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When, on January 2, 1989, Time Magazine refused to name any person "Man of the Year" and instead named our "Endangered Earth" as its "Planet of the Year," an anxiety surfaced for all to see that had been stirring in the American soul for at least two decades. But this time it appeared that that anxiety had at last become a permanent fixture in the consciousness of the nation.
The anxiety had surfaced earlier, amidst the turbulent movements of the nineteen-sixties, coming to its first major cultural expression on "Earth Day 1970." But with the waning of the "counterculture" of the sixties, the interest in ecology and the concern about the global environmental crisis waned, too. In the minds of many, accordingly, the Ecology Movement was to be remembered only as an interesting cultural phenomenon, even as a "fad," along side of the Woodstock experience and popularizing testaments such as Charles Reich's The Greening of America. (1)
Then the era of the seventies and the eighties was upon us, championed by a Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, who in the name of Christian eschatology called for increased, not decreased, exploitation of nature, for the sake of economic growth and profits. Culturally, these decades also witnessed a dissipation of the nation's moral ethos: the public sanctioning and the domestic celebration of a hedonistic narcicism.(2) In the name of national aggrandizement and creature-comforts, the zealous exploitation of nature came to be a kind of national pastime, as it had been in earlier eras in American history when the spirit of unbridled greed had driven the nation into the allegedly beckoning arms of the Great Frontier.
But the anxiety that we are indeed living on an endangered earth, as Time Magazine proclaimed, and as cautious scholars and angry critics kept reminding the nation throughout the seventies and eighties, could not be forever repressed. Now, in the waning years of the nineties -- with the uncertain prospect of a new millennium much on our minds -- it appears that that anxiety has indeed taken deep root, appropriately so, in the soul of the nation.
We do live on an endangered earth, as the distinguished professor of international law, Richard Falk, already argued in his 1971 study, Our Endangered Planet: Prospects and Proposals for Survival. (3) Now, however, the prospects for human survival -- which we should always take to mean humane survival of our species, a world that can reasonably promise some justice and some peace for all peoples, not merely a marginal biological existence for the masses -- are much less cheering than they were even in 1971. This situation has been documented in sobering detail by the yearly State of the World studies issued by the Worldwatch Institute. (4) It was also reflected in the somber mood at the 1992 United Nations Conference On The Environment in Rio.
While it is true that some popular media pundits in the U.S. daily announce that the idea of a global environmental crisis is a fraud perpetrated by leftists, and while it is also true that a few environmental scientists produce a variety of books (frequently given extensive public exposure by the same media pundits), which attempt to show that the notion of a global environmental crisis is confusing at best and misconstrued at worst: the large majority of scientists who publish their findings in refereed scholarly journals around the world generally share the somber mood of the Rio Conference and generally agree with the tenor and the substance of the findings summarized yearly by the Worldwatch Institute.