Wednesday, June 11, 2008

James Madison: Ecological Prophet

Food shortages are in the headlines. Global warming looms as the world's population surges toward seven billion. As the Founders might have asked, what else is new?

In his “Address to the Agricultural Society of Albemarle County” in 1818, James Madison foresaw the distinct possibility that human population increase might outrun the carrying capacity of the planet. Although it might be hard to fix the exact limits to the earth's ability to feed people, he said, "we can scarcely be warranted in supposing that all the productive powers of its surface can be made subservient to the use of man."

At the time Madison was writing, the world's population had probably just hit one billion. How many more people could the planet support? "Were the earth in every productive spot, and in every spot capable of being made productive, appropriated to the food of man …so as to produce the maximum of population on the earth, there would be more than an hundred individuals for every one now upon it." For Madison, that was clearly an unthinkable notion.

The natural balance, Madison realized, required biodiversity. "The earth contains not less than thirty or forty thousand kinds of plants; not less than six or seven hundred of birds; nor less than three or four hundred of quadrupeds; to say nothing of the thousand species of fishes. Of reptiles and insects, there are more than can be numbered. To all these must be added, the swarms and varieties of animalcules and minute vegetables not visible to the natural eye, but whose existence is probably connected with that of visible animals and plants." This interdependent network could not possibly be reduced to human use without dire consequences.

Overpopulation and excessive consumption might destroy the delicate composition of the earth's atmosphere. "The atmosphere is not a simple but a compound body," as Madison understood, and "in its natural state, and in its ordinary communication with the organized world, comprises various ingredients or modifications of ingredients, derived from the use made of it, by the existing variety of animals and plants." Upset that equilibrium and the very breath of life could become noxious.

While some might suppose the envelope of air that encircles the earth is far too big to be affected by human activity, Madison pointed out that if air were condensed to the same specific gravity as mercury, the canopy of sky would rise only thirty inches above the earth's surface. (That's what barometric pressure means.) The atmosphere is really a very thin membrane.

Thomas Jefferson predicted that clearing forests and settling the land might eventually lead to long term changes in climate. He recommended surveys of temperature and precipitation be taken at fifty or hundred year intervals, to measure the impact of human civilization on the environment. This, two hundred years before Bill McKibben or Al Gore.

Our Founders were "conservatives" in the true sense of understanding that clean air, fertile soil, and pure water are not limitless resources to be expended recklessly, but precious gifts to be preserved and passed on to future generations. Nature was not merely a storehouse of materials to be consumed. It was a Creation to be stewarded carefully, for the sake of all earth's inhabitants.

Now, amid melting ice caps and vanishing wildlife, we're still trying to catch up with their insight.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is great stuff to share with students who are likely to miss the connections between conservative values and forward-thinking conservation.