How the Earth can Recover From Environmental Damage

Discussion of how the earth can recover from environmental damage and if there is a way for humanity at large to develop a loving relationship with planet earth.

| September/October 1982

  • 77-132-title
    The following excerpts from Dr. Dubos's next to last book, The Wooing of Earth, should serve to illustrate his beliefs that the environment can, indeed, recover well from much of the damage our race has done to it

  • 77-132-title

From The Wooing of Earth by Rene Dubos, Copyright © 1980 by Rene Dubos. Used by permission of Charles Scribner's Sons. 

How the earth can recover from environmental damage. Is there a way for humanity to help this poor old planet? Includes the resilience of nature, humanization and management of the earth. 

Dr. Rene Jules Dubos's death last February was a deep loss . . . because the famous microbiologist (he developed the first technique for the discovery and production of antibiotics) was a very active fighter for a number of planetary concerns. His deeds and writings, however, didn't take the form of either doomsday harangues or simplistic leave-nature-alone prescriptions. Rather, he sought especially to explore and explain the various positive ways in which humanity and the environment can interact. And by doing so, he offered some insights that any of us concerned with the future of our planet can ill afford to ignore. 

The following excerpts from Dr. Dubos's next to last book, The Wooing of Earth, should serve to illustrate his beliefs that the environment can, indeed, recover from environmental damage and much of the damage our race has done to it . . . and that in many instances it's even possible for humanity to improve on untouched nature. Of course, neither of these ideas represents current mainstream ecological thinking, but we'd like to point out that the man who called himself "the despairing optimist" did, in other sections of his book, also discuss the negative impact of much of our species' effects on the earth and stress the need for us to maintain unspoiled wilderness. We've chosen to reprint the following sections simply because we think they exemplify the main thrust of Dr. Dubos's environmental thinking . . . and contain some eye-opening kernels of truth. 


Many people believe that much of the damage done to the Earth is so profound that it is now irreversible. Fortunately, this pessimism is probably unjustified because ecosystems have enormous powers of recovery from traumatic damage. Ecosystems possess several mechanisms for self-healing. Some of these are analogous to the homeostatic mechanisms of animal life; they enable ecosystems to overcome the effects of outside disturbances simply by reestablishing progressively the original state of ecological equilibrium. More frequently, however, ecosystems undergo adaptive changes of a creative nature that transcend the mere correction of damage; the ultimate result is then the activation of certain potentialities of the ecosystem that had not been expressed before the disturbance.

A recent bulletin from the University of Rhode Island Agricultural Experimental Station provides a typical illustration of the restorative ability of Nature in the temperate zone. Two centuries ago, 70 percent of the land in Rhode Island had been cleared of the deciduous forest that once covered it almost completely. The primeval forest had been transformed into agricultural land by the original white settlers. During the late nineteenth century, however, the less productive farms were abandoned, and trees returned so rapidly that less than 30 percent of the state remains cleared today. Nature provided the mechanisms for a spontaneous step-by-step restoration of the original ecosystem. Similarly, forest is reoccupying abandoned farmlands in many other areas of the eastern United States. For example, although Massachusetts is one of our most heavily populated states, it has now become one of the most heavily forested. The return of the trees is not peculiar to the Atlantic coast. In Michigan, the Porcupine Mountain forest, which had been badly damaged by mining during the nineteenth century, has now recovered so well that it is called the Porcupine Wilderness State Park.

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