Popular Science Monthly/Volume 35/August 1889/The Wastes of Modern Civilization I

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VARNHAGEN von ENSE, the German Macaulay, characterizes the shams of our latter-day civilization in the remark that "a constant improvement in the luster of the varnish has kept up with the progressive dry-rot of the timber."

The historian thus denounces the increasing political corruption of his age, but his aphorism admits of a much wider application. The increase of prudery masks the decadence of the virtue it tries to simulate; modern courtesies of speech too often conceal the baldest egotism; callous inhumanity is glossed over with sentimental cant.

But the justice of Varnhagen's indictment is perhaps most forcibly illustrated in the time and labor saving contrivances of modern civilization, as contrasted with the enormous waste incident to the evils of life under abnormal circumstances.

The apparent shiftlessness of animals and savages is often due to their confidence in the spontaneous bounty of Nature. Apes will nibble and fling away dozens of wild figs for one they eat, well knowing that the forests will continue to produce millions of similar fruits. Nomads exhaust the pastures of a whole river-delta, and then drive their herds farther inland, having found by experience that, before the return of spring, the coast-land meadows will have recovered their luxuriance.

We pity the ignorance of the Circassian peasant who wastes his time and energy by plowing his highland farm with an implement resembling a crooked fence-rail; but together with other old-fashioned things that barbarian has retained his primitive confidence in the trustworthiness of his natural instincts, and consequently devotes every square yard of his field to the production of palatable and nutritious vegetables.

"Whatever is natural is wrong," was for centuries the shibboleth of our spiritual taskmasters, and that doctrine has borne its fruit in the reckless disregard of our natural intuitions. The shocking taste of a poisonous weed or liquid is generally accepted as a prima facie proof of its wholesomeness, and many millions of acres, plowed and harrowed with highly improved apparatus, are wasted on the production of not only useless but positively pernicious harvests. Our prohibition orators bewail the vast area of arable soil wasted on distillery crops, but in the eyes of science the alcohol-habit is only a special form of the stimulant-vice, which, in the course of the last fifty years, has assumed more gigantic proportions than in the most bibulous era of pagan antiquity. The official statistics of the liquor traffic generally allow one bushel of grain for two gallons of spirits, and three bushels for one barrel of beer. By that estimate, the distilleries of the United States alone consumed in the last few years an annual average of thirty-five million bushels of grain, the breweries at least twenty millions. The aggregate of that wasted farm-produce would have made more than a billion four-pound loaves of bread, or nearly a hundred loaves for every household in North America. Placed side by side, the bushel-measures containing that grain would form a chain equal in extent to the circumference of the earth. But the area of the land thus "tilled to bring forth a harvest of misery, crime, and disease" is only a fraction of the total portion of arable fields cultivated to subserve the various forms of the stimulant-vice. Tobacco, tea, coffee, pulque, and opium, together with all the toxic stimulants prepared from tree-fruits and edible roots, devour the toil of many million laborers and the productive value of at least one million square miles. The fertility of that enormous area is thus not only wasted, but turned from a blessing into a concentration of curses. Mankind, indeed, would gain by the result if the fruitful fields of that poison-harvest were wholly withdrawn from human use; but if even only half their surface were devoted to the production of wholesome food, pauperism would disappear before the blessings of an unparalleled abundance—an abundance far exceeding the prosperity of the happiest provinces of pagan Italy or Moorish Spain. Adding the indirect benefits resulting from the decrease of disease and crime, it is no exaggeration to say that half the weight of human misery would thus be lifted from the scale of weal and woe.

Our political economists would be scandalized by studying the free-and-easy financial methods of ancient empires whose rulers often permitted a large percentage of the public taxes to cling to the pockets of ill-controlled collectors; but the live-and-let-live carelessness of those potentates was associated with a belief in the justice of the general claim to earthly happiness, and the evils of absolutism were mitigated by the liberality of the absolute Cæsars. Every city of the Roman Empire had its free wrestling-ring and foot-race course; every provincial metropolis a free circus, with accommodation for many thousand spectators. Free baths were thought as indispensable as free public fountains of pure drinking-water. Holidays were multiplied to satisfy the needs of an increasing population deprived of the rustic sports of their ancestors. Every community had its weekly and monthly festivals. In Greece even the hostilities of civil wars were suspended to insure free access to the plains of Corinth, where the Olympic games were celebrated with a regularity that made their period the basis of chronological computation for a space of nearly eight hundred years. When Rome became the capital of the world, the yearly disbursements for the subvention of free public recreations equaled the tribute of a wealthy province. As a consequence, discontent with the rule of such autocrats was so rare, that the peace of an empire equal in extent to the entire area of modern Europe could be preserved with a standing army of less than one hundred thousand men.

The modern alliance of canting hypocrisy and bullying despotism has tried a different plan. Enjoyments are reserved for aristocrats by the grace of the orthodox Deity, while the worship of sorrow is enforced on millions of toilers, whose desire of recreation is suppressed as a revival of impious worldliness. The Cæsars silenced the clamors for liberty with free bread and free circus games; the Czars silence them with the knout; but those cowed victims of knout and cross can not be expected to die in defense of their oppressors; and the conscious impossibility of relying on the enthusiasm of volunteers obliges every ruler of fifty faithful square miles to surround his throne with a bulwark of dehumanized machine soldiers, who, in obedience to the mandate of the uniformed chief machinist, would shoot their own fathers or bayonet their own children. A territory which once could be easily managed with twenty legions, each of four thousand men, has now to be bullied into submission by standing armies aggregating from five million and a half to six million conscripts. The expenses of maintaining that apparatus for the perpetuation of orthodox despotism cost the nations of Europe a minimum of 8625,000,000 a year, and withdraw from agriculture an amount of labor which otherwise would suffice to support her population in spite of intermittent droughts.

Our elaborate code of by-laws for the suppression of holiday recreations can still be circumvented by the resources of opulence, and the well-known hopelessness of any other expedient has stimulated a race for wealth which does not hesitate to attain its object at any risk of social or sanitary consequences. The number of infants which the superstition of the Ammonites sacrificed to Moloch is a mere trifle compared with the multitude of children now devoted to a far more cruel fate by being literally drudged to death in crowded factories to enable a millionaire to save a few dimes on his weekly pay-roll and add a few per cent to the exorbitant rate of his yearly profits. In times of general scarcity the market has been drained of its scant supplies by speculators trying to coin gain from the distress of their fellow-men and risking, after all, to be foiled by the decay of their hoarded stores or their destruction by fire or flood. Quack nostrums, which not one intelligent man in a hundred would privately hesitate to pronounce infinitely worse than worthless, are sold by ship-loads and carloads to disseminate disease and the seeds of the stimulant-vice, and the saints who contribute thousands to insure the theological soundness of the Quaggalla Hottentots do not care enough for the physical health of their own countrymen to whisper a word against the lawfulness of the infamous traffic.

Nearly two thousand years ago Pliny and Columella denounced the folly of destroying the highland forests that shelter the sources of fertilizing brooks and the nests of insect-destroying birds. "Sacred groves" were not limited to the land of the Phoenicians. The Celtic and German Druids protected the forests of their native lands; and even the barbarous Huns seem dimly to have recognized the climatic influence of arboreal vegetation, since we read of their chiefs enacting laws for the protection of the mountain woods in the lower valley of the Danube.

The mediæval reign of Antinaturalism, however, inaugurated that reckless destruction of forest-trees which by its consequences has turned many of the most fruitful regions of ancient Europe into almost irreclaimable deserts. Rational agriculture became a tradition of the past; the culture of secular science was fiercely denounced from thousands of pulpits; improvidence, "unworldliness" and blind reliance on the efficacy of prayer were systematically inculcated as supreme virtues. A warning against the consequences of that infatuation would have been answered by the prompt anathemas of the miracle-mongers; but it would be a mistake to suppose that their rant imposed on any independent thinker, even of that ghost-ridden age. "When I consider the value of the least clump of trees" says Bernard Palissy, a persecuted dissenter of the sixteenth century, "I much marvel at the great ignorance of men, who, as it seems, do nowadays study only to fell and waste the fair forests which their forefathers did guard so carefully. I would think no evil of them for cutting down the woods, did they but replant again some part of them; but they care nothing for the consequences of their wastefulness, nor do they reck of the great damage done to their children which come after them." ("Œuvrès completes de Bernard Palissy," p. 88.)

The folly of the insane bigotry which left such protests unheeded was only too soon demonstrated by its natural consequences. When the highlands of the Mediterranean peninsulas had been deprived of their woods, the general failing of springs turned rivers into shallow brooks and brook valleys into arid ravines, which at last ceased to supply the irrigation canals by which the starving farmers hoped to relieve their distress. Vast tracts of once fertile lands had to be entirely abandoned. And while the summer droughts became more severe, winter floods became more frequent and destructive. The steep mountain-slopes, denuded of their vegetable mold, sent down torrents of snow-water, turning rivers into rushing seas and inundating their valleys in spite of protecting dikes. Hill-sides which once furnished pastures for thousands of herds were torn up by ever-deepening ravines and reduced to a state of desolation as complete as that of a volcanic cinder-field. Harbors once offering safe anchorage for the fleets of an empire became inaccessible from the accumulating deposits of the diluvium which had been swept down from the torrent-rent mountain-slopes, while a detritus of coarse sand and gravel covered the fields of the intermediate valleys.

On the shores of the Adriatic alone 250,000,000 cubic yards of highland soil are thus yearly deposited in the form of pestilential mud-banks. A million square miles of uplands in southern Europe and western Asia have become almost as arid as the mountains of the moon. The Rhône, the Loire, the Ebro, the Guadalquivir, the Euphrates, and the Orontes have completely depopulated many districts exposed to the devastations of their yearly floods.

In America the same cause has begun to produce the same effect. Not in Mexico alone, but within the boundaries of our own republic, the progress of reckless forest-destruction has made inundations an annual calamity, and has so impoverished the soil of the denuded area that extensive tracts in the terrace-lands of the southern Alleghanies now resemble the despoblados of worn-out Spain. The loss resulting from the consequences of that improvidence far exceeds the benefit of labor-saving machinery—so much so, indeed, that the waste of vegetable mold, in our Eastern cotton States alone, more than outweighs the profit derived from the improvement of all agricultural implements used on this continent.