The book from which this article is taken was published in 1948 (Boston: Little Brown), when the world was still binding the wounds of the Second World War. Albert Einstein commented that, “reading it, one feels very keenly how futile most of our political quarrels are compared with the base realities of life.”
The author, Fairfield Osborn Jr., was the son of a great American palaeontologist and was himself an eminent naturalist and president of the New York Zoological Society, which, changing its name to the Wildlife Conservation Society, became an important non-governmental organization for nature conservancy.
The work displays an awareness of the general problem posed by mankind’s cohabitation with the other forms of life that populate the planet. It pre-dates Rachel Carson’s famous Silent Spring by 14 years.
Unlike most contemporary authors, Osborn foregrounds the demographic phenomenon, the teeming upon the planet of those he calls “the children of the Earth”. He then raises the problem of war, noting that it is what characterizes humanity, if it is not to descend to what he calls “the inferior forms of animal life” such as ants, but he condemns the idea – all ethical considerations apart – that war could be a tool for regulating world population. In characterizing human action as “a new geological force”, he anticipates the neologism proposed by Paul Crutzen to characterize our age: the “anthropocene”.
Some parts of the present picture are, of course, absent from his account, either because their importance was not then recognized, such as greenhouse-gas-induced climate change, or because the threat they represented was as yet too distant, such as the exhaustion of oil reserves. But others are lucidly identified, such as globalization, which had not yet reached the intensity that it has today, and which makes every nation “more or less dependent on every other”, and the problems of food resources, which bring us up against the limits of productive land, for man feeds only on living matter.
As a result, he comes to the conclusion that, whatever progress is achieved, technology will not avert the need for a thoroughgoing transformation of our collective behaviour, in order to achieve a sustainable balance with nature.