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Myth of superabundance

The myth of superabundance refers to the belief that earth has more than sufficient natural resources to satisfy humanity's needs, and that no matter how much of these resources humanity uses, the planet will continuously replenish the supply. Although the idea had existed previously among conservationists, it was not given a name until Stewart Udall's 1964 book The Quiet Crisis.

Udall explains the myth: "There was so much of everything - so much land, so much water, so much timber, so many birds and beasts"[1]:22 that man simply did not envision a time where the planet would not replenish what had been sowed. It was in the area of Thomas Jefferson's presidency that began in 1801 that humanity saw the beginnings of the myth of superabundance, leading America into overuse of natural resources for the greater part of the nineteenth century.[1] According to George ColpittsGame in the Garden, "No theme became as integral to western promotion as natural abundance." [2]:104 Promotional literature produced after 1890 invoked the western principle that God had provided plenty for people who settled in the west. Abundance wasn’t just thought of or promoted as a lot, but that all of nature and its resources would provide a consistent sustenance.[2]

Early manifestations

Originally, the only land damage that was done was of primitive nature, "mountain men and their beaver traps,"[1]:54 but the technological advances made in the period of the Industrial Revolution allowed for larger scale damage thanks to mechanical machines. Humanity entered into a state of mind where waste was foreseeable. The richness of soils, minerals, forests, and wildlife resources allowed humanity to think American land would never fail them; this was a definitive problem that many ignored.

In 1784, John Filson wrote The Discovery, Settlement And present State of Kentucke,[3] which included the chapter "The Adventures of Colonel Daniel Boon". This work represents one of the earliest instance of the myth of superabundance, acting as something of a promotional ad enticing settlers to Kentucky based on the abundance of resources to be found there.[1]

The Google ngram view provides an interesting perspective on the use of "superabundance" in books over time. To see a chart of usage from 1700 to the present, see historical chart.

Warning signs

Udall claims that there were many large-scale impacts on natural resources, terming them “The Big Raid on resources”.[1]:54 The first was the need for lumber in a growing nation for fuel, housing and paper. Udall states that it was with this first big raid on the earth’s natural resources that the myth of superabundance began to show its fallacy. It was only towards the end of the nineteenth century that people were awakened to the empty hillsides and the vastness of blackened woods from the lumber industry. Petroleum followed next because it was widely believed that oil was constantly made inside the earth, and so, like everything else, was inexhaustible. Then came seal hunting, and by 1866 the seal population that originally numbered approximately five million was drastically cut in half.[1] Many of the seals were shot in the water and never recovered, allowing for enormous waste. The Fur Seal Treaty which came about in 1911 saved the seals from becoming the first major marine species to become extinct, thanks to the myth of superabundance.

The passenger pigeon was the largest wildlife species known to humanity in the early nineteenth century, when the bird's population was estimated at about five billion. By the early 20th century, due to overhunting and habitat destruction brought about by the timber industry, the species had become extinct, the last passenger pigeon having died in the Cincinnati Zoo.[4] The largest wildlife species known to man, the passenger pigeon, became extinct in under a century and was just one of the many victims of the myth of superabundance.

Next, the buffalo was threatened by the myth of superabundance. They were considered to be the largest and most valuable resource because just about every piece of them was usable. The big kill of the buffalo began at the end of the Civil War when armies wanted the animals killed in order to starve out the Plains Indians. Railroad men wanted them killed in order to supply heavier and profitable loads of hides. Buffalo were killed for their tongues and hides, and some hunters simply wanted them as trophies. Pleas of protection for the buffalo were ignored, nearly wiping out the species.[1]

The Great Leap Forward surge in China during 1958 corresponded closely with the myth of superabundance; economic planners reduced the acreage space for planting wheat and grains, trying to force farmers and agricultural labourers into accepting new forms of industry. As a result, production of wheat and grain was slowed dangerously, and floods in the South and droughts in the North struck in 1959, leading China into a famine that broke world records.[5]

Myth of superabundance exposed

George Perkins Marsh, who wrote Man and Nature in 1864, rejected the idea that any resource could be exploited without any concerns for the future. Perkins was a witness to natural destruction; he saw that mistakes of the past were destroying the present prosperity. He believed that nature should be second nature to all and should not be used as an exploitation for economics and politics. He was, after all, "forest born".[1]:72 Man's role as a catalyst of change in the natural world intrigued him. He believed that progress was entirely possible and necessary, if only men used wisdom in the management of resources. He deflated, but did not destroy the myth of superabundance. He began the spin into doubt,[6] which made way for John Muir in 1874. Muir, who had grown up surrounded by wilderness, believed that wildlife and nature could provide people with heightened sense abilities and experiences of awe that could be found nowhere else.[1] Entering into civilization with a desire to see preservation of some of what he believed to be America’s most beautiful nature, he built upon steps that had been taken by Frederick Law Olmsted, a young landscape architect who designed Central Park in New York City. Olmsted had persuaded Congress to pass a bill preserving much of Yosemite Valley, which President Lincoln had then approved in 1864. In 1872 President Grant signed the Yellowstone Park bill, saving over two million acres of wildlife.[1]

Early successes

Muir saw overgrazing destruction in Yosemite, in parts of it that were not under protection. It was a result of nearby sheepmen and their herds.[Notes 1] In 1876, Muir wrote an article “God’s First Temples – How Shall We Preserve Our Forests”, which he published in the newspaper, pleading for help with protection of the forests. At first he failed against the overriding ideal of the myth of superabundance, but he did inspire bills in the 1880s that sought to enlarge Yosemite’s reservation. Muir formed the Sierra Club, a group of mountaineers and conservationists like him who had responded to his many articles. The Sierra Club’s first big fight came as a counter-attack on lumbermen and stockmen who wanted to monopolize some of Yosemite County. Yosemite Valley, which was still owned by the state, was mismanaged and natural reserves like the meadows and Mirror Lake, which was dammed for irrigation, were still being destroyed even under supposed protection. In 1895, Muir and the Sierra Club began a battle that would span over ten years, fighting for natural management of Yosemite Valley. Theodore Roosevelt met with Muir in 1903 and was instantly fascinated with Muir’s passion for the wilderness. Roosevelt approved Muir’s argument for Yosemite Valley, and so the Sierra Club took their decade long campaign to Sacramento, where they finally won against California legislature in 1905. With Roosevelt on Muir’s side, Yosemite Valley finally became part of the Yosemite National Park and was allowed natural management.

Moving backwards

Udall asserts that the myth of superabundance, once exposed, was replaced in the 20th century by the myth of scientific supremacy: the belief that science can eventually find a solution to any problem.[1]:178 This leads to behaviors which, while recognizing that resources are not infinite, still fail to properly preserve those resources, putting the problem off to future generations to solve through science.[1] "Present the repair bill to the next generation" is their silent motto.[1]:178 George Perkins Marsh had said that conservation's greatest enemies were "greed and shortsightedness".[1]:178 Men reach a power trip thinking they can manipulate nature the way that they want.

Next steps

In order for man to live harmoniously with nature, as Muir and Perkins and many others have fought for, Patsy Hallen in the article, "The Art of Impurity" says that an ethics development must occur in which respect for nature and our radical dependency on it can take place. Humans see themselves as superior to nature, and yet we are in a constant state of continuity with it. Humanity cannot afford such an irrational state of mind and ecological denial if it expects to prosper in the future.[7]

See also


  1. Overgrazing would later spark a feud of conflicting beliefs between Muir and Glifford Pinchot, the Department of Agriculture’s Chief Forester, who were actually friends. They clashed over sheep-grazing practices, because Pinchot believed that controlled grazing was useful in the forest preserves, but Muir believed that it was a bad practice to use at all. Pinchot is known to have later rescinded his argument, renouncing that Muir was indeed, right.


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 Udall, Stuart, L. (1988). The Quiet Crisis and the Next Generation. Salt Lake City: Gibbs Smith Publisher. ISBN 087905333X. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 Colpitts, George (2002). Game in the Garden: A Human History of Wildlife in Western Canada to 1940. Vancouver: UBC Press. ISBN 0774809620. 
  3. Filson, John (1784). The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucke. 
  4. "Ectopistes migratorius (Passenger Pigeon)". Red List. IUCN. Retrieved 6 March 2013. 
  5. Ed, Mokyr, Joel (2003). The Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History. Oxford University Press. 
  6. Marsh, George Perkins (1965). Man and Nature. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-54452-8. 
  7. Hallen, Patsy (2003). "The Art of Impurity in Ethics and the Environment". Vol.8, No.1. Indiana University Press.