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(HOST) There’s a new book out on why systems – both natural and social – fall apart. And it’s given commentator Tom Slayton fresh food for thought.

(SLAYTON) Geographer Jared Diamond’s new book Collapse, How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed looks at past civilizations that have gone into a tailspin. Most often it’s because they have exhausted their resource base, made bad short-term ecological decisions and either starved to death or succumbed to hostile neighbors.

It’s not exactly a cheery little book. In fact, it’s more of a depressing big book, more than 500 pages filled with human folly. However, as I read its accounts of environmental and social collapse in places like Greenland, Mexico and the South Pacific, I kept thinking, again and again, about Vermont and our own native environmental genius, George Perkins Marsh.

That’s because one of the major causes of societal collapse that Jared Diamond has identified, worldwide, is deforestation. And it was George Perkins Marsh, growing up on a Woodstock farm 200 years ago, who saw the damage caused to the Vermont countryside by our own homegrown deforestation of the 19th century. Most of Vermont, like most of New England, had been cleared of trees to create more cropland and pasture, and the results were devastating. Marsh’s 1864 book Man and Nature used those observations and others to declare that, in order to thrive, humanity had to stop indiscriminately destroying its forests, learn from the laws that govern nature and and abide by them.

Such a proposition hardly seems radical today. But it was new when Marsh uttered it, and it turned out to be of stunning importance. Man and Nature inspired the first wave of conservation legislation in America: the 1873 Timber Culture Act and ultimately the creation of America’s National Forests.

And today in a Vermont that is becoming more suburbanized, less rural and ever less tied to the land, we need to remind ourselves of Marsh’s wisdom and the need for conservation of our rural character – if Vermont is to remain Vermont. The threat today isn’t deforestation; it’s mindless development and suburban sprawl.

Fortunately, we have a long tradition of conservation, from 19th century conservationists like Middlebury’s Joseph Battell, right down to 20th century conservation-minded governors like Deane Davis and moderate, conserving organizations like the Vermont Land Trust and the Vermont chapter of The Nature Conservancy. Also, there’s the Vermont Housing and Conservation Trust Fund, which, through careful use of state and federal funds, has enabled local communities to conserve land, streams, ponds and trails that are important to them. It’s a very typical Vermont solution, an organization that has successfully democratized conservation and empowered local citizens to carry forward this important Vermont tradition.

And so, thanks to good organizations and courageous leaders, Vermont now has a chance to conserve and protect both our working downtowns and our precious rural landscape – and, perhaps, avoid the kind of collapse that Jared Diamond writes about.

Tom Slayton is the editor of Vermont Life magazine. He spoke from our studio in Montpelier.

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