AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: Originally published in the summer 2000 issue of REP’s The Green Elephant newsletter


Rome. China. The Mayans. The Anasazi. The USSR. A most eclectic group of peoples, but they all had two things in common. At one time, each was the most advanced culture in its part of the world. And after their period in the sun, all of these remarkable culture-states collapsed; in some cases, they disappeared.

Today, the United States enjoys the dubious honor of being “the world’s only superpower.” But could we eventually suffer the fate of those other great powers? What should we be doing to avoid this?

There are, of course, many reasons why those once-great powers failed. Each would need to be studied individually, and that is outside the scope of The Green Elephant. But they all had at least one attribute in common: eventually, they suffered from a serious collapse in either their natural resource base, the quality of their ambient environment, or both.



We could quibble over whether environmental deterioration was the main cause of the decline of these cultures, but—while other factors were certainly at play—a decline in environmental support systems has been clearly established in each instance as a major cause. As a contemporary case in point, one need only note that today, because of horrible environmental conditions, the average life expectancy of workers in some of the major coal mining regions of Russia is under 50. Many Russian rivers are so polluted that their waters cannot even be used beneficially by industry.

Environmental deterioration is also a major reason why many smaller nations, such as Haiti, Malagasy, and numerous others, may never be able to achieve economic affluence.

Fortunately, our country is nowhere near these sad examples. But it is not difficult to point to certain trends that are cause for concern.

Let’s take as one example our country’s timber supply. We once had vast reserves of this key resource. No other country in the Earth’s temperate zone was ever as generously endowed with timber resources as the United States. There has always been a need for cut timber, and there always will be. But from the time the first white settlers arrived, the removal of these forests commenced with gusto; the economy required it. As a result, little ancient forest land is left today.

Timber is a renewable resource that can and should be utilized on a sustained-yield basis. Unfortunately, this has seldom been done, either on private or governmental lands. What if, in just the Twentieth Century, both the Forest Service and private timber companies had selected suitable lands for sustained-yield silviculture, and scrupulously followed a “one tree cut, one tree planted” reforestation policy? We would have plenty of harvestable second-growth timber today without having to argue over the last of our ancient forests. Spotted owls and marbeled murrelets would have secure homes, and small logging towns would have jobs.

But we blew this assignment badly. Rather than re-using already cut-over lands, we just kept cutting virgin forests. As a result, many parts of America have been deprived of the rich array of biotic resources that their ancient forests once contained. As a result of an overly-permissive policy concerning the cutting of our forests, our country has been clearly impoverished with regard to at least this one essential resource that future generations of Americans will need. We cannot justify cutting what little of our ancient forests remains.

Nor is this the only possible example. One can immediately think of other key resources, such as topsoil, salmon runs, drinkable water supplies, tidal marshes, Appalachia and Lake Erie, that have been greatly deteriorated in the Twentieth Century. We’re going to need all of these to be highly productive in the coming century.

Now let’s consider the other key word in the title of this essay.



“Patriotism” is defined by Mr. Webster as

“love and loyal or zealous support of one’s own country.”

Patriotism comes to the forefront of our consciousness mainly on national holidays, when we honor those who helped make our country great and keep it free.

But there are other ways to love and support one’s own country. High among these are efforts to ensure that our children and their grandchildren have the same rich endowment of natural resources with which to build a dynamic America of the future, as we had to build the America of today. We have both an ethical and a patriotic duty to do this, which is probably why most Americans strongly support environmental protection.

This connection between conservation and patriotism goes back at least to the time of President Theodore Roosevelt, who stated:

“Conservation is a great moral issue, for it involves the patriotic duty of ensuring the safety and continuance of the nation.”

Unfortunately, not everyone sees it Teddy’s way.

Since that’s the case, let’s consider the reverse situation. Does this mean that a person who deliberately takes actions that destroy, deplete or seriously deteriorate America’s natural resource base is being unpatriotic? In terms of assuring America’s future, we at REP agree with T. R. that the answer is yes. People cannot be truly patriotic if they fly the flag on the Fourth of July and pollute a productive American river on the fifth.


As we enter the twenty-first century, let’s begin to employ an expanded definition of patriotism. There’s nothing wrong with flags and parades and all other expressions of patriotism, but let’s enlarge the concept.

  • Let’s make it an act of patriotism to restore our logged-over forests and protect our large roadless areas, remaining ancient forests, wetlands and endangered species.
  • Let’s insist on fair market value for all extractive uses of our public lands, and full restoration afterwards.
  • Let’s see to it that our air is fit to breathe, our water safe to drink.
  • Let’s make our elected officials know that failure in any of these areas is not only unwise natural resource management, but that it is downright unpatriotic as well.
  • Let’s teach our children that conservation of our natural resources — saving America’s prime agricultural soils, reforesting timber lands, restoring endangered species, cleaning up our rivers, etc. — is not just good common sense, but that it is also the patriotic thing to do.

Because it is.

ORIGINAL 2003 CREDIT: Philip R. Pryde earned his Ph.D. at the University of Washington in 1969 and immediately began teaching at San Diego State University, where he now holds the title of Professor Emeritus of Geography. Along the way, he racked up an extensive list of scholarly and popular publications, including several books: Conservation in the Soviet Union (1972); San Diego: An Introduction to the Region (four editions from 1976 to 2003); Nonconventional Energy Resources (1983); Oh, California! (1990); Environmental Management in the Soviet Union (1991) and Environmental Resources and Constraints in the Former Soviet Republics (1995).

Phil has also been an active citizen, serving as chair of the San Diego County Planning Commission, San Diego County’s Water Independence Task Force, San Diego Floodplain Technical Committee and San Diego Audubon Society. He currently serves on the Boards of Directors of both REP and REP’s charitable “sister” organization, plus the San Diego Audubon Society and several other environmental organizations.

In addition to this article, Phil wrote two more for REP:

Can elephants really hug trees?   |    Top Ten Reasons Why Conservatives Should Be Environmentalists

Phil also wrote REP’s policy papers on Oceans and Wetlands.