The discovery of the Americas around 1500 AD was an extraordinary watershed in human experience. It gave rise to the modern period of human ecology, a phenomenon global in scope that set in motion profound changes in almost every society on earth. This new period, which saw the depletion of the lands of the New World, proved tragic for some, triumphant for others, and powerfully affecting for all.
In this work, acclaimed environmental historian Donald Worster takes a global view in his examination of the ways in which complex issues of worldwide abundance and scarcity have shaped American society and behavior over three centuries. Looking at the limits nature imposes on human ambitions, he questions whether America today is in the midst of a shift from a culture of abundance to a culture of limits--and whether American consumption has become reliant on the global South. Worster engages with key political, economic, and environmental thinkers while presenting his own interpretation of the role of capitalism and government in issues of wealth, abundance, and scarcity. Acknowledging the earth's agency throughout human history, Shrinking the Earth offers a compelling explanation of how we have arrived where we are and a hopeful way forward on a planet that is no longer as large as it once was.
Environmental historian Worster (A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir) thoughtfully addresses natural resources and the toll humans have exacted on nature over time. He leads into his discussion via F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, claiming that the classic novel can be considered "one of the country's earliest environmental laments." When Nick Carraway spoke of the mysterious green light in the distance, Worster contends, he could have been referring to "nature's green light of infinite promise." When European settlers arrived, the Americas "promised untapped seas, minerals hidden in underground seams and veins, wild-growing plants and animals, and all the forms of energy latent in the earth's crust." As people built houses and businesses, developed land, eked out livelihoods, opened factories, and manufactured automobiles, they used resources they did not or could not easily replenish. Industrialization would also give rise to a conservation movement that "sought not an end to all growth but an end to uncontrolled and unlimited growth." Books from the late 1940s and early 1950s called for "a more critical-minded view of history and progress," helping to initiate debates among natural scientists, engineers, economists, politicians, and voters. Worster's literary conceit might be a stretch, but his thorough history reveals much about American environmentalism.