Eminent historian Worster (Emeritus, American History/Univ. of Kansas; A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir, 2008, etc.) offers a concise, often elegiac account of the end of the American centuries.
The supremacy of the United States in world affairs in the last 100-odd years, writes the author, is the product of a kind of perfect-storm historical accident that will never come again: it presupposes the discovery of a hitherto-unknown if suspected landmass full of underused, if used at all, resources and peopled, if peopled at all, by inhabitants who are easy to conquer and control. “Such a discovery,” writes Worster sagely, “could happen only once in the earth’s history.” Given the exploitation of that newfound continent, not for nothing is the tutelary spirit of Worster’s book Jay Gatsby, that great denizen of the “empty, soulless mansions” that give onto a view of an “impoverished, polluted wasteland.” Our time is up because our natural riches have been so badly squandered. Even when it seemed as if they were inexhaustible, Worster notes, warnings were coming from the likes of the economist Adam Smith that there would come a time when the economy would attain stasis and could grow no further, absent the domination of other lands and markets. That talk of a “stationary state,” Worster notes, has long been anathema, and anyone who has dared suggest that the country, continent, and planet have natural limits has been branded a pessimist. The most sacred American mantra of the rising superpower was instead “growth,” even if that has been tempered by modern realities. And what realities they are: following the old pioneer trails westward, Worster invites us to “imagine what the western half of the continent may feel like in the year 2100 A.D.,” when water, perhaps the most precious resource of all, is scarce and the prairies and deserts are depopulated.
A bracing, intelligent survey of wealth become immiseration, essential for students of environmental history.