The myth of superabundance is 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 in the 19th century, it was not given a name until Stewart Udall's 1964 book The Quiet Crisis.
Udall describes the myth as the belief that there was "so much land, so much water, so much timber, so many birds and beasts" that man did not envision a time where the planet would not replenish what had been sowed. The myth of superabundance began to circulate during Thomas Jefferson's presidency at the beginning of the nineteenth century and persuaded many Americans to exploit natural resources as they pleased with no thought of long-term consequences. According to historian of the North American west George Colpitts, "No theme became as integral to western promotion as natural abundance." Especially with respect to the west after 1890, promotional literature encouraged migration by invoking the idea that God had provided an abundant environment there such that no man or family would fail if they sought to farm or otherwise live off the land out west. Since at that time environmental science and the study of ecology barely allowed for the possibility of animal extinction and did not provide tools for measuring biomass or the limits of natural resources, many speculators, settlers, and other parties participated in unsustainable practices that led to various extinctions, the Dust Bowl phenomenon, and other environmental catastrophes.
In 1784, John Filson wrote The Discovery, Settlement And present State of Kentucke, 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.
Udall describes many large-scale impacts on natural resources, terming them “The Big Raid on resources”. 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, as 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. 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. The passenger pigeon became extinct in under a century and was just one of the many victims of the myth of superabundance.
Likewise, the American 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.
The Great Leap Forward in China in 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 the record-breaking Great Chinese Famine.
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". 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, 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. 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.
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. 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.
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. 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. "Present the repair bill to the next generation" is their silent motto. George Perkins Marsh had said that conservation's greatest enemies were "greed and shortsightedness". Men reach a power trip thinking they can manipulate nature the way that they want.
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. Hallen argues that humanity cannot afford such an irrational state of mind and ecological denial if it expects to prosper in the future.