed the threshold.

It warns that America’s forests are in such dire straits that they can’t possibly recover quickly. In his view, “at least a century” will be required to allow nature to begin (his italics) to “heal herself.”

Seventeen years later what can we conclude from all of the above? America obviously didn’t take Little’s advice. It continued to pursue economic prosperity for its citizens. It didn’t outlaw logging. Nor did it reduce its fossil-fuel consumption back to the level of the 1950s.

So were US forests wiped out? Were Little’s prophesies even remotely on target? Was his despair rational? Was it appropriate for his own environmental fixations to cast such a shadow over the childhood of his granddaughter?

In 2007, a mere 12 years after Little’s dismal tome appeared, the Society of American Foresters issued a glossy 76-page report titled The State of America’s Forests. The executive summary says that while the relationship between humanity and American forests has sometimes been bumpy, overall this is:

a story of regrowth, renewal, and abundance…

It further contains statements such as these (all direct quotes):

  • The number of acres of forestland in the United States has remained essentially the same during the past century.
  • Assessments of biodiversity on the nation’s forests have found that the annual rate at which species are listed as threatened or endangered has declined fivefold.
  • the standing inventory (the volume of growing stock) of hardwood and softwood tree species in US forests has grown by 49 percent between 1953 and 2006.

In other words, despite all his research and all his anxiety, Charles Little had no ability to predict the future as it would appear even 12 years later.

The parallels with climate activist Kevin Anderson, about whom I wrote recently, are eerie. Seventeen years ago Charles Little was prepared to deny his granddaughter and all of America’s other young people the rewards, experiences, and opportunities that come with a prosperous way of life.

In the name of protecting forests that were apparently never seriously threatened.

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Entry filed under: activist scientists, children, historical perspective, predictions that failed. Tags: , , , , , , , .

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